When our 11-hour flight delay meant spending the night in a nondescript hotel near Miami International Airport, I was determined not to let the 9.30pm Friday touchdown in Buenos Aires upend our dinner reservations. Friday, I had been told, is the night to dine at Mishiguene, an eatery in the perennially cool Palermo district serving “gourmet Jewish food” – accompanied on the Sabbath by live klezmer music, an Ashkenazi Jewish cultural tradition.
The work of 36-year-old Argentine chef Tomás Kalika, who spent several years cooking at restaurants in Jerusalem and mining his Jewish grandmother’s recipes, Mishiguene’s “Cocina de Inmigrantes” synthesises modern cooking techniques, fresh local ingredients and Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Israeli and Middle Eastern culinary traditions. And this being Buenos Aires, the evening was in full swing when we rushed in breathlessly at 11.30pm. The vaguely industrial, intimate space was filled with stylish locals, known as porteños, and from my banquette I spied my neighbours digging into roasted whole cauliflower head served with labaneh yoghurt, matbucha (a blend of tomatoes, roasted red peppers and spices) and tahina dipping sauces – a tribute, I read on the tarmac, to Israeli chef Eyal Shani, for whom Kalika apprenticed.
My friend test drove the basket of homemade breads, praising the sesame-seed-topped bagel, passing on the puffy Israeli pittas and proclaiming the raisin dappled challah perfecto. I, meanwhile, slid slightly to my right for a closer look at the luscious pastrami strip, provoking a conversation with these friendly porteños, who explained that the dripping slab had been cooked sous vide for 36 hours. Soon one of these arrived on our table too, tasting so tender I ignored the accompanying potato latkes entirely.
Kalika and his business partner Javier Ickowicz named their restaurant after the Yiddish word for someone who is crazy or foolish. I decided this would apply to anyone who proclaimed Kalika’s commendable effort with the traditional, meatloaf-like Ashkenazi dish of gefilte fish delectable. Made of deboned fish in a coat of gelled cooked carrots, then served in an attractive horseradish and beetroot reduction, it’s one dish, we agreed, that simply didn’t translate into modern cuisine.
But rather than criticise the only lacklustre dish in our otherwise highly praiseworthy array, we turned our attention to the front door, where loud claps from the cognoscenti welcomed the klezmorim musicians. Waiters followed in their wake and Kalika himself came out from the shiny open kitchen with its coveted six-seat chef’s table. He blew the shofar, a traditional Jewish instrument typically used to call people together in celebration, then toasted the Sabbath before stepping aside as klezmer music again filled the dining room. We two tired travellers, meanwhile, dug our forks into the last marbled slivers of butter-soft meat, then battled it out for the final bite of Kalika’s singularly creamy cauliflower.