Jet lag evaporates with a dry gin martini in the lobby bar of the Faena Hotel in Buenos Aires, where I sit with Martin Williams. His bags were mislaid on the flight from London earlier in the day yet he still cuts a rakish figure after emergency shopping in Puerto Madero. As a drama-school graduate and 30-year veteran of London’s hospitality industry, heading up Gaucho and M as CEO of Rare Restaurants, Williams has an eye for the theatrical. In that vein, the Rojo Tango Show at the Faena is the perfect setting to kick off a week of exploring Argentina, the country that imbues Gaucho with its hedonistic spirit.
We take our seats in a lavish room with red curtains and frescoes of pastoral revelry. “If you were born in Buenos Aires, you’re brought up through tango and milongas dance, the theatre, and the beauty of the architecture,” Williams explains. “Argentina and Gaucho are actually quite parallel in how they’ve changed. They’ve both shifted away from what people traditionally picture when they think of Argentina – steak and malbec – into something a lot more cosmopolitan.”
A full band is seated in an elevated area in the back of the room, complete with accordion, stand-up bass, violin and piano. Dinner begins to arrive. Lamb ravioli in velvety sage cream is shot through with fresh tomato and smoked eggplant. A puck of Argentine black angus tenderloin is fragrant with salt and the maillard effect, languishing in a bed of truffled mash and sautéed mushrooms.
A puck of Argentine black angus tenderloin is fragrant with salt and the maillard effect, languishing in a bed of truffled mash and sautéed mushrooms
The dancers take the stage to live music. I’m not usually one to enjoy a dance performance, but this hits different. The pure theatricality of the tango, the athleticism, the precise geometry of their steps – it’s riveting. Couples revolve together like spinning tops, gracefully bend into parabolas, contort into right angles, resolve themselves into perfect lines. It’s so slinky, self-serious and sensuous that it’s impossible not to be impressed. Everything here is on the same level as the West End or Broadway.
It’s our first night and we’ve travelled a cool 18 hours across the Atlantic but Williams, ever the impresario, has secured a 1am table booking at Florería Atlántico in the Retiro district of Buenos Aires. Tucked away speakeasy-style behind a boxy refrigerator door at the back end of a shadowy flower shop, we’re greeted by Aline Vargas, who co-founded the cocktail lounge with Tato Giovannoni a decade ago in 2023. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength, earning a spot on the annual World’s 50 Best Bars list eight times since it launched.
As we tuck into crab empanadas, she explains the cocktail menu, inspired by the indigenous peoples of Argentina and their natural and medicinal larder. Florería Atlántico is renowned for its aperitifs and the Los Negronis del Abuelo section of its menu, or ‘your grandmother’s negronis’, comes highly recommended by the all-female staff. I’m particularly taken with the Balestrini, made with Príncipe de los Apóstoles gin, Campari, amaro and water from the Atlantic Ocean, then garnished with eucalyptus. The gin is the bar’s own brand, distilled with yerba mate, a leaf with a centuries-old tradition in Argentina. The cocktail is butter-smooth with a powerful, cleansing finish; a drink to be reckoned with.
After catching a morning flight to Mar del Plata, we drive hundreds of miles on a two-lane highway, dodging massive lorries as they ply their trade in the Buenos Aires province. At one point Williams and I trade off driving responsibilities, which, given our lack of experience on these roads and the velocity at which the trucks are speeding ahead, is probably not a good idea. Along the way we chat about sustainability.
“We have 30 partner farms,” Martin says. “We engaged a group of scientists and agronomists called The Carbon Group, who are based in Argentina, and they worked with us on measuring the carbon footprint of our cattle from birth to slaughter and then slaughter to plate. We’re able to now identify what the best working practices are on the farm. And we’re working with our farmers to continue to evolve their practices to minimise methane and greenhouse
gas impact. Following that calculation, we offset CO2 emissions by investing in reforestation projects across South America.”
Fields of soy, wheat and corn stretch out interminably in all directions, with pampas grass poking out every so often in giant tufts. We finally arrive through a colonnade of eucalyptus trees at the estancia, or ranch, named La Aurora. It was designed by French landscape architect Carlos Thays in 1933 and feels like Kew Gardens dropped in between the paper-flat agricultural landscapes we’ve just driven through.
Williams has hired a production company to shoot a short film for the Gaucho brand and, like something out of a Fellini film, models ride horses bareback and play football together in an otherworldly setting. Neat strips of sod turf have been cut from the grass to make room for an asado grill and set aside to be replaced later. A man in a bright red waistcoat and brown beret with a suitably circular stomach tends cuts of short rib, ribeye, extraña, chorizo and skirt.
Neat strips of sod turf have been cut from the grass to make room for an asado grill and set aside to be replaced later
I’m introduced to Marco Favini, the owner of the estancia, an Italian who relocated to Argentina during his retirement to become a cattle rancher. He’s itching to show us the cows. 2,000 head of black angus are spread across 3,000 hectares, grazing free range in pasture, with 350 in this specific lot. He indicates the sheen on the coats of the animals and the unified plane of the herd. They are all the same size – their backs form a single line when they plod together. Both are indicative of good breeding and raising practices.
As the sun sets he explains how the amount of carbon emissions from the cow largely comes down to diet and the biodiversity of their grazing lot. The more space they’re allowed, the better the effect they have on the environment. However, I’m told that ranching tends to come natural in the Pampas and Buenos Aires province. Both are ideal ecosystems for ruminant animals. “When you are brought up in the Pampas, you naturally know how to look after your product,” Martin Williams notes from aside. “It’s always been a very proactive environment for natural farming. Argentinian ranchers often find themselves embracing regenerative farming practises, perhaps without even realising it.”
We’re shown how the cows are rotated onto different pastures to keep the grass healthy, which is beneficial for offsetting carbon, and how water is poured into mobile tanks to make sure that they don’t wander far to drink. Favini explains that if the cow is thirsty, it won’t want to eat as much. A biodiverse diet largely determines the methane produced by the animal, but the most important consideration, says Favini, is fattening them up as quickly as possible. “A two-year-old cow farts a lot less than a four-year-old cow,” he laughs.
Back at the asado, there’s not a lot of conversation. Everyone seems to be concentrating on the intense savour of beef on the palate. We eat with our fingers or toothpicks. While the fillet and the sirloin are chiefly exported, Argentineans tend to favour some of the tougher, more flavourful cuts – but only if they’re prepared correctly. It’s quite easily the best bite of flank steak I’ve ever tasted. The sky seems to elongate as we stand around the fire, eating with our hands, sometimes talking, sometimes not.
The sky seems to elongate as we stand around the fire, eating with our hands, sometimes talking, sometimes not
We head to Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital, and dine with Susana Balbo at her Winemaker’s House & Spa Suites in the swish Chacras de Coria neighbourhood. The recently built, fine art-adorned, ultra-luxurious property comprises a bar, dining room, turquoise-blue swimming pool and seven spa suites – each with its own jacuzzi, sauna, sensation shower and wine cellar.
Williams describes Balbo as the queen of malbec. Pushing back against a male-dominated society to establish herself as the first female winemaker in Argentina, she’s also been a powerful ambassador for the region internationally. “She manages to marry innovation with traditional methods to produce something which has an amazing purity of fruit,” Williams notes, “but also an appreciation of history and traditional winemaking.”
Over a seven-course dinner in a curtained dining room we get to sample her big-hitting wines. Brioso is a powerful blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Garnet-red and round on the palate with a bracing acidity, it could be the lovechild of Napa and Bordeaux. Nosotros is 100% malbec from a single vineyard. Medium-bodied but with structure, it showcases the grape at its most magnificent. Balbo’s talent in vinification not only expresses the nature of the fruit and the earth, but also challenges preconceptions of what it can do.
The next day, we drive south for an hour, past dusty lots and makeshift roadside lodgings, stopping to pick up a sandwich from a cast-iron barbecue in the roadway median, then point it west up the Uco Valley to drive through neatly-lined rows of cottonwoods and chestnut trees toward the Andes. Gaucho’s head sommelier Marina Diaz, a boisterous, hilarious Venezuelan who has worked for the company for a long time (she can’t remember how long) explains that the climb we’re ascending is “like going from Napa’s altitude to Alsace in ten miles.” The limestone mountains beggar belief in their scale. As they ascend precipitously into thin air they remind me of the force of nature, the power of the plates shifting beneath our feet.
As they ascend precipitously into thin air they remind me of the force of nature, the power of the plates shifting beneath our feet
The Andes are also, in many ways, what makes the wine produced at the Alpasión winery so drinkable. The run-off from the mountains and the alluvial soil is catnip for the vines, while the high altitude works to benefit the grapes with a 15°C temperature shift between day and night. The sun heats them and charges them with intense flavour, and the evenings cool them down, creating a finessed balance of sugar and acid. The glaciers that cling to the peaks provide enough water runoff to ensure that the vineyards at Alpasión thrive, and there’s very little disease to worry the plants.
There are more than 70 shareholders at Alpasión and, when visiting, you get a true sense of community and shared excitement for the project. Wine is poured generously at an outdoor table strewn with daisies in the middle of the vineyards. Alpasión makes great malbec, but other varieties are of equal interest. A chardonnay balances notes of stone fruit with refreshing chablis-like minerality, while the pinot noir is all forest berries and silky tannins with an easy drinkability. Chef Federico Fischler toils over a parrilla, preparing a feast of empanadas with criollo and mojo sauces. Suddenly, a local couple appears wearing traditional garb and begins dancing while we pause to enjoy the show. Being Argentina, this is inevitably followed by tango. The two dancers move elegantly with stern, serious expressions while beads of sweat gather on their brows underneath the glare of the afternoon sun.
Chef Federico, tall and bearded with a laid-back demeanour, leans in and explains that tango evolved from the candombe ceremonies of African slaves in the poorer barrios of Buenos Aires, and was customarily performed between two men to resemble a fight, similar to capoeira. Later, in the winery, the couple continues to dance as music plays over a loudspeaker. I’m invited to clamber barefoot into an enormous stainless steel tub, where I dance goonishly on a recent harvest. Plagued by fears of reproducing the internet-famous Grape Lady video, I concentrate hard so as not to take a tumble.
Afterwards, I borrow a mountain bike from Alpasión Lodge, then cycle upwards seven miles west and 1,500 feet up into the Andes. I encounter my first real-life gauchos as the setting sun touches down behind lavender mountain ridges in the rustic village of Manzano Historico. Dust motes are suffused with gold as the waning light blackens the brown mast of a fifty-foot crucifix. The cowboys emerge from beneath a broad pine where a horse has been lashed to a wooden post, heralded by a quintet of voluble, rangy hounds. They sit their mounts effortlessly, wearing sombreros, bullet-laden bandoleers, neckerchiefs, and broad cowhide chaps. Catching my breath from the saddle of the mountain bike I’ve borrowed from Alpasión Lodge, I ride alongside them for a minute, slightly awed. They seem completely comfortable in this mountain landscape, and in nature itself.
Contemporary Argentina is many things. It is the fertile plains of the Pampa, the water filtering down from the Andes into flourishing vineyards, it’s the yerba mate leaf that infuses your liquid and lifts your spirits. All are unified by a sense of connection and custodianship to the earth. Martin Williams and Rare Restaurants understand this dynamic, and carry the torch in the United Kingdom, oxygenating it with the colourful sense of theatre required to get diners interested, informed and, above all, fed.