Amanda Barnes takes us through the keyhole to look at Mendoza’s secret dining scene, and some of the best kids on the block.
If you take a quick look at the top restaurants in Mendoza on TripAdvisor, it won’t take you long to spot a trend. The Top 3 are all part of it, 5 of the Top 7 are part of it, and if you plan to visit Buenos Aires you’ll find a similar inclination. What is ‘it’? ‘It’ is the puertas cerradas phenomenon that has well and truly swept all over Argentina, like a tidal wave of Malbec, mismatched crockery and edible flowers.
What is puertas cerradas exactly? It is what us gringos might be more comfortable pronouncing as a ‘pop-up restaurant’ or a ‘supper club’or an ‘underground restaurant’, and even the Spanglish translation of ‘closed-door restaurant’ works. Why are there so many names? Because this is a phenomenon that has existed since the culture of not cooking your own meals very first began. In fact the oldest running restaurant in the world, Ma Yung’s chicken house, was a closed-door restaurant in 1153. Casual supper clubs is how the world of restaurateurs began. Which can be hard to remember, as in our living memory, restaurants require the tedium of paperwork, signatures, lawyers, permission and a ton of money (or a big loan) just to turn up the flames and open their door to the public. The simplicity of opening your home and cooking a meal for someone else is seeing a renaissance, and especially in a red-tape laden country like Argentina there is often something far more attractive to some owners and diners about the prospect of a closed-door restaurant.
Most supper clubs are in the owner’s home and that is all part of the charm: the intimacy, the unique experience and the connection with the host. If you take Ituzaingo for example, a closed-door restaurant in art-lover Gonzalo Cuervo’s home, you get welcomed in by Gonzalo, offered a drink on the sofa while you can let a nosy eye roam around his art covered walls and peak into the open plan kitchen, and enjoy a natter with him on the sofa as he guides you through his fabulous music collection. You feel as if you have been invited over to a friend’s house for dinner, except that this friend is an excellent cook with helpful hands in the kitchen. What could be better? All the comfort and warmth of a home, no moody waitresses and a delicious six-course dinner where you can raid Gonzalo’s well-stocked wine cellar to accompany dishes. Gonzalo (a doctor as well as a great host) started Ituzaingo a few years ago for a bit of fun and to meet new people and introduce them to Mendoza. While his philosophy is to welcome you in and get to know you, he also values giving guests some privacy to enjoy their dinner at their own table.
On the other hand, many underground restaurants go by a communal table principle. Restaurants like Los Chocos or Pirca put all the guests on one big and beautiful table. You really do feel like you’ve been invited to a private dinner party and you get to meet new people from other walks of life. This social Russian roulette can of course be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your preferences and the other guests on the night. This is one of the most popular closed-door restaurant experiences, but you do need to go to with an open mind and a sociable attitude, or if you are looking to write your sociology thesis.
Communal table home restaurants usually offer a fixed menu, which can run from anything like an introduction to Argentine cuisine to an all-vegetarian menu. Puerto Rico-New York inspired chef, Angelo Gonzalez, has just started his own Caribbean themed home restaurant on Friday nights where you can get a taste of something a little different in Mendoza – something expats here quite seriously crave. As you sit around a shared table at Al Pasillo, Angelo and his wife Claudia welcome you in with an amuse bouche and glass of wine as he explains his affinity with Caribbean foods and what the key ingredients are in cuisine from much of Latin America including the Caribbean, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. As different courses come parading out with local wines, you get an idea of some of the main flavour groups of the Caribbean and the salsa music in the background and friendly hosts make it a fun night with a Latin flare. Tasty dishes like fish with mango salsa, and two-day black beans with his version of ropa vieja, sit alongside wines from Lujan de Cuyo and even rum-based cocktails make their way into the menu. When most tourists arrive to Argentina they can often be a little disillusioned about the lack of spice in local cooking, but a night at Angelo’s will make you feel like you’ve landed in Latin America!
While most restaurants focus on the food with wine pairings on the side, in some restaurants wine plays the stronger part. Sommelier and wine aficionada Inés Mendieta started her underground restaurant, Casa Coupage, in Buenos Aires with fellow somm Santiago Mymicopulo offering a wine club with themed tastings that soon became partnered up with tapa-style dishes to play around with pairings. The nights became so popular that members of the private wine club asked if they could stay for a full dinner, and so the restaurant was born. Casa Coupage built up a loyal following, and a couple months ago Inés brought Casa Coupage 2 to the heartland of Argentine wine, Mendoza. With the same wine focus, her new endeavor is at her new home – a beautiful historical house next to a bodega on the wine route in Maipu. With Italian fiancée Michele Aretini in the kitchen, they serve up a fabulous tasting menu or small a-la-carte menu which will satiate any foodie, but the real joy of Casa Coupage is indulging in Inés’ passion for wine. Let her know how many glasses you want to try and the sorts of wines you like, and she’ll excitedly rummage through the cellar pulling out many different bottles to try and show you some of the most varied, interesting and delightful wines in Argentina. As well as a great dinner, it is a mini wine education. Best of all is that rather than just having one glass of wine per course, you can opt to have a couple so you can do a comparative tasting and pick your own pairing preferences. An essential Mendoza experience.
What makes underground dining so fun is that each closed-door restaurant has its own theme and style. Offerings range from casual to highly professional. What is common between all of them though, is that you won’t find anything like it elsewhere.
Ituzaingo: One of the longer-running offerings on the scene, Ituzaingo serves up a plate of warmth and charisma with great music on the side and a stylish home feel. www.facebook.com/Ituzaingo.Resto
Al Pasillo: A more casual home restaurant where you can experience some of the tropical flavours of the Caribbean for a brief break from milanesas and empanadas. www.facebook.com/AlPasillo
Casa Coupage: For wine lovers and gourmands, this sommelier-run restaurant is unpretentious yet professional in a handsome historic house with a rocking wine cellar. firstname.lastname@example.org
Why do closed-door restaurants score so highly on Trip Advisor?
There can be a bit of green-eyed jealousy from conventional restaurants about the often overly enthusiastic reviews of home restaurants on TripAdvisor. While the comments about atmosphere and experience are usually glowing, if you take an honest look at the food and service of some, they might only be average to a food critic. Perhaps a reason people rave about them sometimes undeservedly is because after a dinner at someone’s home, it feels like you are critiquing a friend. If your night wasn’t exactly perfect then you’d probably rather write no review then smash your new pal’s dreams of becoming a Michelin star chef. Conventional restaurants can have a tough gig with review sites like TripAdvisor as the customer walks in with an expectation. The beauty of a closed-door restaurant is that you go in without knowing what to expect, and this often means you leave with higher opinions than before you arrived. The service in home restaurants is almost always enthusiastic and friendly too, as they are often the owners. An aggrieved waiter in a normal restaurant who acts like they don’t want to be working on a Friday night (a common experience in Mendoza) can destroy the restaurateur’s chances of wooing you within an instant, and lead them to eternal TripAdvisor damnification. Read and rate with caution.