As I sat at Le Dôme bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires, the soul-tearing quandary was where to look. First, there was my own table, crowded with a flight of four Malbecs; tapas of salami and cheese, sautéed olives, and mussels and king crab from the south Atlantic coast; a vase of lilies; a bottle of chilled Andean water; and an atlas-sized crystal ashtray with leather-sheathed cutters. Next, there were the waitresses, in slit black dresses and tango shoes, gliding past the leather- and silk-upholstered club chairs with humidors of cigars. (I chose a slim Cuban Montecristo Joyita, because although it was past 8, it was still hours before dinner, and this was only a snack.) Behind me, a trio from Cuba was strumming out salsa. Before me, the painting over the bar was of a suited man with a woman nestling in his lap -- her head was a cork, while he was all corkscrew. To my side, my Buenos Aires Herald was reminding me that it was 80 degrees outside and summer, while a spare 12 degrees in New York. And above, through the panes in the bar's domed ceiling, there were the flood-lit top floors of the Four Seasons's belle epoque mansion, where in the interest of journalistic rigor my wife and I were staying in the presidential suite.
Such was my dilemma. Argentina has fallen on tough times in the past year, but this does not mean the traveler has to. Everywhere in the country prices are invitingly low, and with $400 round-trip plane tickets from U.S. cities, it's not only an inexpensive excursion for the week, it's one where you know you'll eat and drink well.
You bet the Malbecs were fantastic. The Four Seasons' list features more than 120 Argentine wines, not just from Mendoza, but from throughout the country, including Patagonia. That evening, the jewel of the flight was a big-bodied 1999 Doña Paula Selección de Bodega from Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, which was fleshy and lush, with hints of ripe cherry and prune in the oak. ( Other standouts were a 2000 Ricardo Santos and 2000 Fabre Montmayou, both from Mendoza as well.)
Just around the corner from the French embassy in Recoleta, experienced visitors to Buenos Aires may recall the hotel-cum-mansion as the Park Hyatt. The timing of a switch to, a Four Seasons property, in December 2001, may be considered unfortunate, but the results have not been. This is particularly true in Le Dôme and in the main restaurant, the Galani. For the past year, executive chef Ashley Charles James has reigned in the kitchen, parboiling and grilling his way to Buenos Aires via Singapore, Mexico, Germany, Spain and France, including a stint at Maxim's in Paris. In Argentina, he's become a bit of a celebrity as an occasional guest on cooking shows, where he's known for exotic dishes and, as he puts it, "Mediterraneanizing Argentine products." At Le Dôme, this means there are classic minced-beef empanadas and beef tenderloin sandwiches, as well as mango-glazed prawn satays and the tapas and sushi that are offered free most evenings to the accompaniment of live music, and which the cadre of waitresses delivered to me as I listened and sipped and ate and smoked, just to get properly ready for dinner.
Then for finer fare, there's the Galani -- although its menu is available at the bar, too. I'm happy to report that both Jameses ( American diner and British chef) cooperated with storybook results in the preparation and eating of a foie gras brûlée, crispy Chubut crab leg tempura in tropical fruit salsa, and herb-seared Patagonian lamb fillet, which dissolved on my tongue like baa-baa-butter. But less broad-minded diners focused exclusively on red meat will be equally gratified to find it distributed across one-third of the menu.
Both restaurant and bar cater to locals as well as hotel guests. As I sipped my Malbecs, Nicolas Nardi, Le Dôme's bar manager, pointed out businessmen hopping from table to table to meet clients, hair slicked back and sports jackets draped over the arms of chairs. "They come here because it's intimate, and they know they won't be disturbed," he confided. "In the last year in particular, the bar's become popular because it doesn't face the street. And that's important, because in Argentina these days politicians can't go to a lot of public places."
But the truth is, the bar here has been popular for more than a decade. When the hotel opened as the Park Hyatt in 1991, the adjoining seven-suite mansion quickly became the destination for visiting politicos, athletes, actors and international rock stars. Nardi tells stories of musicians, especially, filling the bar -- of Ruben Blades drinking mojitos and the Rolling Stones downing caipiroscas, while their backup singers gave concerts into the night on the baby grand. But on any weekend today, when tango dancers fill the room, Le Dôme is still predictably packed.
Since the Four Seasons took over, Argentine artwork has filled the public spaces, with $1 million invested in covering the walls. At a quiet moment, you can sit in Le Dôme and enjoy a cigar ( aside from the Montecristo, I savored a Romeo y Julieta Cedros De Luxe No. 2 one evening; Le Dôme's selections are few, but always Cuban), while gazing around at the canvases, like the striking one by Ernesto Bertani above the bar.
But the best place in the hotel to enjoy art is in its mansion. Commissioned in 1916 as a wedding present, its suites come with 24-hour butler service, a private entrance, original antique furnishings, 15-foot ceilings and a sweeping foyer with grand marble staircase. If you opt for a room, you can enjoy Argentina's turn-of-the-century opulence -- and remember the country from a time when it was an economic world power ( or just pause to consider who was in your bed before you). But a simpler choice is to visit the mansion on Sundays for brunch, and enjoy an omelette or bife while two-stepping across the floors where the Duke of Edinburgh harrumphed and Madonna learned to tango.
-- James Sturz
James Sturz is the author of the novel SASSO. You can learn more about him at www.jamessturz.com.
Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires
Posadas 1086/88 C1011ABB
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel. 54 ( 11) 4321-1200
Fax. 54 ( 11) 4321-1201