By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
So when I had my first taste of the Grill's morcilla, I was stunned. Whereas a meal at the Pizzeria offered the simple flavors of the Argentine cafe experience -- which Francis Carrera, a native of Buenos Aires's Italian quarter, will talk about with surprisingly poetic candor when given the least excuse to do so -- Buenos Aires Grill's menu of simple grilled and roasted meats took me to all those places where the tourists don't go, or can't. To dine here was to understand the heart of a place by consuming it -- a little transubstantive cannibalism that you know when you taste it, because it tastes like something more true than mere copycatting.
Now back in this miraculous place with my wife and parents, I am anxious. "Anyone mind if I order the appetizers?" I ask, and since no one does, I choose the items I know they wouldn't: the tripe and blood sausage, the sweetbreads. Then I add some easier, less threatening flavors -- Spanish Serrano ham with melon, sweet-potato fries, chicken soup that is unlike any chicken soup I've ever tasted.
The servers that deliver these dishes are not the best in the world. The waiters and waitresses and busers and runners in their formalwear are mostly young and still rather flummoxed by the necessary interactions between floor and bar and kitchen. It takes a three-way conference at the end of the bar and a copy of the bartender's bible to assemble my mother's vodka gimlet -- though since she and I are probably the last two people on the planet who drink them, that's almost understandable. And they're overseen by a great host, nattily attired and as quick on his feet as a tireless wind-up doll.
2191 Arapahoe St.
Denver, CO 80205-2510
Region: Downtown Denver
Chicken soup: $3
Sweet potato fries: $3
Serrano ham with melon: $6
Once the plates begin hitting the table, though, nothing else matters. The blood sausage is amazing, black as sin and tasting like a Slim Jim for grownups, with loose-packed heart meat and a zing of savory spice inside its tight skin. It reminds my mom of when she was a little girl in Rochester and would visit the European butchers along Front Street, with sawdust on the floors and gutted chickens hanging in the windows. She tells a story about eating German Leona bologna, and how she's never been able to find it again. And if there's anything better that food can do than remind you of good times when you were young, I don't know what it is.
While she talks, my dad eats all the sweetbreads -- tender, both fried and finished on the grill, served with nothing more than half a lemon. He grins and chews with his eyes open, no doubt surprised to be eating calves' glands at an Argentine restaurant in Denver, Colorado, but more concerned with how much he can stuff in before Mom finishes her story.
The sweet-potato fries are blanched and finished like pommes frites, then sprinkled with table sugar that sparkles like ice -- sweet upon sweet, and so good that I'm shocked every restaurant doesn't serve them this way. The Serrano is shaved thin as silk and attended by three carved balls of cantaloupe, each with a little notch on top holding thick and bittersweet balsamic vinaigrette -- the glossy black liquid over-poured so that it bleeds down the sides of the melon and puddles in the well of the plate. And the bowl of chicken soup holds within it the entire history of Argentine immigration -- of peasants and traders and Italians and Spaniards and Chinese.
Bacalao is codfish, cured in salt, in lye, in any number of foul preservatives. It is a traditional Basque dish, seen mostly in Portugal and Spain, a survival food for sailors and others who make their livings from the sea. Like organ meats, like junk fish and peasant preparations of all description, in recent years it's had something of a haute revival, showing up on menus in Italian and Spanish restaurants, making inroads among the slow-food crowd. I ate bacalao for the first time more than a decade ago, at a European butcher's shop in Buffalo, and while it wasn't fantastic, it was memorable. It had a flavor and a texture impossible to replicate, a taste of poverty-made-good that I -- in my obsession with multicultural culinary innovation -- was very taken with.
The bacalao at Buenos Aires Grill is not presented as survival food or as a Proustian reminder of poor fishing villages in the ages before ice machines and refrigeration, but it's similar. The bowl holds two chunks of preserved cod, each about the size of a child's fist, dressed in a thickened, astringent sauce that tastes of chalk and capers. The fish itself is softer than marshmallow, so tenderized that it melts across my tongue. And in the tradition of those fishing villages and dockside bars where bacalao was first conceived, it is served here with an honor guard of small clams, their open shells pooled with sauce, their meat as stiff and briny as the cod is light and delicate.
The dish is a marvel. And although the pork loin in tomato-and-red-pepper gravy is good, and the handmade ravioli filled with sweet butternut squash in a creamy, composed béchamel studded with whole pieces of walnut is so rich and comforting that I want to put my head down in the bowl and sleep in the sauce, nothing can touch my fish. I hoard it jealously, offering only stingy tastes to everyone else at the table, and when I chew, I do so with my eyes closed -- wanting to experience in peace the magic of the fish melting against the warmth of my mouth over and over again. I can't imagine anything better.