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South America's Riviera

Uruguay has glamour—and cows—to spare, as Dan Halpern discovers on a tour of Punta del Este's posh resorts and steak-sandwich dives.

I will, with some amount of shame, admit to an incident that occurred in Buenos Aires about five years ago. The incident involved parrillada, the South American mixed grill of sausages, chops, short ribs, skirt steak and chicken. When I finished my order and insisted on a second one, the waiter yelled at me. He thought no one could eat a whole second order, and that my request was just wrong. The truth is, I couldn't—I had just gotten a little overexcited about all that beef.

I'm always excited by beef country, and the southern region of South America is surely that. Uruguay, where I recently spent a few days, is no exception. Uruguay's cows are less famous than their much-barbecued Argentine cousins, but that doesn't mean they're not as talented.

Before my trip to Uruguay, I was particularly looking forward to eating as many examples of the national dish—which is more or less a steak sandwich, called the chivito—as I possibly could. In truth, there is little in my philosophy to compete with a loaf of bread slathered with mayo and crammed with beef, ham, bacon, mozzarella, lettuce, tomato and egg. I was, however, a little worried that the chivito might be underrepresented in the part of Uruguay where I was headed: Punta del Este, the Riviera of South America, possibly the most luxurious vacation spot on the continent. Once a favorite of the Rat Pack, the area is now a hangout for a new generation of American movie stars, not to mention the rich and fabulous of Argentina. A resort town that's rapidly becoming known as a culinary destination does not necessarily offer many opportunities to eat cheap sandwiches. Still, I had faith in the Uruguayan people. A populace that has a steak sandwich as its national dish is to be trusted.

Punta del Este lies on the southern coast of Uruguay on the Atlantic, a two-hour drive from the capital, Montevideo. Punta is only a 20-minute flight from Buenos Aires, and the source of the juiciest Argentine celebrity gossip. The big boats pull into the yacht harbor in December—midsummer there—and the streets in and around Punta fill up with fancy cars all the way from the Rambla, an oceanside ring road dotted with restaurants and bars, to the beachfront village of La Barra.

I stayed in La Barra's Mantra resort, a posh hotel about a 10-minute drive east of Punta proper. Opened in 2004, Mantra looks like a gigantic, modern version of a Mediterranean estate, built in a cascade from high land to low: The rooms and lobby overlook the pool area, which overlooks the casino, wine bar, spa and one of the resort's two restaurants. Mantra's overwhelming aesthetic is brightness: Much of the furniture in the large rooms is white, and so are most of the interior and exterior walls. Even some of the food is white. At the pool-level Zafferano Restaurant, I feasted on chef Alvaro Arbeloa's Mediterranean-inspired menu, which includes a wonderful—and very white—cold almond-and-garlic soup, flecked with grapes for sweetness and sardines for a briny kick. More colorful were the delicate strips of duck—cooked rare, sliced like steak and served with caramelized apple and sweet potato. No chivito on the menu, as I suspected, but this wasn't the place to look for it.

Mantra's rival, in Punta itself, is the Conrad, a Vegas-like hotel and casino where I watched two wealthy Uruguayan ladies spill their drinks, one vodka tonic after another after another, all over the blackjack table while happily losing thousands of dollars because they had no idea how to play and didn't care. "O, mi amor," said one, when I pointed out that hitting on 19 wasn't necessarily a good idea. "We're supporting the economy." Then she spilled her drink again, this time on me.

Punta has plenty of lovely small hotels whose owners would never dream of putting in a casino. In Punta Ballena, just west of Punta del Este, I visited the Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró's inhabitable cliffside sculpture, Casapueblo—an enormous white structure that is simultaneously a hotel, museum and art studio. Reminiscent of Gaudi's buildings in Barcelona, Casapueblo has 70 small, sunny guest rooms; staying in one feels a little bit like visiting a friend's beachside cottage—except that you're inside a work of art.

On the other side of Punta del Este, in Garzon—a tiny village an additional 45 minutes northeast—the Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallmann just converted a beautiful brick mansion into the five-room hotel Garzon. The rooms have claw-footed bathtubs and ancient armoires, and look appropriate for conducting a dangerous love affair from a 19th-century novel.

Mallmann, who owns the renowned restaurant 1884 in the Mendoza wine region of Argentina, as well as Patagonia West in Westhampton Beach, New York, puts his own spin on South American cuisine at Garzon's restaurant. I discovered he doesn't serve chivitos either, but I forgave him once I tried his mustard-and-thyme-crusted lamb, which he roasts between two fires, the way the Incas did.

Mallmann also owns Los Negros restaurant—about 30 miles east of Punta, in tiny José Ignacio—a pea-green-painted cottage with poetry inked on its walls. You have to have a lot of confidence in the restorative powers of your food to paint T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" on the windowsill. Here, finally, I got to try some Uruguayan beef—not stuffed into a piece of bread, alas, but grilled and slathered with a chimichurri sauce of olive oil, parsley, oregano and garlic. It was one of the best chimichurris I've ever tasted, and I should've stopped there. But something about sitting alone reading Eliot made me ravenous, so I downed an order of the Andean staple humita, a simple, soothing corn husk�wrapped mix of onion and corn.

Mallmann isn't the only South American cult chef to have his own mini empire in the Punta del Este area. Chef Jean-Paul Bondoux, who runs the restaurant at Buenos Aires's famed Alvear Palace Hotel, opened La Bourgogne here in 1981 and just launched a more casual spin-off in La Barra called La Table. He, like Mallmann, is a genius with beef—no wonder he's big in Uruguay—and does a knockout steak in a Burgundy-mustard sauce.

Given all the fantastic dining to be done in and around Punta, I should have put my chivito fantasy to rest. But I couldn't forget entirely about my steak sandwich. Before I flew back home to the United States, I tracked down seven of them.

My god, what a country! If this is their national dish, I say, May their houses be fruitful and their children multiply. I found the best chivitos in little joints without names: the chivetería right at the roundabout to José Ignacio, and the dingy place with the enormous, dingy dog that I will probably never find again because I had been driving around lost, far away from all the resorts, for an hour before I wandered in. And I had a completely satisfying chivito rendition served on an Italian roll at the seaside restaurant Virazón.

I can't say I didn't feel somewhat gratified when, walking into one of the local chivito dives, I spotted a waiter from the restaurant where I'd eaten the night before, hunched over a steak sandwich. When I sat down next to the man, who had explained to me in loving detail every sauce and delicate preparation on the celebrity chef's menu, he didn't even say hello. He just waved the waitress over, saying, "He'll have one too."

Dan Halpern has written for the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker.

Published January 2006
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