At Cafe Buenos Aires, the linoleum floor looks just like ceramic tile and the tabletops resemble marble. What is genuine about the place is the authentic ambience of a foreign bistro.
It feels very European, but an ornamental leather saddle in one corner and the specials written in Spanish are clues that this is really an Argentine restaurant, the only one in Santa Barbara.
A big wooden bar at the rear of the pleasantly compact room serves as a combination wine bar and divider from the kitchen area. I have never been in here without seeing the owner, Silvia Ronchietto, sitting behind it, seemingly doing little, but definitely on top of everything, the way cats in certain households seem to be in charge of all the occupants.
Ronchietto is an architect, which is reflected in the classy style of the place. She went into the restaurant business, she said, to pursue a lifelong dream. Most of the recipes that come out of the kitchen are her own.
Judging by the languages overheard, Cafe Buenos Aires has become something of a social center for South Americans, offering not only a sense of community but genuine flavors from home. For the rest of us, this is one of those marvelous restaurants that lets you indulge in the fantasy of travel, and experience new and exotic tastes without venturing far from home.
The restaurant has joined my list of places I'd happily frequent several times a week. In certain dishes, there is a kind of exaggeration of flavor that I love, and they are fearless with citrus. They also have an appealing habit of bringing to the table little gifts of pre-appetizer tidbits, such as fried green olives or savory orange slices drenched in salted olive oil. These set the tone for the pleasantries to follow.
As for appetizers, they have them down to an art, thanks to a few centuries of tradition. They serve a variety of tapas, the "little dishes of Spain." These small plates can be eaten as appetizers or combined to make a meal.
Shrimp was one of the best, garlicky and so firm that they were almost crunchy. Savory little mushrooms were also good. My favorite was pimientos picantes , red peppers lightly sauteed to bring out their piquancy, with more garlic than seemed possible.
Over several visits, I sampled several dishes representative of traditional Argentine country cooking. Amolado criollo was a South American version of shepherd's pie, with meat and potatoes and the marinara-type chunky tomato sauce that is favored here.
I also tried versions of a rustic corn stew, including pastel de choclo , which was full of corn, of course, and possibly everything else that happened to be in the kitchen at the time. The corn gave it a predominantly sweet flavor--although the spices were searing--and it resembled a hearty Moroccan cereal dish, full of pleasant oddities like raisin and olives. As one dining companion commented, it was surprisingly good, considering how bad it could have been.
This dish and many others (including a fine grilled halibut) came with chimichurri sauce on the side. An Argentine specialty, this highly acidic sauce, consisting of vinegar, olive oil, garlic, oregano and parsley, really jump-started the food. I'd rather have it on the table than ketchup any day.
In contrast to this culinary intensity, the empanadas seemed bland but perfect for a child's palate. Spinach fettuccine, with a mild red pepper sauce, also had a subtle flavor and a homey constraint. More spirited was the seafood fettuccine, saffron-colored, very lemony and full of fish. Another marvelous pasta was covered with long, thin slices of eggplant and layered with melted cheese.
The menu offers Milanesa-style beef--very thin, breaded and fried--both on the dinner menu and as a sandwich for lunch. Like perfect pitch, it captured the flavor of the Italian original, although I found the meat a little tough.
A classic Argentine grilled fillet, however, was excellent, and the round fried potatoes that came with it were delicious.
For dessert, the flan was nothing special, but an apple crepe was wonderful, with slices of apple seared to the plate with a layer of carmelized sugar.
Another dessert, dulce y queso , was described on the menu as sweet potato jam with Havarti cheese. It was more like sweet potato pate (or Jell-O), its sweetness contrasting wonderfully with the cheese. An interesting finale to a wonderful and intriguing meal.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Cafe Buenos Aires, 37 E. Victoria St., Santa Barbara, 963-0242. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, until 10 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Wine and beer. Visa, MasterCard. Dinner for two, food only, $22 to $42.