In Argentina’s wine capital, travel writer Madelaine Triebe delves into the burgeoning closed-door dining scene.
It’s like being invited to a private dinner party with strangers; the only difference is that the food’s being made by a professional chef. Argentina’s puertas cerradas – or closed-door restaurants – serve up limited dishes in an intimate setting and are a well-hidden alternative to public fine dining.
The concept first emerged in Cuba under the name of paladares and has been around in Argentina for decades but didn’t grow in popularity until the economic crisis hit the country in 2001. In a time of financial uncertainty the underground dining experience boomed in the capital Buenos Aires. Chefs and restaurant owners discovered that opening up their homes to paying guests was a great way to lower costs and earn money, while still keeping creative control in the kitchen.
Closed-door restaurants have become an established, although clandestine, part of the sophisticated Porteño food scene.
Since then closed-door restaurants have become an established, although clandestine, part of the sophisticated Porteño food scene and a few years back the phenomena spread to Mendoza – the capital of Argentina’s wine region.
I had been recommended Ituzaingo Restó by a number of locals, and told that making a reservation in advance is essential. There’s not much information on the website but I manage to find an email address and just a day later I receive my invitation to a six-course dinner at a Mendocinian street address.
On the night, I jump out of the taxi in front of a building with graffiti across the walls, in a quiet neighbourhood that’s east of the city centre. It’s around 9pm and in this quiet part of town there are no tourists or locals roaming the streets. After double checking the address I’ve been given, I ring the doorbell to what I assume is the right place.
A man dressed in a loosely fitted button-down shirt, with thick black hair flecked with grey and a beard to match, opens the door to greet me: “Welcome”, he says. “You’re Madelaine, right?” He introduces himself as Gonzalo Cuervo – the owner of the house – before exclaiming that I’m the last one to arrive.
I follow him through the hallway where wine racks decorate the walls to the living room and where we’ll be dining. As I look around the airy loft apartment with black and white tiled flooring and a big patio at the back, I count sixteen guests, including myself.
As I look around the airy loft apartment, I count sixteen guests, including myself.
A group of men and women in their forties and fifties are sitting on the dark leather sofas, flicking through Gonzalo’s record collection, while a young couple in their early thirties quietly browse the wine bottles.
“Have a snack and a glass of Cava. We are soon to serve dinner”, says Gonzalo before introducing me to three San Francisco-based business students, then moving on to mingle with ten Brazilian motorcyclists who are on a road trip through Argentina.
While we settle on bar stools at one of the dining tables to wait for our first course to arrive, I discover my dining companions are in Mendoza on a mission to try the city’s best restaurants.
“We eat out every night and have a couple of favourites already, but this is the first closed-door restaurant we’ve tried”, says Francois, a French Stanford student who turns out to be a great source for amusement with his wine-fuelled commentary throughout the evening.
While drinking Malbec and devouring regional Argentine food, I find myself listening to stories told by Gonzalo and my dining companions.
After the first dish is served Gonzalo comes to join us. He proves to be a well-rounded host as he talks us through the dishes of fish balls made of surubí fish from the Paraná River and maté infused sorbet, as well as giving advice on where to go in Mendoza, sometime between serving the fried meat empanadas with olives and eggs, and the filet mignon with chimichurri.
I soon feel as though we are all friends. While drinking Malbec and devouring dishes of regional Argentine food – with influences spanning Patagonia in the south to Salta in the north – I find myself listening to stories told by Gonzalo and my dining companions for the night.
Find out more about this region’s dining scene in our Mendoza food guide with celebrity chef Francis Mallmann.