My recent Argentine jag started when Juan Pablo Vincente, the porteño (Buenos Aires native) maître d at Osteria Del Circo, told me where I could find the best empanadas in town. I have always considered them an undistinguished nosh that didnt allow for levels of good and great, but since Vincente is a reliable gourmand, I trooped over to the sprightly Patagonia Cafe (1151 Second Avenue, at 60th Street; 751-6836). There, cook Alejandro Pellicari and his partner, Patricio Destuet, serve forth baked meat-, cheese-, herb-, and vegetable-filled pastries that have about as much in common with the average fried empanada as pork rind has with a fine prosciutto.
Pellicari hails from Mendoza, but for his beef empanadas makes a concession to Buenos Aires tastes, using meat that is ground, rather than chunked, before it is mixed with tomatoes, onions, sweet pepper, and paprika. Maybe his relatives would complain, but I thought the tasty delicacies delivered the right mix of beef and seasoning. The four-inch flaky-crusted purse makes for a good light lunch.
Different fillings are wrapped in differently shaped pastry packaging, but its the insides that provide the main interest. Last week, there was Swiss cheese and onion; also corn, cheese, and hot pepper; white corn and tomato; and spinach with béchamel. A nutty, slithery combination of eggplant and sesame seeds was given the original seal of approval by Destuets cocker spaniel, Dalton, who consumed six of them in Buenos Airess famed Confiteria Danubio before his befuddled owner got a bite. Still, Destuet takes pride in the story, pointing out that Daltons grandmother, Shirley (Just like Shirley Bassey, Destuet says, beaming), was the champion cocker spaniel of all Argentina. If her offsprings tastes are any indication, I expect she was a canine of great culinary refinement.
Patagonia Cafe is open Monday through Friday from 8 to 8, Saturday from 10 to 7; cash only; it delivers.