Clutching a paper with an address scribbled on it in one hand and my husband’s arm with the other, I walked with anxiety down a street in Mendoza City, Argentina. As I got closer to my destination, anticipation turned into slight anxiety and my excitement turned to mild fear. “A ‘restaurant’ in someone’s home? Someone I’ve never met before? What am I doing???” I could sense by his silence that the same thoughts were running through my husband’s head.
As we walked past a pool hall, my fearful thoughts were interrupted. “Amanda?” asked a pleasant young man leaning against the wall. He approached us and gave me the traditional Argentine kiss on the right cheek. “So nice to meet you,” he said, “I’m Martin. I hope that you are hungry! Let me show you upstairs.” We bypassed the pool hall, took a small elevator to the 3rd floor of a nice building on one of Mendoza’s busier downtown streets, and we entered Martin’s apartment; or, in this case, his “restaurant”. And so began my first experience with a fascinating way of dining.
Underground restaurant, closed door restaurant, supper club, guestaurant, paladar, restaurante de puertas cerradas… call it what you would like, these restaurants are a staple of Argentine culture and have been around for decades. Originally intended for chefs without the capital to invest in opening a fully-functioning restaurant, the movement has now become a fabulous way for chefs to experiment with new dishes and ingredients; for the guests, it offers an opportunity to sample these dishes at a much lower price than if they were to dine in a traditional restaurant.
This trend has now spread to the UK and the United States where they were met with disdain from government agencies monitoring income and health code and sanitation regulations, yet received laudatory reviews by more experienced restaurant critics. Diners have kept up the demand for these establishments partly because they thrive on the clandestine nature of the meal: customers often obtain a reservation only if recommended through a friend, making the meal all the more exciting.
My recent dining experience in one of these hush-hush eateries was a culinary journey I will never regret taking. Martin, a chef and intermediate level sommelier, paired white, rose, red and dessert wines with five beautiful courses using the freshest ingredients. It goes without saying that they were all in season.
We began with a puff pastry with baked goat cheese, roasted squash, malbec-braised onions and grapefruit, which was served on a piece of an oak barrel (I thought it was a nice touch). Martin paired the starter with the Mi Terruno chardonnay, which had excellent acidity that held up well against the normally bitter grapefruit.
The next course was a creamy polenta with a “burnt tomato” sauce served with pork sausage and topped with a poached egg and fresh basil and basil flower. I loved the extra level of flavor and creaminess that the runny egg yolk added to the dish, while the basil added just the right amount of bright flavors to the typically heavy tomato sauce and polenta. Genius!
Our third course was one of my personal favorite Argentine dishes: mollejas (sweetbreads). Sweetbreads are one of those foods which are met with a funny face when people discover that they are the thymus gland of a cow, but I absolutely love them and would not suggest them if I did not think that they were delicious. And they are. Unlike other innards such as intestines and kidney (both of which I am not a fan), sweetbreads do not have that chalky, almost dirty taste: they are soft and savory and absolutely delicious. Martin sautéed his so that they were crispy on the outside and then soft on the inside, and he topped them with lemon juice and fried leeks. He served the dish with toasted walnuts and black olives, which were nice accompaniments. I loved the mixes of textures (mollejas with a crunchy outside yet a creamy inside, crispy leeks, soft, sleek olives and then the semi-firm walnuts: brilliant!) and the balance of such interesting flavors.
What was especially interesting about this course was his chosen pairing: a Malbec rosé from Mi Terruno. I would never have thought to pair sweetbreads with a rosé (I typically like to serve them with salads and cold sandwiches: I have always thought of rosé wine as a perfect accompaniment to picnic foods) so I was pleasantly surprised when the flavors worked so well together.
We finally moved on to the main course: beef braised for ten hours which was then shredded and served with fennel, cucumber, cheesy mashed potatoes, a malbec reduction and a tomato and quince chutney. It was absolutely fabulous. The meat was slowly cooked to perfection and was juicy and full of flavor; the richness of the meat and the potato was offset by the light cucumber and the sweet chutney, and altogether each of the components made a beautiful, well thought-out dish. In true Argentine fashion, Martin paired the main course with a malbec from Mayacaba winery in the Lujan de Cuyo region of Mendoza: unlike some more fruit-forward Argentine malbecs that I have had, the Mayacaba exhibited more mature flavors such as fennel and herbs; a fruity malbec would not have allowed the nuances of the meat’s spices to show through, and I found it to be an excellent choice for a pairing.
After four outstanding courses we were served dessert, which was a moist cake made from regional fruit including roasted loquats and kumquats. The true winner of this dish was the wine which Martin paired with it: a dessert wine called mistela, which comes from the word “must”. Must is the leftover skins, leaves, stems, etc after the juice has been pressed, and it is fortified with alcohol to make a sweet dessert wine which paired incredibly well with the roasted fruits.
By the end of the meal, I knew that I had not just eaten a fabulous five-course dinner: I had had an introduction into a new and fascinating aspect of the culinary world, and I had learned that the best meals can come in the strangest of places. I thought back to my hesitation when I walked past the pool hall where Martin had been standing and I laughed: if only I had known what a culinary delight I was in for! Now the damage had been done: I was hooked. In fact, now I just might be South America’s biggest fan of this new dining trend, and I am on a mission to share my culinary experiences with the world. So the search begins for another closed-door restaurant… you never know what delicious culinary delights could be situated just above your neighborhood pool hall.