Argentina is known for many good things. The first that comes to mind is tango and then for its good wine, especially their Malbecs from Mendoza. One must also mention soccer, especially now as Argentina is the reigning World Cup champion. It is also known for its food culture beginning with its savory steak cooked over an open fire by gauchos. Today Argentina’s culinary excellence has been elevated by its fine gastronomy with talented chefs that rival the best in Europe. In Buenos Aires is where you’ll find Chila, a fine dining establishment that is one of a handful of restaurants leading the way in South American haute cuisine.
Dining at Chila is more than a meal. It was a culinary saga with twists, turns, and surprises along the way. The ethos focuses on the pursuit of perfection and, once achieved, breaking it and starting over to create something new. Innovation is never a destination; it is more about the act of constant evolution.
As you enter Chila, along the sleek hallway en route to the maître’ d station, your first impression is made courtesy of an erotic photo of a woman in bondage. The fact that the artwork is so shocking is the point and an indication of what is ahead. This restaurant’s ethos is to first surprise and then totally delight each guest throughout the evening. You don’t go to Chila for a meal, you go to Chila for the experience.
Chila offers gourmands a chance to experience the abundance of the country’s seasonal ingredients in a seven-course tasting menu of avant-garde Argentinian cuisine. The restaurant is one of the few Relais & Châteaux restaurants in Buenos Aires and currently holds the 19th position of the 50 best restaurants in South America.
Gastronomic Trouble Makers
If Chila were a novel, its protagonist would be Andres Porcel who created Chila 17 years ago. He set out to create something that international diners had not seen before in Argentina. The manifestation of his vision was a long time in the making. It began in his teen years and the beginning of his insatiable curiosity about haute cuisine. As he traveled the world, he dined at high-end restaurants where he observed the details of what made them exceptional. He noticed the little things like the lighting, music, décor, silverware, service, and, of course, the food. After a career in finance, and ten years of mulling over his fine dining research notes, he formed his vision of what Chila could be. With that, he made his plan to create Argentina’s most avant-garde restaurant.
Chila is Andres Porcel’s magnum opus, a platform where his vision of what the dining experience could be is manifested. But part of that vision is to never settle, so he and his chef, are in constant pursuit of perfection only to appreciate it, learn from it, and destroy it in order to create something new and fresh. You see part of the recipe is the constant evolution and innovation of the dining experience.
One could consider Porcel as the composer and the conductor would be Chef Pedro Bargero. Pedro’s path to becoming executive chef at Chila is a full circle. He worked as an intern at Chila early on before his budding career took him to work in Europe under the three Michelin star Argentine chef and Allain Ducasse disciple, Mauro Colagreco, He also worked in the kitchen of the french restaurant of two Michelin-star-chef David Toutain where he learned new techniques and interpretation of gastronomy. With his arsenal of knowledge and talents, he returned to Chila as its youthful and precocious executive chef. He is as much a designer as he is a chef, experimenting with flavor, color, and texture to create aromas, tastes, and presentations of ingredients found across Argentina.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful city aptly called the Paris of the South, with century-old baroque buildings and a leafy central park that runs through the center of the city. In an area that was once the city’s delipidated harbor is now Puerta Madera, its upmarket riverside district filled with luxurious homes, swanky boutiques, and trendy restaurants. Along the banks of its Rio Plata, in what was once a grain warehouse is where you’ll find Chila.
Indoors is sleek and sultry with a minimalist décor featuring dark surfaces with golden accents, artistic lighting, and edgy artwork. The vibe is cool with hip music with a clientele of well-to-do guests celebrating a special occasion, romantic couples on a night out, and business colleagues celebrating their latest big deal.
The restaurant faces the riverfront, where you’ll see people coming and going along the riverwalk promenade, with the silhouette of high rises across the river. But you will notice these things briefly as there is too much to see indoors, as the nattily dressed waiters dash about or your attention is drawn to the exotic dishes being served at a nearby table. Most guests will dine at the riverside veranda although there are more tables in the interior room near the glass-walled wine room. The star of the show is clearly in the kitchen which you’ll see through the floor-to-ceiling window and well-lit theater, as chefs bustle about with a flaming pan there or a steaming pot there.
A Seven-Course Culinary Adventure
Before you even begin, you realized that this is not a meal it is a theatrical performance with acts, scenes, and even an intermission. It begins with a choice of inventive predinner cocktails followed by a special delivery in a wooden box with its contents wrapped in tissue paper and sealed with a paper bow. Once the paper bow is torn, the contents are revealed within as the menu of what is in store for the seven-course degustation dinner. A second document in the package is a map of Argentina indicating the locations where the ingredients for the meal have been sourced. The presentation is accompanied by a bite-sized and flavor-packed amuse bouche and a hint of what is to come. It is at that point you realize; the show’s curtain has just been opened.
What most would refer to as an entrée or appetizer, Chila simply refers to as snacks. But the humble name contradicts what is to come. The presentation is in the form of an orb, a spherical wooden box with small trays that fit together like a puzzle. What is inside is as much a treat for the eyes as for the palate. The first resembles a lollipop but is instead a white-colored ball of fermented cassava dough and cheese water formed around a stick then cooked and covered in bright red moringa powder. The morsel is made even more flavorful with the accompanying picante dipping sauce. Another tray holds a traditional Spanish churro but in place of the sweet snack, this one is savory with pacu fish, beetroot, and garlic.
The next dish is prepared before you at your table by a chef with his cart of ingredients for a special soup. This soup is made from tomato water, clear and strained of any paste, infused with yerba mate, the traditional Argentine drink. The cocktail is poured into a strainer filled with herbs to infuse the broth with more flavors and fragrances. This cold broth is then severed into a dish of delicious heirloom tomatoes with watermelon and spices. The meal continues with more innovative courses including octopus with fennel followed by a palate cleanser in the form of a frozen popsicle of strawberry and vinegar, set in a sea of smoke from dry ice.
The mains commence with the fish. The selection from the sea is Rock Fish providing flaky white meat served on a bed of tapioca with crispy chard. Each ingredient plays a role to add color, taste, or to add to the presentation. What accompanies are what looks like fish bones, and they are. Ribs from the pacu fish, deep fried with exquisite bits of meat that remind one of a chicken wing.
The mains are broken up with an excursion to the kitchen. Guests are invited behind the glass wall for a direct view of where the magic takes place. And this field trip is not just for sightseeing. The treat that guests receive comes in the form of a cloud in a wispy white cotton candy prepared before you. The cotton candy is formed into a ball then on top pochoclos salt and a vinegar gel is added followed by lacquered sweetbread with chimichurri. The cotton candy forms the base which is then wrapped around the ingredients and eaten by hand. The experience was nothing short of culinary drama.
In a country known for its beef, the steak main has a lot to live up to. And at Chila, the steak is a portion of 45-day dry aged beef cooked to perfection and served with a dollop of tangy olives and caper puree. The meat is succulent and juicy, flawlessly cooked and the puree only accents the perfection. It is simply sublime and pure decadence at the end of the fork.
The sweet ending comes in two phases of decadence. The first is utterly creative. An edible paper box filled with cherries and cream. The second is in the form of a gloriously rich layered with crunchy wafer, ice cream and cheese filling, and a layer of fruit. A sublime end to a most spectacular meal.
Throughout the meal, each dish is paired with Argentinian wine. Argentina is of course known for its rich bold reds and particularly its Malbec, however, its white wines have something to offer as well. Boutique wineries around the country are producing some interesting wines that are expertly paired with the cuisine at Chila. In place of a wine pairing for some courses, to add a bit of drama, mead, and cider are a part of the beverage mix.
The final ingredient that makes Chila one of the most spectacular dining experiences in South America is the staff. Every interaction is fabulous, attentive, and switched on. They are the consummate professionals, experts in their craft, and know the ins and outs of each dish, its ingredients, and their preparation. The service is ultra-friendly and personal making the service an equal star to the cuisine.
Andres Porcel and his fellow culinary anarchist Chef Pedro Bargero set out to create more than a meal. Their vision was to elevate Argentine cuisine to rival the best restaurant in the world. Well, they’ve done that with haute cuisine that focuses on ingredients sourced from Argentina, combined with first-class cooking and immaculate presentation. This consistently creative cuisine, the restaurant’s elegant ambiance, and switched-on service have culminated in a culinary performance of gastronomic alchemy. Bravo, Chila…Bravo.
Image Source: HappyCow