Restaurant Review: Don Julio Parrilla in Buenos Aires earns its 34th World Best Restaurant ranking with exceptional service!

Whilst visiting Buenos Aires, I was very fortunate to be able to reserve a table each at Tegui (86th Best) and at Don Julio Parrilla (34th Best) on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant List. The two Argentinian restaurants swopped rankings this year, Don Julio having previously played second fiddle to Tegui, and the steak specialist restaurant jumped an incredible twenty one places to make it into the World’s 50 Best List, whilst Tegui dropped 31 places. My Tegui Review is on my Blog, and explains why the restaurant lost its standing this year.

While it was very difficult to make bookings at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in Lima (Central, Maido, and Astrid y Gastón), even a month in advance, it took only two weeks to reserve a table at Don Julio, and one week to book at Tegui. 

I left my hotel by foot in good time, as one gets 15 minutes leeway in being late for one’s reservation before losing one’s table. And I could see why. Outside the restaurant there was a crowd of persons building up, being prepared to wait for up to 2 hours for a table to become available. They receive a glass of bubbly and an empanada while they wait, and are added to a Waiting List. They are allocated a table in order of their waiting list position. It was an unbelievable sight, to see so many eager diners wishing to get a table at the Restaurant.  One is not charged for the bubbly or the empanada. At 15h00 the waiting list closes, so a shift is squeezed in before dinner opens at 19h00. They serve between 400 – 600 pax per day, on the higher side since June, when the 2019 results of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants were announced. 

When I arrived at the restaurant, well branded unlike Tegui, I had to wait my turn to speak to one of the two hostesses outside. I saw a cooler with bottles of bubbly, and was expected to be offered a glass of it as a welcome drink, but only learnt later that the bubbly was for the waitlisters. Despite giving the hostess my name, and telling her that I had a reservation, she looked blank, and asked me for my name, and asked how many persons the reservation was for, a second irritation, as I clearly was alone. She then took me inside, after taking a photograph of me at the branding in the restaurant window. It was immediately evident that the tables were very closely positioned to each other, a couple bumping against me when they tried to get to their seats, and a waiter pouring wine knocking me with his arm, there clearly not being enough space between tables behind each other for staff or patrons to get through. Nothing seemed to be going right, from the arrival onwards.

A plate arrived with a warm bread and a plate with bowls of salt, chimichurri, and Creole sauce. While I am used to seeing chimichurri being green, this one was red with tomatoes and onion, while the Creole sauce had garlic in it, so I declined both of these sauces. The former is an Argentinian sauce, either served green (chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano and red wine vinegar) or red, with red bell peppers or chili, paprika, pepper flakes and a shallot added, and is intended as an accompaniment to a meat dish, a condiment, a dipping sauce, a salsa, or a marinade. The presentation of both these sauces was uninspiring. A dish with Patagonian olive oil arrived as well, so that one could dip the bread into the oil. Olive oil is so yesterday as far as I am concerned, so I requested butter. Oh my goodness, I don’t think such a request had ever been received. At first the answer was no in the nicest possible way, the chefs apparently only having ‘cooking butter’ in the house, not thinking it to be good enough for me. At this stage I had tried two waiters, and both could speak some English but not very well.

The menu introduced the restaurant as follows: ‘At Don Julio we choose traditionally grass-fed cattle, roaming freely on the typical natural grasslands of the Argentine Humid Pampa. All our cuts come from only Aberdeen Angus and Hereford steers of about three years of age with a live weight of between 450 and 480 kg. This selection guarantees the high quality, flavor, and tenderness that have always been characteristics of Argentine beef. In order to emphasize these features, we carry out a maturation process in our own cold storage, taking into account the properties of each cut. To accompany our beef, we also make a careful selection of fresh and organic products, placing emphasis on their seasonality.’

After this initial shaky service, Sommelier Andrés Plata arrived, waved his magic wand, and took all the problems away, finding some butter instead of the olive oil for the bread, beautifully presented, the bread made with added beef fat, replaced with a warm one as the butter request took some time to be actioned. Andres said that he had worked in London for some time, and had an English girlfriend, so he is fluent in English. He talked me through the Menu, trying to encourage me to have a typical starter of their home-made salamis (286 pesos), or sausages (173 – 189 pesos), or even offal (432 – 929 pesos), sweetbreads being an option and cooked for three to four hours on the grill, but I had eaten that at Tegui less than a week before. However, as most of the starter options contained garlic, I chose a very bland and disappointing Beef empanada (113 pesos), its presentation of having a paper serviette wrapped around half of it making it even less attractive, and placed on the bread plate which already was full of crumbs, so not making anything about this dish attractive. It tasted as it looked, saucy inside, and of nothing in particular, Andres warning me that finely chopped dried white grapes were inside the empanada too, to give a touch of sweetness, but I could not detect these. 

The decor is basically non-existent, I learning that the restaurant was 20 years old, and was named after Julio, the owner of the building at the time, who was very kind to the Rivero family, and in gratitude to him, they called the Parrilla Don Julio. It looks as if the decor has never changed in the twenty years, with two massive wagon wheel lamps with lighting in the main seating section, not my favourite when it comes to interior decor, severely dating the restaurant. Two large mirrors are on the wall near where I sat, playing no role at all, and there is lots of shelving in the left-over space in which wine bottles, clearly empty, were decoratively placed. Andrés had kindly moved me to a different table, to a four-seater, a very generous allocation, especially given the number of hopefuls wishing to get a table in the restaurant. At this new table there was no space problem, and things were looking up. The table had a white table-cloth, with a black leather table runner in the middle. A white sideplate, completely uninspiring and looking Continental China like, a serrated knife, a fork, and a serious looking Don Julio branded steak knife, with a water glass, completed the table decor. Staff wear a black shirt and black slacks. Manager Valerie and Andrés wore an earpiece, almost looking like security, so that they can always be in contact. 

The visual focus is in the open grill, with three chefs running the heart of the restaurant. Andrés walked me to the counter, to show me a dish with the different meat cuts offered, the menu not indicating the size of each meat cut for the price charged: 

#   Ribeye (940 pesos)

#   Sirloin (960 pesos)

#   Butterfly steak (1085 pesos)

#   Rump, being one finger thick (900 pesos)

#   Flank, an Argentinian cut (1430 pesos)

#   Tenderloin, what we call fillet, with all the fat removed (1335 pesos) 

#   T-bone (1410 pesos)

#   Entrecôte steak (1365 pesos)

#   Tomahawk, part of the ribeye. (No price on menu)

#   Short ribs, an Argentinian cut (820 – 1380 pesos)

#   Entreña, the skirt (no price on menu)

I ordered the tenderloin (1335 pesos), and sautéed spinach and grilled oyster mushrooms as the vegetables with it. 

Andrés brought the thick winelist to the table, and showed me the section with wines by the glass, a surprisingly small selection offered. When I heard Cabernet Franc I was immediately interested, it being one of my favorite varieties. He recommended the Zorzal Eggo Franco Cabernet Franc 2016, at 475 pesos for 160 cc, the ‘Eggo’ in the name referring to the cement egg fermentation tanks used in the making of the wine. It comes from the Gualtallary region in Mendoza. The region offered changes regularly for the wines by the glass. The other wine by the glass options were a GY Blend, Altar Uco Edad Moderna, Pala Corazón Malbec, and Zorzal Terroir Único Chardonnay, in a price range of 260 – 500 pesos. One can order ‘mini decanters’ at 320 cc, for 420 – 1250 pesos, or a flight of three wines for 950 pesos. Don Julio has two wine lists, a ‘Service’ list with 550 wines, the younger quick turn-over wines, and a more specialised list of 300 wines with longer ageing and from smaller boutique wineries. Every wine in the house is from Argentinia. 

Andrés recommended the following wine estates to visit in Mendoza: SuperUco and Zorzal wines in the Uco valley, as well as Zuccardi. 

Then I followed Andrés downstairs to their 850 label and 1200 -1500 bottle wine cellar, telling me that each bottle is numbered according to the wine list, and that the temperature in the cellar is 13C and the humidity 60-65%. There is a ten-seater table in the wine cellar, less cold in that section, for private lunches. Some of the oldest wines date back to 1923. 

I was introduced to the charming young owner Pablo Rivero, who has a cattle farm in Patagonia, supplying the beef and some pork exclusively for Don Julio, and their new sister restaurant El Preferido a block away. He told me that he had just popped in from a Food Fair, and offered me a ticket to attend, but I had to unfortunately decline. He returned to my table a second time, and asked me how the empanada was, and I gave him my feedback, honest as I am. He sat down to chat, and we exchanged notes about our respective economies. From what I saw at Don Julio, and at the second restaurant, things are going exceptionally well for his business, despite the Peso crash two weeks ago. It appears that the Argentinians are used to this, and are hardened in working around this. It is when they have to import any supplies for their businesses from outside the country, all quoted and paid for in US dollars, that the Peso downturn makes itself felt. And then Pablo was off again, to return to the Fair. The Don Julio Head Chef was at the Fair with him. 

My Medium Rare tenderloin steak, which we would call Fillet, arrived, served on a plain white plate, with a spoonful of sautéed spinach and one grilled oyster mushroom. The remaining spinach was in a pan on the table, as were the remaining mushrooms, but the latter had lost their heat, so a waiter returned them to the kitchen, and a brand new serving of the oyster mushrooms was prepared. I was told that there was no basting sauce added to the meat, only a sprinkle of salt on one side. The presentation is unspectacular, one’s order of vegetables and the presentation of these being the only colour added to the plate. Vegetables are charged separately, additionally. I wanted to taste just one chip, not eating them any more, and I received four, to evaluate them, steak and chips being inseparable. They were twice cooked, once at medium temperature, and then a second time at high heat, giving them a great crispness on the outside, and soft inside. I must admit to having all four! I am very sensitive to salt, or oversalted food, as I experienced at Tegui, but I in fact added small sprinkles of the salt sourced from Peninsula Valdés to the steak and the mushrooms. I haven’t eaten steak in a very long time, so it was delicious, tender as its name, perfectly cooked, and the size of the two vegetable portions more than ample. A second bread was brought to the table, but I had already eaten enough. 

Pablo had suggested to Andrés that he show me the second kitchen they have, half a block in the same street, looking like a house entrance, but a smallish space in which everything and everyone has its place. Andrés as well as the Restaurant Manager Valerie had walked me to the kitchen, and left me in the care of Chef Leo, who showed me around, showing me how they remove the fat off the carcasses, which they then use in the baking of their lovely bread. They try to use everything in the restaurant, throwing as little as possible away. He showed me the coldroom, at 1C, in which the carcasses hang for week, whereafter they cut meat cuts, and dry-age them for a further week or two. Then we went through to a second section, passing a board with a listing of all the winter fruits and vegetables that are in season now, which they use in their menu, observing bread being baked, ice cream being made, and other chefs being busy in a small space. A total of 18 chefs work in the support kitchen, some of the meat products prepared for the new sister restaurant too, like a liver spread, a traditional Argentinian dish. Chef Leo proudly told me that he makes a vinegar for the restaurant from the left-over wine. Nothing goes to waste. 

The walk up the road to the second kitchen did me good, to cool off outside, as it was getting very warm inside the restaurant, there being no fresh air, and only one large airconditioner which I saw in a corner of the room. While it was a 17 C day, it was refreshingly cooling outside, and I was grateful for walking off a little of the main course. 

I did not think that it would be possible to eat any dessert after the bread, empanada, and the main course, but I had a look at the dessert list anyway, definitely not intending to eat another bite of anything. Well, famous last words, my eyes caught the last dessert on the list, Vanilla ice cream with kumquats and Johnnie Walker Red Label ‘whiskey’ (285 pesos) Andrés recommended that I try a ball of their fruit ice cream too, a blood orange and strawberry blend (325 pesos), and I did, being on a strawberry ice cream craze. I was blown away by the fruit ice cream, its colour looking exceptional, the waiter having brought a blood orange to the table and cutting it open to show me what it looks like inside! Wow. Ice cream flavours reflect seasonal availability, including lemon, plum, mandarin, strawberry, and blood orange. 

And then the waiter brought the Kumquat dessert in a crystal whisky glass, with the ice cream and pieces of kumquat, and the bottle of Johnnie Walker. He poured a stiff tot into the dessert, and was about to do a second, when I stopped him, as I was lightheaded enough from my Vertigo already, and had already had a glass of wine. It was delicious, this blend of three flavours, refreshing too from the kumquat and the cold ice cream. I did not expect the desserts to surpass the steak offering at Don Julio! 

When I asked for the bill, it took a while for the waiter to return to the table, with Andrés. Earnestly I was told that there is no bill, owner Pablo wanting me to experience all aspects of their two restaurants. Wow, this was a shock, especially at a restaurant of this calibre. The hotel staff booked the table for me via a reservation system, and they could not have communicated directly with the restaurant in any way, and know nothing about my writing. All that the restaurant staff and Pablo could see and hear was that I was taking notes, asking a lot of questions, was interested in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and that I am from Cape Town, almost in spitting distance from Buenos Aires, on the same latitude, across the Atlantic Ocean. 

I was then offered by Andrés to be shown the new sister restaurant El Preferido a block away, a heritage building of which the pink colour outside may not be changed. It is an informal restaurant serving typical Argentinian dishes. Once again Andrés and the Manager Valerie walked me to the building. The Executive Chef Guido Tassi, of both Don Julio and El Preferido, was at the latter restaurant, so I was introduced to him and to the Head Chef. Chef Guido has published a book, and it is proudly displayed on the counter of this restaurant. It is white and more modern inside, with jars of pickles above the open kitchen pass, adding colour and modernity to its interior. Chef Guido, Andrés and I then were shown the Charcuterie Room, in which the chorizo sausages hang, all naturally made. Andrés had to translate for the chef. I did get a shock when I was told that one of the sausage types was grass-fed horse meat and pork fat. I was assured that no horse meat is served in any of the dishes of the two restaurants. I was offered something to drink or eat at this restaurant, but could not, so I declined. I was shown the Glu Glu house wine, made for the restaurant by the Zuccardi winery in Mendoza, the white wine a Chenin Blanc.  I was happy that I had a good walk back to my hotel, at least fifteen street blocks away. 

If I told anyone that the Don Julio Parrilla steakhouse, which opened 20 years ago, uses ‘Continental China’ type crockery, has shelving with empty wine bottles and two mirrors as well as its open plan kitchen as the only decor, serves Offal, empanadas and sausages as starter options, steak and steak and only steak for main courses, and the bestest ice cream in the world, and charges a fixed service fee of 70 pesos (R20!!!) per head, is ranked 34th Best in the World, few people would believe me! 

Don Julio is not on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list for its decor, crockery, cutlery, glassware, or its food presentation and plating. It is a down to earth, honest, reasonably priced, focused steak eatery that offers amazing excellent quality steaks, using organic produce for its vegetable sides and desserts, with an extensive proudly Argentinian wine list, and offering exceptional service. Andrés and Pablo especially, and their colleagues, went the extra mile to provide me with information and experiences that went beyond Don Julio, the restaurant at which I had booked to eat. Despite a full restaurant  and a queue waiting to get inside the restaurant, I was made to feel that there was no rush to finish my eating experience so that they could turn the table. And there are absolutely no airs and graces from the staff or owner, as I experienced at Tegui, the staff appearing to be proud of the achievement of the restaurant on the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. I suspect that this humility and pride is driven from the top, by owner Pablo. 

As if I had not been spoilt enough, I was given five copies of past Don Julio mini magazines, in A5 size, one produced per season, featuring mainly photographs, with minimal, if any, copy. Themes have covered a harvest some of the staff did on wine estates in Mendoza, the visit by Chef Michel Bras to Don Julio, two visits to a cattle farm, one belonging to owner Pablo in Patagonia, and one focused on vegetables. The photography is exceptional, dreamy, romantic, and is by Eugenia Mazzinghi.  

I will be following Don Julio Parrilla with great interest, until the 2020 World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards.  The restaurant throws every rule in the book away when it comes to being highly rated by its customers. Ultimately, we all want excellent service, a priceless commodity of a restaurant. Of all the South American Restaurants I have eaten at to date, in Lima, Buenos Aires, and Mendoza, only Don Julio succeeded in its service excellence.  

Note: The exchange rate today (19/8/19) is 55 pesos to the dollar, and 3,55 pesos to the Rand. 

Don Julio Parrilla, Guatemala 4699, Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Tel +54 11 4832 6058 www.parrilladonjulio.com Instagram: @donjulioparrilla 

Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein

 

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