Tuesday, February 12, 2013

We Have To Stop Meating Like This...

La Rambla, Montevideo, Uruguay
Written by Karen.
Sometimes you know that you're going to have a great meal in advance. You look forward to the get-together with a certain sense of anticipation.  You might wonder what topics of conversation will be discussed or which bottles of wine will be opened.  After being seated, you are allowed plenty of time to salivate over the possible menu choices.  

But there are other times - every once in awhile - when a memorable meal sneaks up on you without you even realizing it and you suddenly look up and say, "Wow!" 

We had one of those "wow" moments a few days ago.  While we were still in California, we had watched an Anthony Bourdain No Reservations episode on visiting Montevideo, Uruguay, where we saw Tony and his brother scarf down a mountain of meat at an old converted waterfront warehouse - Mercado del Puerto - in the capital city of Montevideo.  

And, while we were not looking to eat a mountain of meat, we did want to experience the typical Uruguayan parilla, or barbeque.  We had read that cows outnumber people in Uruguay by a three to one ratio, and that the average person in Uruguay eats 130 pounds of meat per year.  These guys are serious about meat!  

Montevideo is a fairly compact-sized city, so we went looking for Mercado del Puerto.  We headed towards the water and walked along La Rambla.  The Rambla is the malecon or paved strand that meanders along the water and is where many locals go in the cooler evening hours to fish or drink mate as the sun sets.  It is a cool and chilled atmosphere reminiscent of the beach towns along the Pacific Coast.  

We eventually located the Mercado del Puerto at the convenient time of 3:00 pm - perfect for a late lunch, early dinner.  It was cool and dark inside the warehouse.  Although there were wood fires burning throughout the space, we could detect no hint of smoke inside.  We walked around the maybe eight different restaurants, looking at how satisfied the customers seemed to be and what types of meat were being grilled by the wood fires.

In the end, we chose the restaurant that had the most customers - since all of the customers eating in the different restaurants looked satisfied - and sat down.  

Montevideo is the first city that we have visited where restaurants charge you for table service, or to "rent" the table. This fee is different from the typical 10% tip given to the server or the 22% value-added-tax, and in our experience the "rental" charge ranged from $2.00 to $5.00 per person. The charge is called cubiertos in Spanish and is listed along with your food and drink choices.  

When we received our bill after our first meal in Montevideo, we saw the charge of cubiertos for the equivalent of $8.00 USD.  We looked at each other.  "Did you order cubiertos?" "No, not me." We looked the word up in our dictionary, and the literal translation is 'silverware.'  Huh? We were just as confused.  We bought silverware?  We finally asked our waiter what the equivalent translation was in English.  According to our waiter, it's more like renting a table and its ambience.  Hopefully, this is a dining concept that doesn't catch on!  With the tax, tip, and cubiertos, you can easily double the cost of your meal.  

Oswaldo, our waiter, came by and made some suggestions. The typical choice for diners is to order a brazier, or a wooden plank heaped high with meat for two (or ten!).  In our case, we would receive country sausage, blood pudding, beef tripe, beef ribs, chicken and sweet red bell peppers, along with french fries and a salad.  That sounded like a lot of food, and as we looked around at what others were eating, we confirmed that suspicion.   

Instead, we chose two types of sausage to try as appetizers: country sausage and chorizo.  We decided to split a beef tenderloin filet seasoned with black peppercorns and accompanied by french fries.  We were leaning towards beer or wine to drink, but Oswaldo shook his head. He recommended that we try medio y medio, an Uruguayan drink made with 50% dry champagne and 50% dry white wine.  It was more typical, he said.  

We knew we were in for a treat at the first mouthful of the sausages and the first sip of the medio y medio, and started to eat slower in order to make this lunch last.  The combination of fizzle and white wine was a perfect compliment to the lean and flavorful sausages. 

The peppercorn beef filet arrived a while later and we split it into two portions.  It was browned only on the outside 1/8" and was a consistent pink throughout the rest of the two-inch thick piece.  We asked Oswaldo how meat is grilled in Uruguay and he explained the technique to us.  First, you bring in dry wood to make the charcoal. Then, when the charcoals are the perfect temperature, the meat is quickly seared on both sides, then taken off the grill to rest.  For the next 20-30 minutes, the meat is gently put on the grill for a few minutes, turned over for another few minutes, and then taken off the grill to rest. We noticed that the filet was actually close to room temperature when served, and Oswaldo let us know that the grass-fed beef filet was now fully rested and ready to be eaten.  

There was no fat, gristle or tendons on this piece of meat.  You could have cut it with a butter knife.  The flavors were subtle, and accented with chimichurri and an onion/pepper chunky salsa.  Simple foods, but complex and delicious flavors.  Our meal stretched out to the 1-1/2 hour mark.  It was looking like this was going to be one of those memorable meals.  

We said yes to the dessert menu.  Oswaldo suggested two typical desserts, and we took his recommendations.  Adam chose the Massini - a thin gateau with whipped cream.  Light, not very sweet, but very delicious.  I chose the Custard Flan with Dulce de Leche.  Otherworldly.  Sublime.  

We walked throughout the city a bit more after that meal - savoring the memory of a truly delicious meal, and wishing that we had more time to really explore this little-known country.

Architecture in the historical center of Montevideo
Independence Plaza
Another example of architecture in the historic center of Monevideo
As we walk outside of the historic center of Montevideo and towards the ports, we notice that many of the historic buildings are crumbling and in disrepair.
One of the entrances into Mercado del Puerto
One of the grills.  You can see the various meats slowly cooking off the heat stacked up in the back, while various meat cooks on the grill towards the front of the picture.
Each parilla, or barbecue, had its own combination of meats and vegetables that were being grilled over the wood fire/charcoals. 
Although very casual, each table charged cubiertos and the place was packed!  You could either eat at the table or at the counter and watch the grill masters work.  
This was the parilla that we ate at
Uruguayan chimichurri made with olive oil, lemon juice, onion, garlic, parsley, oregano, chili pepper, salt and pepper.
Chunky tomato and onion salsa
Our appetizer: The sausage at the back is the chorizo which was very mild.  The sausage towards the front is a country sausage which had a slightly smoky and sour taste.  Both sausages were grilled crispy on the outside and smooth inside.  Delicious!
Our main dish: Grilled tenderloin filet with a black peppercorn crust 

Flan con Dulce de Leche
On the way out of the building, we noticed these characters.
Water, sun, palm trees, friendly people, great food....
The sun sets on our brief visit to Montevideo, Uruguay.


David in SF said...

Beautiful pictures, and well-written description, as always! It's a good think that you both are doing so much walking as part of your daily routine, or so much good and rich food might serve to bring you home with personal souvenirs that you might not want to have (extra body weight) :)

Observers of Life said...

Hi David!

You're not kidding! The food here is really, really good. Surprisingly good. We also tried Chivitos - another national dish - which is a sandwich with the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. A thin slice of filet mignon beef with lettuce, olives, tomato, fried egg, roasted peppers, grilled onions, bacon, ham, mustard and mayonnaise. Wow. What a sandwich! And, completely delicious! I could get used to this! :)