Hungry and back out on the dark, busy, foreign highway, I felt like hooker Julia Roberts when the Beverly Hills store refused her money. Stunned and confused, I looked up and saw a refuge, my only hope -- a tall, stone wall with the name Harry's written in black iron. What kind of Latin name is Harry's?!
The stylish lobby was packed. I approached the host, leaned in close like I had huge boobs and seductively asked if there was any way he could squeeze me in? I stepped back to give him the full view, air, and time.
He broke out into a huge, bus-driver friendly smile. He nodded to his co-hort and they swept us in the swanky, huge dining room.
Harry's is impressive. I passed a wall of glass doors, behind which millions of dollars of really old meat was napping. It seemed like a well-curated meat museum. A massive counter, where a man stood gently tending lobsters as if they were sheep, was on my left. Vast, stone walls on either side made me feel like I was being led into a secret bunker.
When I left my resort tonight, I thought I'd be doing some sad little Mexican restaurant a favor and toss a few million pesos their way in exchange for some guacamole prepared table side or watch a wrinkly old abuela hand-pressing tortillas in a display window.
The room was crowded with women wearing clothes one didn't normally pack on a Mexican trip -- fluffy dresses, good, chunky necklaces and jewel-encrusted sharp, high heels that looked painful to the wearer and the ground they stepped on. Everyone was tanned, perhaps by law or health code.
I had no idea what type of food Harry's served. I assumed Mexican food, so I sat and waited for my beloved basket of tortilla chips and salsa. I love the sweet, fat Mexican restaurant waitresses with tattooed eyebrows and a huggable attitude. They slam chips and salsa on your table before they say Hola. But here, a handsome waiter carefully slid a bread basket down, and I thought, que pasa? His Hermes belt buckle was looking me straight in my skeptical face.
The basket resembled a Latin boy band -- some were wafer-thin, and others were plump and hidden in the back maybe because they danced slower, but they were all spicy and well-managed. My dining companion took one bite of the chubby solo act in the back, and exclaimed, It's Christmas dinner in a bite! It actually was -- soft, fresh bread topped with sage and butter. I pictured exhausted yet happy elves in the kitchen, singing Mexican folk songs as they baked magic in a pan and couldn't dream of a better life.
Commander's Palace in New Orleans has impeccable service and legendarily fun cocktails. But they can't beat Harry's who free pours your drinks table side. I have had ceviche, guacamole, Bananas Foster, Salt-baked fish, Caesar salad, steak tartare all prepared table side, but this packed a refreshingly new service-as-performance punch.
I held the Captain's hand down onto my table and looked into his eyes. He looked nervous yet intrigued. I asked him how long they had been open, expecting this to be their grand opening and explain the jubilant crowds and hoopla. Five years, he smiled, pulling his manicured hand away. I felt uniformed and not hip, and being from LA, that's a fear only rivaled by earthquakes, parking restrictions and yard sales of the stars.
The huge menu folds out to reveal a full artistic triptych, but no doves fly out -- it's well-organized and not too ambitious. What the menu can't warn you is that each appetizer is enough to share among a busload of tourists.
I was excited to see Kobe beef sliders. The soft, creamy meat was nestled between soft, puffy buns that reminded me that I'd miss Jennifer Lopez when she left American Idol. These burgers were topped with caramelized onions that tried to sneakily abandon the melted Vermont cheddar when I applied a little pressure, but I caught them, pushed them back in and devoured the dish intact, with no defectors, as it was intended by the dictatorial chef.
I needed to remember where I was so I ordered the Kobe beef taco appetizer as my own homage to Mexican cuisine. I know they love large families in this nation, but when they delivered four tacos on my plate, it made me feel like a father who has a tiny house and gets the news he's just had another child he doesn't have space for: I love you, but I don't have room.
Taco meat is usually cheap ground beef, disguised and spiced up with toppings. Kobe meat tastes special, so the delicious, tender meat can be regarded separately from the rest of the taco team, the same smooth way that Kobe Bryant stood apart from the other players when they were all jammed on the court -- as star is a star. I barely have to chew this tender beef, so I have time to note that I'd like to spend a summer on a Kobe farm, shivering in a cold Japanese barn massaging these cattle as a volunteer; I need to give back.
When a waiter in Toronto warns you that a sauce is spicy, it's okay to swat him away like a fly. When a waiter in Mexico warns you, listen bitches. The accompanying roasted habanero pepper sauce on my plate already looked ominous. It was black and slimy, hiding in a corner like a gooey poisonous spider. It had dangerous seeds, which jumped onto my fork as I drug it through the sauce, like tiny little terrorists whose intent was to harm me. My lips burned for two delicious days like a lover's perfume lingering on my neck I wouldn't dare wash off, reminding me of my passionate night and this sauce.
Octopus is my new scallops. I embrace the long, sucker-laden tentacles. Sure, I eased into the relationship by cutting my teeth on rings of squid, safety-coated in batter and gently fried to make the concept palatable. When my twin nieces were three, I used to get them to eat calamari by telling then it was Ursala from The Little Mermaid and they were ridding the world of evil. They, and I, felt like heroes.
Harry's promised me black ink risotto. The chef must have interned in an old Italian grandmother's kitchen, who beat him senseless each time he turned her precious dish to mush, because this dish was perfectly al dente. The densely black squid ink was as rich and black as Bill Cosby, and a surprise came in the first bite -- the only octopus in my dish wasn't the curvy, showgirl leg on top. Chunks of octopus were hidden in the dish like illegal immigrants, and I would smuggle them into America in my belly. Hopefully Customs agents wouldn't slice me open as I crossed the border; no one should ever see all I have eaten. The dish was superb; some fan even tossed accolades of confetti all over it as it left the kitchen, that tasted like Parmesan cheese.
More surprises came to my table. I pulled succulent, local lobster pieces out of my coleslaw on another dish, worried that I had exceeded my limit. Fried shrimp were so huge I was nervous to eat them, convinced they were raised near a nuclear plant. I ate them, thinking, What a way to glow!
The dining room is fun. Large parties feel free to be noisy, seated at family-fun round tables. Hosts hoisted their shimmering martinis in one hand, and a grandchild in another. Razor-thin foreign socialites knocked their non-knockoff David Webb bracelets against their Onassis-tanned boyfriend's muscled necks as they embraced the exciting food served and relished in the convivial atmosphere.
I questioned any restaurant situated on the West side of the street, seemingly to me the wrong side -- the East featured views of stunningly turquoise water. But Harry's founders were as smart as the once ruling local Mayans -- when the sun set, they gave their diners one last look at the glorious sun, setting with the same grace that the Captain's at Harry's used to remind your busboy that your water glass looked half-empty. To me, this place made it look half-full.
Deconstructed pecan pie in a shot glass finished me off. My grandmother made perfect pecan pie, but had she tasted this, she'd have buried her recipe in the backyard and given away her dog so he couldn't dig it up. I tried to take a picture, but like an African tribe afraid they lose part of their soul each time a photo is snapped, it eluded me. Or I ate it too fast, I'm not sure.
We were two men at this dinner. I think they were afraid to serve us their signature, and impressive post-amuse bouche, their dining denouement as it were -- giant cotton candy reminiscent of my Aunt Nelda's beehive. Perhaps to them it looks romantic and they feared us sharing it like Disney dogs sharing a noodle, but they had no fear -- I was stuffed tighter than a pinata. Though grateful not to have had the tempting sugar placed in front of me, I would have appreciated being spun the same finale as the other diners.
Word-a-licious Ruth Reichl penned the term Ballet of Service when she witnessed the perfect balance in a dining room provided by a perfectly working team. Harry's has it. The host, as conductor, flits about the flatteringly-lit rooms, smiling at diners, cooing over the plates as if it's his first glance in a new lover's eyes, the Captains smoothly direct professional waiters who direct discreet busboys, who I guess go home and kick the dog.
We chose not to eat fresh green salads this trip, and even though the hunky male diners here at Harry's were jabbing their forks into huge hunks of iceberg lettuce, I stuck to my guns so I wouldn't be stuck to the toilet. I didn't get ill this trip, and I enjoyed the dishes I can't easily find at home. No regrets is among my best vacation memories.
Without ever eating at their easier-to-find online next-door neighbor, I knew Harry's was superior, and felt like running into the kitchen and releasing the legions of chefs into the wild, along with the lobsters, where they could do more good in the world. I would send them up to Miami to convert their faithless chefs.
Harry's isn't a cheap meal, but a great value. I considered walking back next door to Puerto Madero to hold up my hefty receipt, raise my shirt to reveal my full, extended belly and proclaim to their smug rejecting host, in a toothy, Julia Roberts smile, Big mistake!
But I just flagged down a bus and took my seat. I allowed the giddy driver's wild ride to help me digest. As he careened through down the dark, curvy highway, I made a note to self: Delete Trip Advisor.