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A steak, some wine, music . . . la vida dulce

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Street life in Buenos Aires includes cafes like the ubiquitous Havanna chain, which makes the famous Havannet, dulce de leche in chocolate, and tango musicians. (Patricia Harris for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris
Globe Correspondent / February 3, 2008

My seatmate on the flight from Miami was hungry - and the airline meal was not going to cut it. Damián Edelberg was returning home to Buenos Aires from a business trip to Boston, and he was craving thick-crust pizza, slabs of almost impossibly tender beef, and gooey desserts made with dulce de leche.

Argentine beef is famous, of course, and I knew that Italian immigrants had introduced pizza to Buenos Aires. But I was only vaguely familiar with dulce de leche, a confection of caramelized sweetened milk. As my flying companion recited a litany of cakes, crepes, ice creams, and candies, I saw that a new world of saccharinity was waiting to be explored.

And I had only a week to do it.

"You can try different ice cream flavors at lunch," Edelberg advised. "And then have crepes or cakes for dessert after dinner. Don't blame me if you add some pounds." Fortunately, I was meeting my husband, David, who could share the calories. When the plane touched down at dawn I was ready to start - but I figured it was way too early for sweets.

How naive.

When David and I stopped for breakfast at Il Forno cafe on our way to the Sunday flea market in the San Telmo neighborhood, the young woman behind the counter asked whether I wanted dulce de leche with my medialuna. Are the Kennedys Democrats?

As I smeared the caramel-like goo on my flaky croissant, I studied the pastry cases for a quick overview of the versatility of dulce de leche. There were the ubiquitous alfajores (shortbread cookies sandwiched around a dulce de leche filling), along with cakes, tortes, mousses, and milhojas (the flaky pastry we call a Napoleon). I decided to return later for a slice of apeninos, a chocolate biscuit layered with dulce de leche and cream and topped with meringue. David planned to try the bariloche, a cake with chocolate mousse, dried fruit, and dulce de leche, following it with a dulce de leche-laced cappuccino.

And we wouldn't have to break the bank. The dollar is still strong against the Argentine peso (breakfast was less than $4). Moreover, Argentine sweets may well provide the world's highest calorie count per dollar.

Nursing a sugar high, we were ready to brave the flea market that sprawls from Plaza Dorrego along the neighboring streets. Musicians performed on nearly every corner, and vendors hawked purses and tooled belts, silver jewelry, more macrame than I had seen since the '60s, and silver-lipped painted gourds with silver straws for sipping herbal infusions of yerba mate. Men roasted nuts over charcoal, and women squeezed oranges for fresh juice. Alas, no one was selling dulce de leche.

But the sweet proved to be a leitmotif that cut across every district in the city. Although we were staying in the close-knit, working-class neighborhood of San Telmo, we ventured into the Palermo district of wide, leafy streets and upscale (if rather generic) shopping. We found our sweet fix at Persicco, a sophisticated ice cream shop where a fleet of motorbikes waits out front, each with an insulated box on the back to make home deliveries. (You have to love this city!) Among the several dozen flavors of ice cream are a straight dulce de leche, as well as variations with brownie pieces, chocolate chips, nuts, or - for the truly hard-core - ribbons of dulce de leche swirled in.

But sweets aren't the only gastronomic obsession of the Argentines, who without false modesty proclaim their beef the best in the world. If so, we wanted to try the best of the best. R.W. Apple's last story for The New York Times before his death in 2006 was headlined "An Epicurean Pilgrimage: Meals Worth the Price of a Plane Ticket," and among the 10 restaurants described was Cabaña Las Lilas in Buenos Aires.

Las Lilas was a pioneer in the redeveloped dock area known as Puerto Madero, a riverfront complex of elegant shops, flashy bars, and high-end restaurants. Photos of prize Angus and Hereford bulls from the owner's ranch on the Pampas dot the walls, but most diners hardly raise their eyes from the massive portions of beef on their plates.

As we waited for our ribeye steaks to be grilled over an open wood flame, we observed the prandial rhythms of an Argentine steakhouse. Diners in animated conversation would fall quiet when their plates arrived. They raised their knives and forks in unison and pounced: cut-cut-cut, chew-chew-chew. Moan. Repeat. We joined in, savoring our beef with a Cadus Malbec, one of the great reds produced by Nieto Senetiner in the high desert vineyards of Mendoza. Perfect with the rich beef, it remained superb with the classic Argentine dessert of panqueques, crepes filled with (naturally) dulce de leche.

Between meals and snacks, we also managed to take tango lessons, dance in the milongas, and see the sights. At Recoleta cemetery we watched an older woman place a white flower at the tomb of María Eva Duarte de Perón, a.k.a. Evita. Intrigued, we visited the nearby Evita Museum, which chronicles the short life of Argentina's one-time first lady and almost mythical heroine to the country's poor. Later that afternoon, we paused at a cafe in the Buenos Aires Design Center to drink a toast to her memory - with dulce de leche liqueur.

I worried that my interest in dulce de leche was becoming an unhealthy obsession until a Brazilian couple at my B&B grudgingly admitted that Argentina has the best. They were under strict orders to bring home boxes of Havannets from the Havanna coffee shop chain for friends and family. I had blocked this ultimate expression of dulce de leche from my mind. "Americans find it too sweet," Edelberg had said of the pyramid of dulce de leche enrobed in chocolate. "They can usually only eat half."

Havanna coffee shops in Buenos Aires are as common as Starbucks in the States. After a week of tasting I was ready for the ultimate test. I settled at a table and ordered a Havannet. It took an extra glass of water to cut the unctuous sweetness, but I proudly defended the honor of the American sweet tooth and finished every . . . last . . . bite.

Contact Patricia Harris, a freelance writer from Cambridge, at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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