Under a glass roof full of twilight sky, the dramatic spiral staircase leads to a balcony of luxurious, private dining areas, while the main dining room is immediately welcoming with its well-lit, unimposing warmth. Elena, a regular feature on S Pellegrino and Acqua Panna’s Top 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America 2014, is named for Elena Peña Unzué, whose husband Félix Saturnino de Álzaga Unzué gave her as a present La Mansión, the Beaux-Arts style building at the heart of the Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires. In the middle of the patio in front of La Mansión is a very modern looking glass dome, under which the restaurant Elena is situated. The architecture is instantly reminiscent of Paris and must have impressed Elena and the other bright, young things of the Argentine capital’s Belle Époque, who were obsessed with the fashions and cultures of Europe in general, Paris in particular.
In Elena’s dining room, the leather chairs might not be out of place in an old fashioned gentleman’s club, but the double-height ceiling saves the room from any hint of fustiness. Seamlessly juxtaposed are the modern features (take a look at the glass-fronted dry aging cabinet and the big marble butchers’ table) and a collection of locally sourced antiques. The focus seems to be on dining as an experience, not just a meal. The open kitchen allows diners to see their food being cooked, as well as flooding the room with mouth-watering aromas, sexy red hang lamps hover over the pass to draw attention to parts of the preparation process that are usually hidden and an antique dumb waiter sits in the middle of the room to allow the sommeliers to transport the best wines to the dining room with flair.
Executive Chef Juan Gaffuri has created a modern Argentine menu with European influences and this combination seems very popular with guests and locals alike; the hotel is keen to create public spaces which are appealing to the porteños too. As usual, I had been studying the menu for weeks beforehand, but there was room for manoeuvre if the chef recommended it. Fortunately, Chef Carlos’ recommendations were much in line with my choices. Sweetbreads to start, followed by steak. One can’t be in Argentina and not eat cow. As I waited for the first course, attentive waiter Geronimo brought over some homemade bread with salt and pepper butter. The bread was the size of a large brick and so delicious that a concerted effort had to be made to resist gobbling the whole lot and ruining my appetite. Fortunately, I was able to direct my attention to sommelier Cris and the wine list. Elena’s wine list is exclusively Argentine and why not, since the country produces around five percent of the world’s wine and is favoured by lovers of New World wines and of grape varieties such as the Malbec (which seems to particularly thrive in the high altitude region of Mendoza). Keen to explore beyond the Malbec, I began with a Luigi Bosca Brut, a clear, sharp Mendoza sparkling wine that had notes of green apples and prepared the palate marvellously for dinner.
As soon as the sweetbreads arrived in front of me, I knew the decision had been a good one. The starter was as large as some main courses I have had. The meaty smell was captivating and, once I put some in my mouth, the perfectly crisp exteriors cave way to the smooth, buttery texture of the flesh inside. The sweetbreads were served on crushed potatoes, with a tangy lemon emulsion and a heady aftertaste of basil brought the whole dish to an earthy apogee. A light Barda Pinot Noir 2012 accompanied, from the Chacra winery in the Patagonian far south, seemingly to be representative of the arrival of autumn in Argentina, with flavours of forest berries and dried flowers.
Geronimo, as all good Four Seasons waiters, had only the interests of my complete dining satisfaction at heart. Having heard me speak of my love of seafood in a brief wobble about my menu choices, he crept in a mid-course taster of the saffron rice with squid, chorizo, prawns and green beans. The massive chunks of seafood in this almost-paella were cooked perfectly, as was the rice, but I might have felt food envy had I ordered it and then seen other diners tucking into their steaks…
I had chosen the Angus lomo (tenderloin), medium rare. If you travel to Argentina and you like less than medium, make sure you pick up a couple of different techniques (vuelta y vuelta or jugoso) for describing the way you would like it cooked as steaks often tend towards well-done. At Elena, this was not an issue. My steak was so tender, I could have cut it with a spoon and a good slice of the inside was still glossy and red. It is said that Argentine steaks are some of the best in the world and I concur.
The meat was so juicy and flavoursome that, despite being quite replete after the meal, I would have been quite happy to order another one, so that I could give it a little cuddle for being so excellent! Naturally, it came with chimichurri sauce, but the side I had chosen was a delight in itself; a large bowl of baked courgettes in a rich, truffled, brie and egg sauce, sprinkled with almonds were a comfort food perfect for autumn. This was a perfect opportunity for the Malbec to shine; the 2013 Mendozan Maal winery Malbec, comically named Biutiful (imagine a Latin American accent pronouncing ‘beautiful’) was the ideal pairing for the steak, unoaked and with flavours of liquorice and cassis that led to a soft finish.
Although I protested against the need for a dessert wine, one should always trust the staff at Elena. The wine that Cris chose to finish the meal was another brilliant opportunity to see the range of Argentine wine that might not make it across the ocean. The fortified Malbec, Zuccardi Malamado 2013, is aged in French oak for 25 months and emerges with a spicy, dry fruit flavour that – again – recalls the flavours and scents of autumn. Sweet and aromatic, it was a lovely pairing for my bitter-sweet chocolate soufflé Vulcano espresso from the POS3 menu and a scoop of Dolce Morte crème Francoise, a pudding that definitely put a smile on my face!
The POS3 menu (postres are desserts, tres means three, geddit?) and the accompanying Dolce Morte homemade ice-cream menu are characteristic of the fun that seems to bubble through the luxury pedigree of Elena, as though the restaurant does not take itself too seriously. The portion sizes are unusually big for a five-star hotel restaurant and, while it is much less formal than other Four Seasons hotel restaurants, in a city that makes a regular occasion of dining out with friends, the smart casual approach is more fitting. Elena has been getting the stamp of approval from the people of Buenos Aires, as well as the international food community, so make sure to stop by if you are in town, whatever the occasion. The only mistake you can make is to order too much.