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Saturday, 11 February 2012

El Preferido - Jorge L. Borges 2108, Palermo

My recent absence from blog-writing may suggest I have been slacking in my gourmet duties, but on the contrary, since the arrival of my madre to Buenos Aires I have been successfully eating my way around the city sampling new restaurants, revisiting old favourites and trying to include at least one of the main Argentine food groups in each day's diet: empanadas, beef, ice-cream, medialunas, dulce de leche and the most important of all, Malbec. All in the name of being a tour guide of course.

I could probably write a book about the places we have frequented, the food we have devoured, the wine we have sipped, but time is lacking so over the coming days I will be rounding up the many varied dining experiences. Starting with…

Touted as a Spanish-Argentine tapas bar slash restaurant, El Preferido has that warm homely neighbourhood restaurant feel. An antidote to the generic über-slick bars of Palermo, it offers cluttered ambience and messy charm. The place is made up of two separate dining areas, a sit-down-at-normal-height area at the rear and a bar stool furnished room at the front. We choose the front bar, shelves stacked ceiling high with vessels of olive oil, jars of pickles, vat-sized tins of tomatoes and other curious non-identifiable foodstuffs and sit ourselves down feeling like kids in the proverbial sweet shop.

Serrano ham with pickled garnish

As the bar slowly fills up, we order a simple dinner of Serrano ham and rabas con papas fritas (calamari rings with chips) as well as the obligatory bottle of Malbec. We conspiratorially decide to forgo all salads or vegetable-related dishes telling ourselves that we will make up for it tomorrow.

On the next table an Argentine man, balding but making up for it with curly-haired abundance and beard, engages in familiar banter with the waiter. They go way back. Once in a while he peers at us through his thin-rimmed spectacles, trying to ascertain who the two gringas are that appear to have imposed themselves on his local.

The Serrano ham arrives with a garnish of vinegary pepper, extracted from one of the huge glass jars I imagine, the calamari a monotonous pile of yellowish pale against the fried potato slices. The cured ham is smoky and deep-flavoured, the vaguely stale bread brought with it adds nothing to the taste. The calamari is mostly tender and the chips are nicely golden but need a lot of salt.

It is said that Argentines eat far too much salt. Government bodies have been waxing lyrical about it to the point of passing a law that prohibits restaurateurs from putting salt-shakers on the tables as default. Only once a customer has asked for salt can they bring it. In truth, most places adhered to this for a token week or month if at all, and now salty order has been restored. It seems to me that the problem lies in two causes: Firstly, Argentine food lacks spices and herbs, so there is a general need to over-compensate for this lack of flavour. Secondly, the salt-shakers all have remarkably large holes for sprinkling. Even a cautious sprinkle can yield unforeseen quantities of salt.

Our curious neighbour
Our curious curly-haired neighbour seems unperturbed by the salt-related health warnings and generously pours – not sprinkles – salt onto the plate of tomatoey albondigas (meatballs) and puree (mashed potato) before him. He works his way through his bottle of red faster than we manage to empty ours between the two of us and continues his casual exchanges with the waiter, an affable sentence passing between them here and there.

We polish off our food, the dryness of the wine nicely cutting through the greasiness of the fried food. Having no room left for dessert, we leave the cluttered old-school charm of El Preferido and go off into the balmy Palermo night. The lights of the generic neon slick bars are ablaze in anticipation of the Friday night drinkers that will surely come.

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