Argentina’s dining scene offers traveling culinarians a wealth of traditional options, from its famous beef to fresh seafood. The cuisine of South America’s third most populated country bears a strong influence from its native and Spanish foundations, as well as its immigrant cultures, including Italian, German and more. But if you want to break away from the predictable tourist menu, you might need to go underground — figuratively speaking, of course. “Closed door dining” — as Argentina’s clandestine restaurants are categorized — invites inquisitive visitors to join chefs for a memorable prix-fixe meal that is literally home-cooked, starts on Argentine time (that is, around 9 p.m.) and is often served communally. Here are three closed-door experiences to seek out in the Land of Silver.
Housed in a cozy condo in Buenos Aires’ tony Recoleta neighborhood, Dan Perlman and Henry Tapia’s Casa SaltShaker has been the gateway to Argentina’s closed-door dining establishments for countless visitors. Perlman’s blog hosts a growing list of underground restaurants worldwide, so adventurous readers will find their way to his table one way or another. To welcome the 10 nightly guests, the evening naturally begins with a cocktail, perhaps Pisco-based. The meal progresses with a five-course menu of sophisticated Mediterranean- and Andean-inspired home cooking with paired wines and house-made bread. A past menu, for example, included shiitake cheesecake with oyster mushroom puree and fried portabellas; cherry tomato tarte tatin; cilantro tagliatelle with spicy shellfish cream; and aromatic steamed cod Amazon-style with potatoes and corn. For the complete lowdown, and certainly before booking, be sure to check out Perlman’s hilarious if exhaustive FAQ and take the intentional sass with a grain of salt.
Ituzaingo Cocina & Vinos
Look for the house with the unmarked door flanked by lights and pull the cord to ring the bell. That is how you will find host Gonzalo Cuervo’s funky loft-style home in Mendoza. After meeting the evening’s guests — as many as 20 — over a welcome drink and appetizers in the art-collector’s living room, choose your own table, either inside with a view of the tiny, bustling kitchen, or outside in the romantic courtyard garden with its fairytale foliage and lights. The four- and seven-course tasting menus are mini culinary journeys twinkling around Argentina: humita-style corn and cheese soup from the northwest; a duo of empanadas with Mendocino trout; and Patagonian trout with almonds. Three wines are included: a white, a rosé and either a sparkling or sweet wine. But for reds, ebullient Cuervo (a doctor, by trade) makes the rounds along with his pet boxers, escorting guests over to his wine wall to choose their desired bottle (and price) for the evening. The music and vibe are livelier and less reverential than many other restaurantes a puertas cerradas. But the food is no less serious. Not with the doctor in the house.
Roughly translated from Mendocino slang to mean “the street dogs,” Los Chocos in Mendoza is far more refined than its name would suggest. Chef Martin Morandini mans the kitchen solo, though you would think he had a full brigade back there from the artful presentation and ingenuity of the five courses served in his dining room. The friendly, soft-spoken Morandini is also a sommelier, so wine takes on a special meaning as you progress through his menu of delicious, savory and imaginative cuisine that relies only on seasonal, regional produce. One dessert, for example, looks like a typical flourless chocolate torte; however, the flour is made, Morandini said, from algarrobo, a tree bean that has been in use since the time of the Huarpe, Mendoza’s first inhabitants, 400 years ago. Other dishes included deep-fried flatbread with chicken pate served on a barrel stave; beet carpaccio; 10-hour-roasted baby goat with gremolata and smashed garlic potatoes. Following the communal meal, which has a dinner party vibe, Morandini joins his guests to take turns making their mark with finger paint on a canvas — a multi-cultural affair from start to finish.