NPR logo Buenos Aires: Dominga, Where Staff and Food Excel

Buenos Aires: Dominga, Where Staff and Food Excel

Dominga, a steakhouse in Buenos Aires, also offers an array of creative and tasty sushi. Julie McCarthy, NPR hide caption

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Julie McCarthy, NPR

Dominga, a steakhouse in Buenos Aires, also offers an array of creative and tasty sushi.

Julie McCarthy, NPR

The restaurant, in the city's hip Palermo district, offers two, airy dining rooms. Courtesy Dominga hide caption

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Courtesy Dominga

The restaurant, in the city's hip Palermo district, offers two, airy dining rooms.

Courtesy Dominga

Sushi-making duo Gabriel Ilepiane (left) and Cecilia Salinas are among the attentive staff at Dominga. Courtesy Dominga hide caption

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Courtesy Dominga

Sushi-making duo Gabriel Ilepiane (left) and Cecilia Salinas are among the attentive staff at Dominga.

Courtesy Dominga

Buenos Aires' restaurant scene oozes with options. The staples, of course, are meat: beef, lamb and pork. But what keeps me going back to Dominga, located in the hip, restaurant-rich Palermo district, isn't meat but the raw fish — and the staff.

Dominga's young crew of cooks, waiters and hostesses exudes a sense of joy and attentiveness that more than complements the good food.

The menu features such Argentine classics as skirt steak and chimichurri sauce, lamb ragout and pork with sweet red cabbage. But Dominga sets itself apart by also featuring a sushi bar with delectable offerings.

Sushi chef Gabriel Ilepiane is an artist whose creations brim with whimsy. On a recent visit, he presents me with a plate loaded with sushi arranged around curlicues of green wasabi and red ginger, and I think: "If Christmas were a sushi platter, this would be it."

For a fraction of the price ($25), the dinner was every bit as good as anything I ate when I lived and worked in Tokyo.

Over a bottle of Malbec at the small bar tucked in the rear of the stylishly lit restaurant, owner Ignacio Ortiz de Rozas reveals the secret to his success: It's not just due to good food, but also a caring staff.

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Manager Fernando Castillo is in perpetual motion, teaching new recruits. I watch as he swoops a just-uncorked bottle of wine off of one table, telling surprised (and delighted) patrons, "This bottle is off. I'll be right back."

I was on a first-name basis with the staff after my first visit, when the bartender leaned over the bar and poured some pisco (a type of brandy made from grapes) into my ceviche and announced, "You now have leche de tigre!" — or tiger's milk ceviche. It was yet another taste bud-exploding experience at the restaurant.

The experiments never stop. Late on a Saturday night, a manager whispers into the owner Ortiz de Rozas' ear about a new dish: A salad with brie needs a little pizzazz — "maybe something crunchy."

Minutes later, he emerges from the kitchen with another concoction and we're taste-testing "sweet ceviche"— a tantalizing melange of horseradish, red peppers, ginger, soy, sesame and white wine.

The restaurant is located in the bottom floor of a spacious old, elegant house graced with high ceilings and French windows. There's a soothing quality to the bistro's bamboo-lined patio, which hums with tinkling water from a lily pond. Dominga's two airy rooms fill up early with an eclectic mix of musician, lawyer and artist friends of the owner.

Director Francis Ford Coppola drops in when he's in town to sample the thyme risotto with prawns and passion fruit ($11) or the linguine with shrimp, black olives, vegetable, and roasted tomatoes ($8).

Dominga opened six months before Argentina's economic collapse in 2001.

"But funnily enough, our business has always gone up," says Ortiz de Rozas.

There's really no mystery. Dominga radiates attentive hospitality and proves that good food is not the only ingredient for a memorable dining experience.

Dominga Restaurant Sushi Bar — Honduras 5618, Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Telephone: 54-11-4771-4443. Open Monday through Saturday, 8:30 p.m. until late (dinner only). Reservations recommended. E-mail: domingarestaurant@hotmail.com. Web site: http://www.domingarestaurant.com/.