Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Oriental Buenos Aires

So, you were expecting a piece about Barrio Chino, Belgrano. But no, we are still very much in San Telmo, just seven blocks in Defensa from Buenos Aires' best kept secret - 'Mash'.

Why come to Buenos Aires to eat curry, you ask? There is no single answer to that. Maybe gorged from the parilla, or piqued by pizza? Perhaps it is simply time to sample something different, with hot spice, chili and fun? Or is it that we seek the quirky, highly individual style of Gus and Martyn who own and run the restaurant called 'Mash'?

We leave our apartment at Defensa to cross Independencia towards Plaza Dorrego. Tonight we shall not linger in the newly restored square with its 2017 vintage-style LED lamps, paving and plastic covered cafe chairs. We hurry by, leaving the restaurant touts and their clipboards in our wake; for our destination is across San Juan, under the fly-over, by Cochabamba towards Juan de Garay. Within minutes we arrive at Defensa 1338, tucked inauspiciously to the left side of the street, announced by two boards bearing the dishes of the day.

Stephanie rings the bell and we glance ahead to see Gus come to the door smiling. How he recognizes us after two years absence is a miracle, but he does, and ushers us in with a hug. Tonight is 'Carnival Tuesday'; the city streets are bare of Portenos and tourists, and the restaurant is unusually quiet. When two regular late dinners leave, we have the place, and the joyful companionship of Gus and Martyn, to ourselves.

Eating at 'Mash' has two attractions. The first, and most obvious, is curry. Yes, there are other curry houses in Buenos Aires that hit the top ten - but their china is too fine, their napkins too large, their glasses too opulent, and their curry too pretentious. At 'Mash' curry is just curry, priced as curry should be, and served without flummery. The other attraction is more fascinating - its to do with Gus and Martyn. 

You can come to 'Mash' to sit quietly in a corner of their restaurant and eat curry. There will be no interruption to your longing looks into your lover's eyes. But, that is not why we are here. We want the rich chemistry, the conversation, the roll of thought and discussion....the perfect adjuncts to curry.

Martyn is the reason for 'Mash', styled as a 'British Curry House'. Born in Dorset, Martyn now lives as a Porteno and has become a living piece of San Telmo folklore. Like all good restaurateurs, he is to be found by the bar with a glass of red wine, a wicked smile and a wonderful flow of conversation. Martyn defines 'Mash' in the same way that Yves Saint Laurent defined French fashion. But being English, he does so with refreshing vernacular British style. Understanding this, and preparing for your curry experience with Martyn is the secret to a successful night. If you arrive damp, dull and devoid of dreams or diablo you may not be allowed in, and if you are, your experience will not be the same as if you arrive hungry for adventure.

Gus by contrast is the Rene from 'Alo Alo' - without the mustache. By day Gus commands huge respect as one of Buenos Aires' most prominent and well known scientists, working as a university professor. It seems strange to see him behind the bar at night, but as he says, "this keeps me in touch with the real world'. His warm intelligence radiates, and arcs with an electric zing to Martyn's acerbic humour..

Stephanie and I choose to sit at the bar, despite 'Carnival Tuesday' tables being free. Why?....because we do not wish to miss a moment of rich conversation that can only happen at the bar stool in 'Mash'. Our orders are placed - Chicken Kashmir and Thai Green Curry, and our placemats are set. We order a bottle of cool, crisp Sauvignon blanc to take the edge off the humid, limpid night.

Those restaurants where you feel 'the embrace' are rare. When found, they are to be prized. 'Mash' is one of these illusive experiences. Soon, Stephanie and I are enthralled by both conversation and wit. It is like taking dinner with two fascinating friends. Of course, conversation is a two-way street, so do not expect simply to be entertained. But if you have something to say, or anything to ask, here at 'Mash' seems precisely the place to do both.

An hour or two later, our plates are cleared from the bar top and we 'down' the remainder of the Sauvignon, with Martyn to our left and Gus to our right. We are but four characters from 'a soap', by now supremely scripted, and very satisfied. At that moment I have a fantasy that conversation should go on until dawn light breaks across the roofs of San Telmo. But that is just my selfish romanticism. Instead, we rise, settle our modest bill, and set off into the San Telmo night.

'Mash', Martyn and Gus have provided another memorable mark in our 2017 Argentine journey. If not before, this is the moment that we feel we have arrived back in our beloved barrio. A colectivo thunders past, gripping the cobbles. Stephanie and I glance at each other with satisfaction and simply stroll back towards the plaza and home.

Thanks to Adasol Oiram for the photo. 

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