Other Pages of Interest

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Beatle-Mania

Latin American Beatles, anyone?  Last night the Velma Cafe in Palermo Hollywood (located at Gorriti 5520) offered us just that.  The place doubles as a cafe and a theater, both are adorable.  Our friends Allison and Scott at Married and Mobile invited us to the show a couple of weeks ago and were nice enough to buy tickets in advance on our behalf.  You buy tickets for a specific table, and have a waiter to order food or drinks from during the show, and we happened to snatch up the last table in the place. 

The 4 BeatleBand did a pretty good job on Beatles songs, and they did their very best to play the part.  We started off with 70s Beatles and worked our way through 2 costume changes, each change taking us back an additional decade of music.  They played such classics as Jardin Pulpo (Octopus's Garden), Hey Jude, Twist and Shout, and although they didn't play it, the audience requested Amarillo Submarine.  Between the four of us, we voted that Paul was the absolute best impersonator, and John was a pretty close second.  Ringo sort of looked like somebody's uncle Julio and we're pretty sure that George was some sort of last minute fill in player.  He was rocking the guitar, but had little to offer in terms of vocals or true impersonation. 

We had a blast, and had a good chuckle over the pronunciation of certain songs, Back in the USSR, Paperback Writer and Hey Jude in particular.  Afterward, we went to a new parrilla restaurant called Miranda and had beef brochettes (basically kababs) and an ENORMOUS baked potato.  It was delicious.  It was a ton of food.  It was 12:00am.  No wonder I'm gaining weight like woah down here.

We'll definitely keep an eye out for other shows at the Velma, it was totally worth the $40 peso ticket price.  And it makes me wish we had Beatles Rock Band on hand.  I'm loving me some Beatles music.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Panini (And Holiday Drama)

Coto, you don't know me at all.
Let me set the scene:

Thanksgiving Day, 2009, I've lived in Buenos Aires for 5 days.  Our moving shipment is due to arrive in our new apartment the next day, so my plan is to go grocery shopping, clean the apartment and prepare to welcome our belongings to our humble abode.  I venture out to the closest grocery store, Coto, for my first Spanish-speaking grocery shopping trip.  I should mention that virtually every store in Bs.As. delivers, and since we don't own a car, I had our groceries delivered.  I was prepared, since I barely knew how to spell my name in Spanish, I bring a card with our new address written on it so there would be no confusion about destination of our groceries.

I pay for the groceries, went to our empty apartment and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Imagine my surprise when - count them - SEVEN HOURS LATER we have still not received our groceries.  We have to call a coworker of Jon's to call the Coto helpline to figure out where our groceries were, only to find out that they were sent to the wrong street.  Why that didn't warrant a phone call from Coto, I'll never know.  Not only that,  we shouldn't expect to see our things for at least another 3 hours.  SERIOUSLY?!  TEN HOURS for delivery??  We live like 10 blocks from the store.  Worst. Shopping. Ever. 

So, on Thanksgiving night as we waited for our well-traveled groceries to arrive, we tried Panini for the first time.  Panini is a chain of café-style restaurants with a location directly across the street from us on the corner of Libertador and Callao.  Across the street was as far as I could have made it, since I had sat in an empty apartment for over 7 hours terrified of missing the blessed grocery delivery, I didn't even leave for food.  So we sat at an outdoor table on the beautiful November day and waited to be waited on.  At this point. I'm done with waiting.  We go and get our own menus.  We vigorously wave to a waitress to say that we're ready.  We wait for a plate of saltines crackers and ham made into tiny sandwiches that looks like a kinder-gardener's mid-afternoon snack to be delivered and I send it back because there's no cheese.  The waitress and her cracker plate return only for a gust of wind to blow the whole plate, crackers, ham and cheese into my lap.  I start to cry.  I swear off of Panini.

A few months later I realize that Panini may have been given a bad shake.  It's not their fault that Coto sucks.  It's not their fault that the wind gusted my food into my lap.  To date, Thanksgiving Day has been my most frustrating day here in Bs.As. so maybe it just wasn't the best time to try a new restaurant.  We have since been there three other times, and though the food has been better (it's also been worse...) the service has been consistently horrendous.
In our best meal there, Jon had a steak sandwich:
 And I had a roast vegetable sandwich
The insides were good, but the bread was stale, hard and burnt.  Bad combo.  The menu prices are reasonable, but they are all a la carte, no sides with this meal.  We had a pizza once and it was decent - but I can't tell if it's because the pizza was good or if we just desperately want this super convenient café to be good.  One thing is for sure, the service is terrible.  I went for a quick bite with my brother Chris while he was in town and when we walked in there were five employees behind the bar eating and zero employees helping the 7 or 8 tables of people in the dining room.  It's not that big of a place either, it's not like we couldn't see each other, it's more that the staff just doesn't care.  Panini is a good stop for coffee and to catch up with friends because you'll never be bothered.  More likely. they'll forget you're even there.

All in all, a big thumbs down to Panini.  Even on my best days, it's unimpressive.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

US Passport Renewal

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of visiting the US Embassy in Buenos Aires for the first time.  We just received notice that we need to begin the process of renewing our resident visas, and the first step of that process is to make sure that our passports are valid for at least the next year.  My passport passed this test, Jon's however, did not.  Thus, we needed to go through the exercise of renewing a US passport in Argentina (although I think these are the same steps for any foreign country with an Embassy).  Here's how:
  • Check with the US Department of State website to see if you are able to apply by mail or if an appointment with the Embassy is required for your passport renewal.  This website nicely lays out the information needed to apply for a passport renewal.
  • If you are eligible to apply by mail, you have the option of actually applying by mail or physically bringing the information to the Embassy.  We opted to apply in person, which does not require an appointment. 
There were a couple things not covered by the website with regard to applying in person.
  1. If you are applying for another person (ie - me for Jon) be sure to bring your US Government issued ID (passport, license, etc).
  2. The renewal fee (currently US$110.00) can be paid by cash or credit card.  The DHL delivery fee that you prepay to have the original and newly issue passports returned to you must be paid in local currency cash.  
The US Embassy is located in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Av. Colombia 4300 (54-11) 5777-4533 and though it's not the prettiest embassy in the city (on the contrary, it's probably the least attractive), it is certainly a secure facility.  Getting in is similar to getting on an airplane, no electronics, no liquids and everything goes through a metal detector.  After giving away my electronics and showing my ID, the nice officers at the embassy showed me exactly where to go, Window 15.  

The waiting room was packed with people waiting for a total of 18 windows.  I waited for 15-20 minutes before my number was called up to the DMV style window, where I turned in our papers, waited in line at another window to pay the processing fee, then returned to the first window to turn in my receipt.  I was then directed to an outdoor DHL window where I waited to pay for the delivery of the passports to our apartment.  All in all, the process took about an hour, not too bad considering the number of people in the waiting room.  According to the nice embassy people, we should have Jon's new passport delivered to our apartment within 10 calendar days. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Need for Change

There are a countless number of cultural differences that take getting used to in a new country.  Argentina is no exception. 

Some differences take one or two instances of exposure before growing accustomed.  Little things like remembering to ring a bell and get buzzed in to enter stores during business hours (due to heightened security) or to avoid shopping in the middle of the day when many shops inexplicably close for a few hours. 

Some take months of exposure before becoming habit.  Things like kissing on the right cheek when greeting hello and goodbye to people - even during first meetings, or remembering to keep my keys in hand while leaving our Alcatraz-style apartment so that I can unlock the three separate doors on my way outside. 

And then there differences, the one in particular that inspires this post, that are easy to remember, but incredibly difficult to understand. 

Change.  Literally, coins or monedas.  There is a perpetual drought in Buenos Aires in the form of small bills and change.  It is some sort of bizarre phenomena that I cannot for the life of me figure out.  This extreme culture difference is exacerbated by the fact that coins are something that I've spent all my adult life in the US trying to get rid of.  There are literally trays of free pennies for those who just want to give away their change.  Not only that, but who uses cash anymore??  Aren't we a plastic-using society?  Not here, not in Bs.As.  All cash, (almost) all the time, and don't even try to pay with your $100 peso note because you can be sure that they don't have change.

We have managed this money drought a few different ways.  First hurdle: Breaking large bills.  Whenever we withdraw money from the ATM, we always attempt to withdraw in odd numbers, the best being a number that ends in $90.  This plan is foiled by the ATMs that only carry $100s and $50s.  Keep in mind that a $100 peso bill is roughly the equivalent to US$25, so it's not like we're toting Benjamins all over town.  Another way is to pay with a $100 at any store that will accept it, more likely at larger grocery stores or upscale shops.  We then stockpile the smaller bills in our safe for later use.  It has become my part-time job to ensure that we have small bills in our safe at all times.  It sounds silly, but it's a very real part of everyday life to make sure that you always have small bills in your wallet.  The lack of can lead to very uncomfortable situations. 
Exhibit A) I was riding in a cab with $212 pesos in my wallet (with two $100s), we arrived at my destination and fare was $18 pesos.  The cabbie couldn't break my hundred and I had no other money.  I had to short him $6 pesos for the ride, and clearly no tip.  Awkward. 
Exhibit B)  I was shopping at a small bulk health food store where the shopkeeper needs to portion out and weigh all of the items.  After putting together 7 or 8 items, I went to the register with my $100 and they couldn't break it.  And they didn't take credit cards.  And I left the store empty handed - 45 minutes of my life I'll never get back.


So many bus rides!
Second hurdle:  Coins.  Coins are the only form of currency for those that use buses, and since Jon uses the bus to commute, and I use it when I know where I'm going, we go through a lot of change.  People go to great lengths here to avoid giving you change.  Some small shops will give you candy instead of change when your bill is uneven.  Cashiers will ask you for change to round up your bill so they can supply your change in all paper.  Taxi drivers will round your fare down to avoid giving you coin change.  It's incredible.  So, how do you accumulate change?  The method of choice for me, up until yesterday, was to go to the bank.  I would travel to the bank, a couple times a week, stand in line like a dunce for 15-45 minutes and receive a grand total of $10 pesos worth of change.  That's right.  Even the BANK is stingy with coins.  Yesterday, I discovered the mecca of all change locations:  Retiro Station.  Retiro train station has a designated window for monedas because it is a huge bus hub and their train ticket machines only accept coins.  This window inevitably has a 100 person line, but I happen to be at the train station yesterday and it was worth it to save a trip to the bank.  I was even going to kill two birds with one stone and pay for my pesos with a $100 bill, so I could get small bills AND coins.  Imagine my surprise when I get to the window and the man behind the counter gives me $50 coins.  FIFTY.  Five saved trips to the bank.  I couldn't believe it.  And then, I couldn't believe how happy I was to receive coins.  Times have certainly changed.

Our coin reserve is plush now, although it certainly won't last forever.  Note to those in the Bs.As. area that need coins, Retiro is the place to go.  Anyone with other change and small bill tips, please feel free to share.  This is one battle that I had never envisioned myself fighting.   

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Puratierra

3 de Febrero 1167, Belgrano, +54 (11) 4899 2007  - During our delightful evening at Casa SaltShaker, we asked our chef, Dan, to name his favorite restaurant in the city and the answer was Puratierra.  We waited for a chance to go with some restaurant savvy friends and that chance came last weekend.  We called on a Friday night for Saturday reservations and they had plenty of availability, especially for our requested 8pm dinner time.  We were the first ones to arrive, obviously, and the restaurant stayed empty until 9:30 or so when a stampede of people filled the place to capacity.

The restaurant looks to be a converted brownstone, with exposed brick accents and incredible lighting.  I loved every lighting piece in this place.  The tables were a little tightly spaced together, but the atmosphere was comfortable to converse over dinner.  The dining room has large windows to the kitchen, so you can enjoy watching the chefs work, while not having to battle with all of the kitchen noise.  Over the kitchen window is a large chalkboard that displays the night's specials. 

I wish I had taken photos of our food, each dish was a work of art.  We started with an amuse-bouche (my Top Chef phrase of the day) that was sent to our table by the chef, of diced vegetables and lengua (yeah, that's tongue) that was good, although I had trouble getting over the lengua part.  We ordered a small pizza and a roasted vegetable appetizer for our starters and they were the perfect size for four to share.  As a main entree, our friends ordered the squid ink linguine while Jon ordered the lomo (tenderloin, obviously, he has a new found obsession) and I had a chicken breast with potatoes.  All dishes were delicious, and as stated before, they could have been works of art.  We ordered specific entrees from the menu, but there is also an option to order a certain number of courses and have the chef decide what's best.  From what I remember, you can order anywhere from 3 to 9 courses, similar to the menu option we chose at Tegui.  This is a great option if your in the mood for an adventure, but as Jon and I still squirm when someone mentions sweetbreads, we are not quite ready for this type of experience.

We splurged and ordered dessert, although I don't think anyone really needed it.  We had an upside down apple tart that was delicious.  If you go to Puratierra, be sure to order a dessert, it was worth every bite.

This is definitely a special occasion place, the prices are higher than we spend on a weekend dinner.  if you have someone to impress, or are on a first date, this is a perfect place to go - it's impressive start to finish.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Facelift Time!

It's been about 7 months since I started logging our adventures in the blogging world so it seemed high time to give The Gill Family a makeover.  Maybe it's the winter blahs here in Buenos Aires, but I needed a little change in my life.  I'm not 100% sure I like the new look, it's a bit busier than the old layout, but the old look was boring me, so new look it is!  Let me know what you think, I'm still fine tuning the details.  In addition, I started posting some our vacation pictures online, in case you were left wanting more from the blog posts.  So, enjoy the new layout and the shameless photo sharing. 

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Mendoza...Wine Not? Day 3

Our last day of bodega touring was with Javier Inzaurraga, Plaza Italia B&B owner Mercedes's son, who had chosen some of his favorites for the day.   This was a nice change of pace, we had the benefit of a local's take on the best wineries to visit, a perfect contrast to some of the larger wineries that we had visited on our first day in Mendoza.  In retrospect, I recommend both.  If you have enough time, it's great to see how the big leaders operate, and be able to spend time with some of the smaller vineyard owners.  Javier also took us to Lujan de Cuyo, so I'm pretty sure that all of the bodegas we visited were located in the Cuyo region.  Next time we visit (and I'm sincerely hoping that there will be a next time) we will have to get out to Uca Valley, where some of the more premium winemakers have settled in.  We stayed away from there this go around because it's a 90 minute drive from our hotel, and we had our fill of driving on our Andes Mountains day.

Bodegas:

Domaine St. Diego -
So boutique that they don't even have a website, so I give you this from Vino al Dia.  This winery is a family run operation started by Angel Mendoza (most appropriate last name ever).  Mr. Mendoza previously was the head wine maker at a large winery for over 25 years before he became a consultant to others in the business.  At some point along the line, he purchased a large parcel of land, previously an olive tree grove, and began planting vines of his own.
His family now owns a beautiful bodega that produces wonderful wine and olive oil under the Domaine St. Diego name.  This was our first stop of the day on Saturday where our guide was Angel Mendoza's daughter (who also designs all of their wine labels) and they made us feel like old friends.  We toured the vineyard first and she described how they have left the olive trees in the vine fields, even though it ran the risk of ruining the grapes.  What they have done instead is use the Malbec grapes from the vines grown closest to the trees to mix with Chardonnay grapes to create a unique sparkling wine variety.  This also means that they produce their own olive oil, which we were happy to taste with the bread and other munchie items provided.  One part of the family's philosophy is that they want to make their wines available to the local folks who visit their vineyard, so they don't export any of their wines.  All of their wine sales are done directly out of the vineyard, and we were happy to partake.  This turned out to be the only place we purchased wine on the trip, simply because we were not able to get it outside of Mendoza.  During our tasting we were even graced by a visit from Angel himself.  This was a great tour, probably my personal favorite.



Archaval Ferrer - The view from this winery could not be beat.  It was a beautiful vineyard with a beautiful brick building and one of the newest wineries on the block.  This bodega is owned by three business partners, two with the last names Archaval and Ferrer and a third who's family seal is in between the names on their label.
Our tour guide for this bodega was the son of Phillipe Schell, our French stargazing friend from Andes First so we had a very real feel for how small this town really was.  This was the first bodega we visited that used concrete in the making of their wines, as opposed to the wood and steel that others had used.  Archaval Ferrer has a huge export market and we saw several pallets that were packed and ready for shipment to the US.  Apparently they ship directly to a distributor in California, who then disburses the bottles around the country, so if you don't see this brand near you, it's because California is hogging it all.  If you're into the heavy Cabernets and Syrahs, this is just the wine for you. Their wines were full bodied, intense and, unfortunately for us, expensive by the Argentine standards we've become accustomed to. 

Ruca Malen - This was our lunch stop of the day and the only vineyard that we didn't actually tour.  Javier had us all (except Jon, so he says) convinced that we were just stopping for a Coke and a sandwich, so imagine our surprise when we walked in to a five-course meal complete with wine pairing for each course.
Jon jumps for Ruca Malen
The food was to die for, and the wines were just as good and perfectly paired.  For this lunch the winery was one step ahead and gave us a printed sheet with each food item, wine and a description of each so we were able to follow along.  The room we dined in inside this bodega only had 9 or 10 tables so each table was able to enjoy the amazing view from their one enormous window.  The window overlooks the vines set to the backdrop of the mountains, and we had a clear, sunny day to get the full effect.

Norton - Our last stop was Bodega Norton, one of the oldest winemakers in the area, and also one of the largest.  This winery has changed hands a number of times now resting in the hands of the Swarovski family.  That's the one, with the crystals.  This tour was unique because we only tried one of their wines, the Malbec, but we tried it at 3 different stages of the winemaking process.  Thus, we didn't really get a feel for Norton's wines, but we didn't really need to because we had all had them before.  The tour here was interesting because you start in the most modern area of the bodega, where there is state of the art machinery, and end up in the most ancient part, the dark and gloomy wine cellar.  Here is also where they house thousands of bottles of wine, some still leftover from 1970s vintages.  Our guide said that we needed to be really special to have a chance to taste the older vintages, and I'm guessing that we didn't have what it takes since we tasted the 2008 variety.

It was sad to say goodbye to our winery tours, they were all so fun and interesting.  I feel like some sort of scholar now since I recognize names on every wine list I see.  It is nice to have an idea of what you're doing when it comes to purchasing wine, especially when tasked with choosing a bottle for a table of friends.


Our table at Los Chocos
We rounded out our last night in Mendoza with a private dining experience not unlike Casa SaltShaker but this venue was called Los Chocos.  Los Chocos opens their home to private dinners every day of the week and offers a 5-course tasting menu with paired wines.  This operation is slightly smaller than our previous private dining experience since there is only space for a maximum of 8 diners.  The four of us were paired with another couple that was traveling through Argentina from the US.  The food was outstanding and the chef's M.O. is interesting, everything you eat (and drink, obviously) is from Mendoza.  This comes down to the even bottled water served, since all major bottled water companies in Argentina are from Mendoza.  It was a great dinner, a great night.  The chef did an amazing job and we really enjoyed the company of the other couple.  Hopefully they felt the same :).  If you are in the Mendoza area, Los Chocos is a must-do.

So that sums up Mendoza.  If you're not booking your tickets as we speak, I have done the trip an injustice.  It was a fantastic, fast paced, fun weekend and I would love to go back before our time in Argentina is up.

**Are you a sucker for photos?  I am.  For more pics of this and other trips, check out my Shameless Photo Sharing on the right side of the page.  Enjoy!**

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mendoza: Montaña Madness - Day 2

Our second day of Mendoza touring was also spent with Felipe as our escort. We wanted to break up our 2 winery tour days by doing something outdoors, so we asked Uncorking Argentina to plan a day in the Andes Mountains - and plan they did. Mendoza is located on the eastern side of the Andes so the clouds/breeze/rain gets mostly blocked by the huge mountains, making it very dry and desert-like. There is an amazing system of canals and waterways in place to bring water to the city and outlying areas, otherwise, wine production and general living conditions would be impossible. This helps explain why Mendoza looks more like the set of a western movie than Napa Valley, but the views got considerably better as we began our excursion. We started our day off at 9:00am and drove an hour or so into the mountains.
The gorgeous mountain view driving in
Our first stop was Argentina Rafting where we were booked to go zip-lining (or on a canopy tour, as it was called). It was terrifying and awesome, a highlight of the trip.
I wore the least outdoorsy coat possible
Shankar flying on one of our first lines
This was the longest line at 420 meters - over a lake
Check out that view!!
video
And here is a delightful video of yours truly on the line. Look for the tiny ant in the middle of the screen.
We then headed off to lunch at the most remote, and coldest, restaurant I have ever been to. I think it was like 50 degrees inside - I wore my coat, scarf and napkin for warmth the entire time. The restaurant was in the middle of nowhere, we started to wonder if Felipe was kidnapping us - but alas, there was a restaurant - although I have no clue how they get their food deliveries. The place had windows on both sides of the building and there was a beautiful mountain scape out of each side, but that is where the positive comments end. This was the only "miss" we had with Uncorking Argentina, we should have skipped this place. The food was mediocre, the service was s...l...o...w... and we were shivering through the whole meal. It did make me want to invest money in land in Mendoza, the owner purchased the restaurant's land 10 years ago for US$50,000 (for something like 80 hectors) and now each hector is worth US$30,000. I thought he should sell a hector and invest in central heat.

In the afternoon we drove another 1.5 hours to get to Aconcagua, at 22,800+ feet, it is the highest mountain point in South America. We did not climb it. But walking around on the ground level trails was fun and it was cool to see some snow. We could also see into Chili, which was only 25 km away from where we were. Here are some mountain pics:
Approaching Aconcagua
Collectively wishing that we had dressed warmer
You might see this again on a Christmas card...
Jon fell through the snow :(
It was so dark, we didn't know the telescope was blue
After having our fill of the mountain, we piled back into the suburban for a solid 2.5 hour ride back to town. The original plan was to stop at our hotel and pick up some warmer clothes for our next event, but we were late, so we had to skip the warmer clothes idea. We drove straight over to Phillippe Schell's place, where we had a nighttime stargazing session planned. Phillippe is originally from France and made his way over to Argentina for a project with 3 other french guys approx 12 years ago. He has since broken off from his friends and started Andes First a company that offer things like the stargazing that we did. Phillippe knows his stars. And he has this crazy huge badass telescope, the biggest one I've seen in person. He told us all about the southern sky, we saw stars, star clusters, supernovas, galaxies and planets (like Saturn!) and he even arranged for 2 shooting stars to occur while we were out there. It was fascinating. And freezing. We regretfully left after 1.5 hours outside because no one could feel their extremities, but should we ever return to Mendoza in the summer, we would love to do a mountain stargazing tour with Phillippe, there is so much less city light that the stars literally multiply before your eyes.

We ended our day with a delicious dinner at Afrazan, a highly recommended restaurant in town. At this point, we could hardly keep our heads off the table, the day coupled with the wine that Phillippe had given us to enjoy with dinner - it was bed time for sure. Another wonderful day.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mendoza...Wine Not? - Day 1

Wow. Vacation was bliss. Mendoza was everything we had hoped for and more - and we crammed as much into a 4-day weekend as humanly possible. Other than setting my healthy-eating-goals back somewhere around 2.5 years, the trip was an unbelievable success. As I did with our Iguazu Falls trip, I'm going to divide Mendoza into sub-posts - starting with Food and Wine - two things that played heavily into our vacation.

We spent two of our four days visiting different wineries with two different tour guides. Our first day was spent with Felipe Canedo, arranged by Uncorking Argentina, who picked us up from the airport in the largest vehicle I've seen in Argentina to date. He has a souped-up Suburban with 3 rows of leather seats, it was by far the most comfortable ride that we've encountered. After we checked into our hotel, the Plaza Italia Bed & Breakfast, Felipe started our day-long tour in Lujan de Cuyo.



Bodegas:

Luigi Bosca - This was our first stop of the trip and I was high on my Spanish skills with Felipe so I made the critical mistake of telling the winery tour guide that we all understood Spanish. The resulting tour may as well have been given by Charlie Brown's teacher. Even though I understood about 0.2% of the tour, the facility was impressive. The most exciting part of the visit was before the tour even started when one of the other visitors tripped while playing with her kids and ended up calling an ambulance. Total bummer for that poor woman. Luigi Bosca is a huge winemaker, so the majority of their vineyards are located elsewhere. The tour group was large, even without the injured woman and her family, and there were competing cameras trying to get photos. At the end we were able to try their wines while sitting around a beautiful brick bar. The Brazilians sitting next to us took a liking to me and somehow I ended up taking photos with individuals from their group - a move I'm sure they'll be puzzled by when they review their photos. A great start to the day, it was a beautiful facility and we have enjoyed their wines at home many times, but this would end up to be our least favorite tour of the trip.

Terrazas de los Andes - This is also a brand owned by Chandon, the sparkling wine giant and served as our much needed lunch stop. It was a much nicer, more intimate atmosphere because we were the only folks on the tour. Terrazas is also a large wine maker, but you would never guess it from their tour or building, they are both quite modest. Again, the wine production portion of their facilities was beautiful, but the real prize here was lunch.
Meat and Cheese galore
We were seated around a short lunch table in a sunroom overlooking the vineyard and were served a delicious, and filling meal of finger foods. The first course was this tray of picada pictured on the left. From what I can gather, picada is an assortment of meats, cheeses, olives and pickled items - generally at the discretion of the chef. I LOVE picada, it's salty, cheesy, pickled and delicious. We were also served beef empanadas, locro stew, an assortment of breads and an unbelievable dulce de leche (basically, caramel) mouse cake. Let the exercise-voiding begin!
We were served a few of Terrazas' wines, but there was no explanation of what they were, so I really don't know what we were drinking. They were good, whatever they were, and I didn't mind the lack of information because we had already been on 2 tours and it wasn't even 2pm. Sometimes it's nice to just sit back and enjoy.

Catena Zapata - Catena Zapata looks like a Mayan temple, a much different style than the previous two vineyards that we had visited. The inside is modern and open, but has an old-world-meets-new-construction feel which is appropriate considering that the family has been making wine for over 100 years. There was no expense spared in the creation of this building, and the view from the upper terrace is breathtaking.
This tour started with a short film, in their own small movie theater I might add, about the beginnings of Catena Zapata and the history of the family. This video included a list of accolades won by their wines over the years, a list that was beyond impressive. They have the highest Wine Spectator ratings I have ever seen (up to 98+ points, holy smokes) over the course of many years and Nicolas Catena was Decanter magazine's Man of the Year in 2009. I have no idea what earns you that honor, but I'm assuming making great wines is a prerequisite. At the end of the tour we had a very informal tasting, and their wines were worth all of the hype. This also means that they were priced with the high Wine Spectator ratings in mind and were way out of our price range for the day. Jon and I had a distinct favorite, their Malbec Malbec (yep, named twice, it's that good), and their collection of wines were our collective favorites of the day.


I think we found Jon's 2010 holiday outfit
Basil. Who knew?
After a quick change and cleanup at our hotel, we walked over to Café Plaza Italia where we met Chrissie Bettencourt, a Canadian who has perhaps the most desirable job I can fathom. She is a chocolatier (? is that even a word?) that specializes in pairing chocolate with wine. Sign. Me. Up. She gave us a very informative and interesting workshop on chocolate/wine pairing and a lesson in how to taste food in general. It was fun and delicious and quite interesting to be able to find unique flavors in items we eat everyday. Out of everything we tasted, I think we can all agree that our favorite pairing item was basil. We liked it with chocolate, wine, truffles, basically everything. The small bottle in this picture is also a port-style wine that we loved by Familia Zuccardi called Malamado Red.

We finished off the day with a wine and tapas party at the Park Hyatt hotel in Mendoza. The hotel is beautiful and we had fun dressing up to go to the party, but the event itself was disappointing. The concept was promising, they offered 3 or 4 wines and had waiters passing a 5-course tapas menu. My disappointment started with the fact that we couldn't find a seat. I mean really, this was a reservation-only, paid-for event, how are there no tables?? Luckily we ran into my Brazilian friends from the first winery who offered to switch tables with us so that we could all have a chair. The wines served were was all incredibly sweet, and this was magnified by the fact that we had just undergone the chocolate class. The food was good, but they somehow ran out of a course or two and made up by passing around lots and lots of desserts. Not to mention that the "main" dish, a lamb item rolled in a small tortilla, had a chocolate sauce. It's absolutely not their fault that we had just eating our weight in chocolate before coming, but seriously, does everything have to be sweet?? To wash down the sugar, we asked one of the waiters for water and he brought us just that. One water. For four people. Fernanda and I went to the bar to ask for additional water and in a wave of generosity they gave us another 2 glasses. No worries, out of that awesome day, something had to go wrong.

It was a busy, crazy, remarkable first day in Mendoza - hard to believe we left Buenos Aires at 7:30am and were all still awake. Uncorking Argentina did a great job organizing the day's events and we arrived back to our hotel rooms with little sweets (which we saved, I couldn't possibly have eaten more sugar...) and the next day's agenda waiting for us. Bliss.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Sun Will Come Out, Mañana...

At least we hope it will.  Although now that I'm writing this the sun is actually poking it's nose out for the first time this week.  It has been a dreary, windy, cloudy few days and although the temperature hasn't been too cold (around 55F) the way people are bundled up it's easy to see that it's wintertime in Buenos Aires.  Why so concerned about tomorrow's weather?  That's because bright and early we're flying out to Mendoza for an action packed weekend of winery and Andes Mountain tours and our agenda has no wiggle room for the kind of weather delays we experienced the last time we flew out of Aeroparque Jorge Newberry.

I received so many great tips from people that had already visited Mendoza that we were not able to fit all we wanted into our 4 day trip, so this post is a compilation of all of the recommendations we received, and which ones we decided to book for ourselves.  I will certainly post my personal recommendations after our trip, until then, here's the whole kitten caboodle.

Mendoza is located ~650 miles west (and slightly north) of Buenos Aires right next to that crazy strip of land some call Chili.  For those (like me) not particularly great with their South American geography, the Andes Mountains provide a nice dividing line between Argentina and Chili, so Mendoza is also situated right in/next to the Andes Mountains.  This area of Argentina is best known for it's production of over 70% of Argentina's wines, like all of those delicious Malbecs that are oh-so-popular in the US these days.  This is the main reason that we chose this destination.  Add in the amazing mountain views, skiing, white water rafting, climbing, shopping and an adorable quaint city and you get a whole boatload of reasons to visit Mendoza. 

I'll start with our plans:

We arrive in Mendoza (the airplane gods willing...) on Thursday morning and  check into our hotel at the Plaza Italia B&B.  Our friends Anso and Paul stayed at this quaint B&B in May and had wonderful things to say about the accommodations, the owners and the location of this hotel in the center of town. 

After we check-in, we begin our first tour with a company called Uncorking Argentina.  Uncorking Argentina was a raving recommendation from another expat family, Heather and Jonathan, that just made this trip earlier this year.  So far the owner, Carolyn, and our contact, Gilda, have been ambitious and accommodating.   My original email was to request a 1-day mountain tour and they wrote me back with a full 4-day itinerary including transfer to and from the airport.  We worked with them to trim and alter the agenda to fit our needs and they have happily accommodated each request.  We have a full day of touring wineries with them on Thursday and another full day tour of the Andes Mountains.  Our bodega (winery) tours this day include Luigi Bosca, Terrazas de los Andes and Catena Zapata. They have also made arrangements for us to go stargazing, zip-line canopy touring, attend a wine and tapas party at the Hyatt and to have a chocolate and wine pairing class - delish! 

We will spend Saturday with Javier, the Plaza Italia owner's son.  He has chosen 4 bodegas for us to visit with him:  Domaine St. Diego, Achaval Ferrer, Ruca Malen & Norton.  This tour was also an Anso & Paul recommendation.

Other things that were recommended that won't work out this time:
  • Skiing/Snowboarding with any company/shop on Las Heras Street.
  • White Water Rafting and Jerome's Brewery with Uncorking Argentina.
  • Fly Fishing, Mountain and Wine Tours:  Trout & Wine
  • Renting Bikes through Mr. Hugo.  Apparently there are a zillion bike rental companies but Mr. Hugo is the best.  I really think it's just a dude that rents bikes - that's not even a company name.  
  • Anything through the Vines of Mendoza
We also found some great bodega reviews through the Wine Republic a free magazine and website in English that tells you about each bodega, its distance from town and their rating of each place (the ratings are in number of wine glasses, of course). 

Needless to say that we are super excited about this trip.  We will have lots of pictures and information to share when we return.  Cheers! 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Casa SaltShaker

Ever since our wedding at the Black Horse Inn Bed and Breakfast, we have had a special interest in quaint restaurants and small hotels that offer a little more personality than the larger more corporate places. In the same vein, I have recently discovered the notion of a "private" or "underground" restaurant, which is something that I have apparently in the dark about for quite some time now. For those who came late to the party like me, an underground restaurant is one that is operated out of a private home, kind of like a dinner party for randoms. Although these restaurants may be run in all sorts of large cities, rumor has it that they are more popular in international cities due to the more lenient laws regarding food service, etc. The whole notion seemed a little strange to me, but so did staying in someone's home and having breakfast with a bunch of strangers in the morning (a.k.a - Bed & Breakfast), so I figured it was worth a try - we just needed to find the right place.

At the recommendation of my friend Lauren, I started following this great food and restaurant review blog called The SaltShaker. Dave, the blog's writer, has been to a significant portion of Buenos Aires restaurants and has great, detailed reviews of the food, service and overall experience complete with photos of many of the dishes. Jon and I typically confer with the SaltShaker restaurant review page in conjunction with the popular Buenos Aires restaurant review site Guia Oleo before heading out to a new restaurant, just to be sure we know what we're getting into, and most times the reviews are right on the money. After relying on The SaltShaker for our out to eat locations for 6 months, we finally decided to try their private restaurant, Casa SaltShaker, while my brother was in town visiting.

Casa SaltShaker holds a private dinner party each Friday and Saturday night and posts their upcoming menu online a few weeks in advance. I didn't bring a camera to photo document our meal, but luckily Dan has posted a full rendition of our menu online here. The Casa SaltShaker has seating room for 12 at two tables in their cozy dining room. The night we went was at capacity, so we started off with a welcome cocktail while we waited for everyone to arrive. Our group had people from New Zealand, Argentina and the US (us and some other guests) and the conversation was flowing from the start. The 5-course tasting menu is $130 pesos (US$33.00) or you can opt for the tasting menu and wine flight combo for an additional $60 pesos (US$15.00). The food was excellent, the wine was good and the overall experience was more than we had hoped for. I have to say that the wild card in this setup is the other attendees. It would have been an exceptionally long dinner if the other guests had been difficult to hold a conversation with, like an awkward family dinner that lasts 3+ hours. Lucky for us, we had lots of nice folks around the table(s) with us and I was even able to practice a bit of Spanish with the three extremely patient Argentine women in attendance. We will certainly be back to Casa SaltShaker and recommend it for an interesting twist on a normal night out.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Chocolate Cakies

Since Buenos Aires is such a remarkable city to eat in, we love taking our guests to our favorite spots during their visits.  I love it at the time, but I find that it negates my last few months of work at the gym and almost always ends in a vow to eat healthy after everyone has left.  Nothing takes the edge off of eating healthy more than a dessert that you can enjoy sans guilt, and since we have a 3-day weekend vacation coming up in one of the most gastronomically intense areas of Argentina, this is a great time for a low-fat dessert recipe post.  I got this recipe from my favorite cookbook, The Low-Fat Way to Cook, the recipe claims that the final product will be brownies, but I would argue that the brownies are a closer resemblance to chocolate cake.  Thus, I give you Chocolate Cakies:


Medicrim, our sour cream alternative
Frosted Chocolate Brownies
vegetable cooking spray
1/2 c plus 3 tablespoons of reduced-calorie margarine, softened
1 1/3 c sugar
8 egg whites
1/2 c nonfat sour cream
1/3 c evaporated skim milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/3 c flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
2/3 c unsweetened cocoa

Delicious cakie batter
Directions:
  1. Beat margarine until fluffy, gradually add sugar and beat well.
  2.  Add egg whites, sour cream, milk and vanilla, beat well.  Note:  I cannot find evaporated skim milk in the grocery stores here, so I use the following substitution - heat double the amount of milk you need (in this case 1 cup) in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly.  Steam milk until it has reduced by half (takes up to an hour).  It works perfectly for this recipe. 
  3. Combine dry ingredients in a small bowl, stir well. 
  4. Slowly add dry mixture to creamed mixture until fully incorporated.
  5. Pour batter into a 13 x 9 inch pan coated with cooking spray.  
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, cool on a wire cooling rack.
  7. Once cooled, top with Creamy Chocolate Frosting (recipe below)
You're not quite done yet...

Creamy Chocolate Frosting 
3 c sifted powdered sugar
1/4 c unsweetened cocoa
1/4 t salt
1/4 c skim milk
1 1/2 t vanilla extract

Directions:
  1. Combine all ingredients until mix is of spreading consistency.  If the frosting is too thick, add more milk one drop at a time.  Be careful, it doesn't take much to over-thin the mix.   
This recipe yields 24 servings and each serving contains approx 180 calories and 3.9 grams of fat.  A perfect way to end your healthy-eating day.  

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tigre & Mi Hermano

Back in January I wrote about my first trips to Tigre, a small town north of Buenos Aires. I haven't been back to Tigre since the summer so when my brother came to Buenos Aires we decided to give Tigre a wintertime visit. This time around I was prepared with some specific recommendations from friends, so we had more direction than during my first visit.

Chris and I took the Mitre Train from Retiro to Tigre, a roundtrip that costs a mere $2.70 pesos (US$0.68). The train is easy, though it's not exactly a quick trip. We were only 2 stops (out of 15 or so) into our trip when the train was inexplicably halted for 25 minutes. This made our trip a total of 1 hour 15 minutes, which would not have been a big deal if the train wasn't completely packed the entire way. It was insane, the train was 100% full in the middle of a workday. This did help cut down on the number of entrepreneurs looking to sell items or provide musical entertainment for cash during the ride. Once we actually got to Tigre, things started really going our way.

Me and Chris with a self-pic
Me, insanely overdressed for the day
I was told that you cannot go to Tigre without visiting the Gato Blanco Restaurant, and since I had already done just that 2 other times, I figured it was time to actually make it to the recommended location. Tigre is a delta, so boat rides are a main attraction. Chris and I walked over to the main dock (port? I don't know what it should be called, the place where boats dock) and found the Gato Blanco information office, which is a really nice term for the phone booth that a receptionist operates out of. I was expecting information how to get to the restaurant, only to find out that it is accessible by boat only and you need tickets both for the restaurant and for the boat. Where do you buy the tickets? The phone booth. When is the next boat leaving? Um, that would be in 2 minutes...so Chris and I hurried to pay the $60 pesos (for two tickets), jumped aboard the taxi/commuter boat and were on our way.

The commuter boat is really interesting, something that I discovered with Lauren back in January. The main difference we found in June was that the boat was virtually empty, meaning less stops, which was just fine with us. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the ride was nice and relaxing. We rode for 25 minutes or so and got off right at the dock of Gato Blanco.



Gato Blanco is right on the water's edge and has a large dock that has tables literally on top of the water. It was virtually empty when we arrived, there was only one other table filled on the dock, and ironically, they were from the US. The menu had a little bit of everything on it, although it seemed to be geared a little more toward dinner than lunch. We both decided on stuffed pasta, and both dishes were delicious. Our waiter came by at the end of our meal with some lemon-cello, which is not my favorite but Chris was loving it. He drank his first glass so quickly that I had to laugh, and the waiter had to fill him up again. The commuter boat stops at the dock every hour on the hour to bring you back to town, so we had just enough time for a relaxed lunch and then we could catch the return trip. It was a great meal, and the train/boat adventure to get there alone is worth the trip. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that it was a great day trip.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Buller Brewing Company

I think Thom likes his sampler
Roberto M. Ortiz 1827, Recoleta - The Recoleta Cemetery is one of the most popular attractions in Buenos Aires. It's known as the home to many of Argentina's founding fathers, authors, presidents and most famously, Eva Peron (Evita). To accommodate the influx of tourists, there are a number of really touristy restaurants surrounding the Recoleta cemetery and I'm not too proud to say that we really like some of them. The whole area is geared toward out of towners, with lots of English menus and people from all over the world walking around. This also means that there are plenty of pushy people standing outside the restaurants trying to drag in passersby, which is especially obnoxious because the city as a whole is not pushy. We really like Lola, one of the restaurants on this strip, which is where we spent Thanksgiving 2009 after our original Thanksgiving plans fell through. A couple of doors down from Lola is the Buller Brewing Company, a great refreshment stop after sightseeing and walking around. Buller because has a great outdoor seating area and during the summer it was a great place to stop, get out of the heat and enjoy a few micro brews.

Chris seems pleased with his selection as well
Buller has all the feel of an American microbrewery and ever since I worked at Sweetwater Tavern, I have had a soft spot for micro breweries. Unfortunately, unlike Sweetwater, Buller has really mediocre food and pretty poor service. Its redeeming quality is the beer, and they offer a ~4oz. sampler of each of their six beers on tap for those especially thirsty patrons. All of the selections are good, though I don't particularly like Pale Ales, so that one is not my personal favorite. I recommend the Honey Beer, it is smooth and tasty. Beware, it packs a mean punch with an alcohol content of something like 8.5%.

We have eaten lunch here a few times and they have some decent sandwich options. The rest of the food is alright, it's generally smaller than you would think and is similar to what I make at home when I don't put effort into cooking. We have had one really attentive server, and he was great, but in general the service is lackluster. My take is that the hiring managers extended jobs to all of the pretty people - leaving out any other necessary qualifications such as personality, energy or sense of urgency - the staff is attractive but under-attentive. Buller has become a great place for us to meet people for a drink or to stop and rest after site seeing before we go to an actual restaurant for dinner.