Alex James: The Great Escape

Go ahead punk, make my dinner
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The Independent Online

Santiago is a mass of construction, new roads, tunnels, buildings, drainage, the works - everything about the place is having an overhaul. There were a lot of bright new restaurants to choose from, so I asked the hotel concierge where he'd recommend. He recommended the restaurant at the hotel. I think it's a mistake to eat in the hotel, but out of courtesy I asked what kind of things they serve. "Oh, they do everything," he said, "fish, shellfish, seafood, everything!" Eventually I managed to persuade him to book a table at this week's low-lit hotspot, Agua.

The chefs at Agua, where we had an unforgettable feast, were going at it with spirited abandon. It was haute cuisine in the punk-rock idiom. Round about the fourth course of the tasting menu was a seafood spectacular of turbot, the best fish that money can buy. It came with oysters and caviar and a strawberry on the top. It was a culinary statement. It said, "I have turned the volume of this dish up to 10 and I have added a strawberry, and that makes 11."

They really were enjoying themselves in the kitchen. And it got even better. Next was the filet mignon, in pastry, with white truffles, the best kind, and foie gras. It went on and on until they'd exhausted all the finest ingredients from all the corners of the globe. But it was over in a flash; less than an hour from kir royales to cognacs. That was what stopped it from being pretentious - that and the grinning staff and the fact that it just wasn't.

You need a special kind of stick to measure luxury. And you get used to it too quickly. Then where are you? Bored again. Just for a moment, between the cheese and the toffees, I felt its sweet caresses and carelessness in that restaurant.

A few days later in another building site, El Chalten, Argentina's newest town - which, if you ask anyone from Chile, is in Chile - we lucked out again. This time it was at the other end of the culinary spectrum - the spoon. Cassita can't be more than 20 years old - the town that it's in was established in 1985 as a strategic manoeuvre by the government - but it had the out-of-date interior that characterises good spoons everywhere: gingham tablecloths, striplights, smoke and photos and postcards on the walls. I even heard the sound of "The Birdy Song".

A gap-toothed but somehow still sexy 50-year-old bruiser of a woman was in charge. It was all about beef. Like Guinness in Dublin, wet noodles in Japan and pizza in New York, you just can't go wrong with beef in Argentina. They know exactly what they're doing with it. The popular people's beef cut is a whacking great chunk of lean meat that comes with eggs and greasy fries. It just works. They say it's because the land is so flat that the meat's so tender, but it's the way it's cooked over glowing logs, and the temperature outside, and the gappy smile that brings it to you, that make it impossible to recreate.

On the whole, when travelling, like hotels, food becomes more similar the more expensive it gets. It would be a tough call to say which was the better experience, the cheap seats or the fancy fare. You definitely need a bit of both.