My favorite Argentine chef is my mother-in-law. When I first visited the country, on a meet-the-parents mission in 2002, Norma took me by the palate and led me through her repertoire. Tenderloin stuffed with fruit and pancetta. Juicy beef empanadas. Crispy tripe and melt-in-the-mouth sweetbreads. Steak served with roast squash. Steak served with a fried egg on top. Steak served with another steak. (Notice any patterns here? My digestive tract certainly did.) And she did all this while stricken with multiple sclerosis, barely able to walk. These days I cook for her, with no hope of repaying even a fraction of that generosity.
Norma was, and remains, a traditionalist. Her recipes are like folk ballads: no one knows who wrote them. Young, professional chefs have a different attitude. They want to be recognized for their creativity. They feel inspired, not circumscribed, by the dishes of their childhoods. They want to discard some classic ingredients and rescue others from oblivion. In Buenos Aires, chefs like this are associated with a movement called “New Argentine Cuisine.” I have enjoyed their work, if not enough to want to marry one of their daughters…
At El Baqueano in San Telmo, Rivarola has created a menu that includes lots of things you don’t expect to find anywhere—carpaccio of llama, caiman dumplings, chinchilla, etc.—and omits one thing you expect to find everywhere—beef. By (mostly) limiting himself to indigenous products, each prepared and presented without gimmickry, Rivarola won a reputation as of the country’s most original chefs.
With his skewed baseball cap, inked limbs, and skater drawl, Cristóbal looks and sounds like a 40-year-old Justin Bieber. At Café San Juan, he even has his mom working the till and pouring the wine. But there’s nothing casual about Cristóbal’s cooking. Start with his famous rabbit pâté, move on to the juicy rib-eye and leave room for chocolate mousse or lychee ice-cream. Reservations are essential.
One part Oscar Wilde, one part Charlie Trotter and one part unique; Mallmann is probably Argentina’s best-known living chef. At Patagonia Sur, the Buenos Aires branch of his empire, you can try sophisticated versions of local comfort food: humita (creamed corn) with crispy ham, tenderloin with crushed potatoes, wobbly flan with dulce de leche... (True story: Mallmann once gave me two free suppers at his Uruguayan hotel in return for my reading his favorite English poems aloud between courses.)
New Argentine Cuisine is hard to define, but you’ll know it when you see it. At Dante Liporace’s Tarquino, you’ll see a lot of it. One dish I’ll never forget is his “Provolone pizza,” in which the heaviest of Buenos Aires staples is transformed into something as light as dandelion petals. Ask ahead if you want to try Liporace’s brilliant “Sequence of the Cow,” a nine-course homage to the heifer that takes you from nose to tail.
If one dish exemplifies New Argentine Cuisine’s approach to tradition, it’s Soledad Nardelli’s souffle de dulce de leche: the sweet brown gloop that fuels every Argentine childhood quite literally raised to a new level. At Chila, Nardelli’s smart restaurant in Puerto Madero, you can also try Patagonian scallops, trout, and lamb; Mendozan pears; quinoa from Jujuy and duck from the Pampas. The menu is a love letter to Argentina’s regions, and to their bounty.