28 Jul 2007
Those of you who read my blog on Mar del Plata will recall my observations about the German and Austrian influence here in Argentina. At Mar del Plata the architecture, with long tile-hung roofs and elaborate balconies. Here at Cafe Hermann, fittingly, I am meeting Elena for dinner. From the outside the cafe looks a little dull. Brightened only by the red neon sign spelling out its name, the cafe occupies a corner position between Santa Fe and Ármenia. Two engraved glass doors separated at angles to each other give immediate access to the dining room. Ahead a huge mirror engraved with stags is the centre piece in an ornate mahogany bar. The qualification age for a waiter here is clearly 60. They wear short white coats with black ties and gather together around the bar. One takes an early supper of plain steamed chicken served entirely on its own, with only white string holding its feet for garnish. Elena and I meet outside at 2045 hrs and we are obviously early. Two other couples take an early supper before rushing off to the theatre or home to their families. We are led to a set table reserved earlier today.
The seats are tall benches with high backs that create a private dining cocoon. Our waiter lifts the flap at the end of the bench to take our bottle of Lopez. Elena scrutinises the menu with
fascination. "Sausages Vienna", she says in her crisp Viennese accent. "No, I think we shall try the Lomo Hermann". Under the supervision of an Austrian gastronome it sounds like a good choice. "How is Lomo Hermann?", she asks our waiter returning with sparking water. "With bananas", he replies smiling. I had noticed alarming rows of bananas festooned above the bar. Now, as the restaurant fills exclusively with Portenios, the rows of bananas become jagged with gaps. "I think not", says Elena, "maybe another time" and we safely order Lomo with peppercorn sauce, vegetables, salad, potatoes and papas fritas, which our waiter in the tradition of Cafe Hermann immediately memorises. During the short wait for our food, Cafe Hermann fills. Couples, families, work associates and lovers. The latter are easily recognisable by the openness of affection that is entirely acceptable and expected here in Buenos Aires. Lovers will kiss longingly in the Subte or on Colectivos (bus). People of all ages stop in the street to cuddle or hold each other in a passionate embrace. Whilst my fingers touch Elena's to make a conversational point, we resist further temptation of familiarity, preferring to deal with the task in hand: our meal. Lomo is a rump steak, often large or huge. Ours come drenched with a peppercorn liquor, nutty and fiery. Elena's vegetables (it is after nightfall so she does not eat salad) comprise cabbage, beans and large oval slices of pumpkin. "Unlike love, Argentines are not comfortable with vegetables", she observes. My salad has been tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the patatas fritas are cooked in dripping, to a golden brown. The Lopez, first recommended by Maria (see Mar del Plata), slips comfortably down, complementing the richness of the meat. Around us, a hubble of voices, clattering of plates and chinking of glasses. In the air, the faint aroma of bananas.
We are stirred from our intense conversation by flames, which spill onto the floor as they pass by our table. Our waiter carries a large metal dish which he agitates with a spoon. The flames are a mix of gold, copper and blue, like a fresh lit primus stove. The aroma is no longer that of bananas but of exotic liqueur which has been lit with a taper. "We will have one of those", Elena clips to the waiter, "and two spoons; one cafe con laiche and one cup", she adds. When our postre arrives it is already afire. More vigorous spooning and the surface caramelises. This is not just a pancake, but an incandescent experience of sight and taste. With the two spoons, we share, cutting off slices and tasting the crispness and softness. Elena's eyes have been softened by firelight and spirit from the pancake. We call for the bill and exit into the cold night air lifting from Jardins Botanico. Elena's taxi screeches to a halt almost bumping the kerb and she dives in, to be swept away towards Palermo. For me, my favourite 39 colectivo rattles into view along Av Santa Fe´. "Ochenta", I say to the driver as I get my ticket and seat towards the rear of the bus, and I speed off towards Talchuano, Tucuman and the city.