Tuesday, March 30, 2010

El Garzon, Garzón, Uruguay

December 2009 and January 2010 were a blur. Our budding family experienced two PhD defenses, a wedding, and a number of out-of-town family and friends visiting to celebrate such auspicious occasions. By the time February rolled around, Tam and I were ready to flee the cold snowy weather in Pittsburgh and our recently hectic lives, and so we did, choosing to honeymoon in South America.

After a 24-hour blur of in-flight movies, airports, security checkpoints, and lost luggage, we made it from the gray, gridlocked 376 Parkway in Pittsburgh to the clear two-lane Ruta 10, which weaves its way along the sunny South Atlantic Uruguayan coast, our home for four days of rejuvenation and relaxation before our itinerary took us to Argentina for the next three weeks. After a few blissful days on the beach, we decided to take an our rental car inland to see what the rest of the country was like. Without a map or a destination in mind we pointed our car away from the ocean, found a dirt road, and started driving. Under a big sunny sky, we passed countless cattle grazing on gentle green hillsides. Small wooded glens dotted the landscape, but for the most part, we were driving through empty green fields, with no settlements in sight.

At one point, we saw a sign indicating the direction of Garzón. Recognizing the town name from some pre-trip research that I had done on food options near where we were staying, we decided to go there, more out of a need for a specific destination to avoid getting lost than to seek out a meal. By the time we made it to Garzón, we were sweaty, dusty, and starting to get hungry. We weaved our way through the few streets that make up this tiny community, marveling at how far we'd traveled in just a few days, before deciding to check out El Garzon, probably the only restaurant in the country that has been written up in the Wall Street Journal.

We opted for the sunny poolside courtyard instead of the cool, antique-furnished interior, and we quite literally had the entire restaurant and service staff (one chef and one waiter) to ourselves. We were seated under the shade of a massive palm tree, whose trunk protruded from an opening in the table. Ordering modestly out of the need to conserve money for the rest of our month traveling, we decided to split two (astronomically priced) courses between us.

The kitchen brought us a light salad instead of an amuse bouche. It was composed of mandolined slices of raw baby zucchini, Parmesan scrapings, chopped, toasted almonds, a dusting of mint chiffonade and lime zest, black pepper, olive oil, and a splash of lemon juice. The contrast of bold flavours and textures as well as the freshness of the ingredients let us know that we were in for a special meal.

Our next course, a cold almond soup with fresh figs, floored us. I know I can go overboard with my prose in some of these reviews, but let me state this clearly: this dish was the single best food item that either of us has ever eaten.

As best as we could determine, the base of this soup was made of pureed almonds cut with stock, a splash of cream, and some acid (white balsamic vinegar, perhaps?). It was topped with a raw, quartered, exceedingly-ripe fig, some coarsely-ground black pepper, and a few drops of pungent olive oil. While seemingly simple, so many clean flavours were displayed by this plate. The acidity and saltiness of the broth hit us up front, followed by the sweetness of the figs and vinegar, and then nutty and grassy hints from the almonds and olive oil respectively. Finally, aromas of cream and pepper are left lingering on the tongue until the next spoonful starts the cycle once again. Really, truly, a masterpiece of a dish.

Knowing that Uruguay is one of the few places in the world to claim to have better beef than Argentina, we decided to get our first steak on the continent and split an order of bife de lomo (filet mignon) served with Patagonian potatoes. While the steak was sizzling over the wood-burning fire in the restaurant kitchen, we saw our chef stroll out to the poolside herb garden, pick a few sprigs, and return inside. A few minutes later, out came our steak, encrusted with the fresh herbs, garlic, and pitted black olives, cut in half and served with a few endive leaves on individual beds of potato.

The potatoes, sliced paper thin and artistically arranged, were fried until crisp in fat rich with the floral, complex aromas of the Uruguayan butter that we were starting to love. Strategically lining the plate, the potatoes soaked up the juices from the beef, giving them another level of richness. And what can I say about the steak? It was a fantastic piece of beef, no doubt expertly raised and butchered down the road by a culture that values meat, and perfectly cooked to the rare side of medium rare. Some purists would probably be shocked that the flavours of the meat were complemented with brash olives, garlic and herbs, but eating this meal under the South American summer sun, sipping a beautiful Uruguayan red wine (again, with a strong buttery bouquet) it seemed like the only possible way it could have been prepared.

Tam was exploring inside while our cafes (con leche) were being prepared. She saw milk slowly being hand-whisked until frothy over a gas flame before the addition of shots of espresso. Served in fine china, we enjoyed world-class coffee after a world class meal. In a town with just a few hundred inhabitants in a remote part of a remote country that we never really planned on visiting. This is a meal that we'll remember for a long, long time.

Restaurante El Garzón is located just off the town square in Garzón, Uruguay. Check out their website to plan a stay at the hotel or a visit for a meal. It is operated by Francis Mallmann, one of South America's most well known celebrity chefs, so expect to pay handsomely for your experience. Francis himself was reading a paper with a local dog outside the restaurant when we arrived. We can only hope that he oversaw the preparation of our meal. You can also enjoy some of his recipes, including the delicious zucchini salad that we ate, on youtube.


Fillippelli the (Wannabe) Cook said...

The beef/potato dish looks amazing! Have to try to replicate it -- in spirit, not quality! -- at home.

Potatoes look like they were done as you would a Neapolitan-style pizza: laid out and cooked under high-heat? Wonder if they were parboiled? Know they're thin, but don't know if they would cook through under high heat without charring to a crisp first.

Knatolee said...

What fabulous food!! The almond soup looks and sounds amazing. You are really making me want to travel to Uruguay! Glad you both had a nice honeymoon. Congratulations!

hungrycanuck said...

Thanks for the comments! Fillippelli, I'm not 100% sure how the potatoes were cooked, but my guess is that they were fried in a mix of butter and oil (probably over medium heat) in a large cast iron pan. I don't think that they were parboiled first. The final product was very crisp, definitely similar in texture to those on a Neapolitan-style pizza.

I would have liked to see how it was flipped while still maintaining its shape.