Sottovoce, Buenos Aires.

October 2018.

Walking north along Calleo Avenue from its D line subway stop, we passed through a good-quality shopping area and several wonderful old storefront-and-office buildings which had clearly been rich people’s residences in years gone by. To the east and slightly north of the Recoleta Cemetery we dodged the tourist traps and walked into a Rue Saint Honore type neighbourhood smelling of money and privilege. On a corner across from a park sat this classy little spot, filled with cheerful wealthy people enjoying lunch, with ambience and aroma you might find in a corner trattoria in Genoa or Florence.

We were happy to be seated immediately by the tuxedoed maître d’ and got ready for a high-end Italian lunch. Sottovoce this upscale scene wasn’t: the room was packed with middle-aged folks at maybe 25-30 tables including a mezzanine all shouting away full-nasally at 2 PM. We sidled into a double near the main-floor centre. The menu with its artsy cover contributed to our self-congratulation for having found the right place for lunch. I took out my hearing aids.

There was an impressive array of fish-emphasis starters, lots of pasta, and then plenty of meat and fish main courses. The wine list was long and focused on Mendoza malbec, but not ignoring other varietals, and it named a dozen or more high-end producers with prices from a few hundred Argentine pesos to more than Ar$6000 (about C$180). I was able to find an Ar$1800 (about C$57) near-top bottle from the good-as-any Ugo Valley producer Salentin and ordered it. A steal considering we don’t think much of paying C$100 at lunch for a bottle of ordinary wine in an ordinary little bistro at home.

We shared a salmon tartare that was soft and creamy, but covered over with raw arugula and a few slices of poached pear. Server poured nice olive oil on top and we salted it which helped, but the three ingredients didn’t complement one another. Moving the pear and arugula aside the smooth sliced salmon was pretty delicious once salted and oiled.


Lunch mains arrived in due course, Robin’s was a mushroom pasta and mine beef “tenderloin”. The pasta was broad noodles with a real-cream mushroom sauce, needing salt but otherwise perfectly mushroom-flavoured with a muted wine background. My tenderloin wasn’t on the same level. I remember a dinner at the Keg in Vancouver decades ago where the waiter described the steak as “baseball” (referring to shape not consistency). What I had here was a fist-sized chunk of meat off some part of a cow not the famous psoas muscle. Quite tasty, easy to cut up with the very sharp knife provided, but moderately tough and cooked to medium (I’d ordered rare). There was a sour buttery sauce probably bearnaise which improved the meat along with necessary salt. It sat on a bed of eggplant, red pepper, zucchini, and onion all roasted or grilled to varying stages of softness.

That malbec was definitely the high point of the meal flavour-wise. The nose was dark forest fruity and empyreumatic, just barely kissed with a seductive volatile acidity, and it was a big serious balanced mouthful. It reminded me of a northern Rhône with its richness. We had been told by a guy in a wine store that restaurants only mark wine up by 10% based on some local regulations. This lovely bottle from a so-so year (2015, graded around 84 by the pundits) would therefore have cost maybe C$48 in a store. I’ll take a couple of cases please.

Our main server was a very pleasant dressed-up young guy backed by a competent fast-moving staff. Many of the diners seem to know one another and to be known to the restaurant. The bill was just over Ar$4000, about C$120.

Overall again a high-class reasonably-priced experience if you ignore a few kitchen and supply problems. Food 8.4, service 9.2, ambience 9.4, value 8.8, peace and quiet 6.0.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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