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Argentina's Secret Supper Clubs

Argentina's Secret Supper Clubs
Travellers visiting Buenos Aires will almost always sample the city's steak and pizza restaurants – but there is also a thriving 'secret' restaurant scene, offering something much more unusual. Locals run dining events from their own homes, giving tourists a chance to sample a variety of dishes, meet new people, and get under the skin of the Argentinean foodie scene.
 
At Casa Coupage, a place with high ceilings, a marble staircase and an expansive dining room, two amiable sommeliers – Ines Mendieta and Santiago Mymicopulo – offer blind wine tastings and pairing meals with a personal touch. It's the first of two hidden restaurants I'm visiting during my stay.
 
“Tonight you will taste three blends of Argentinean wine,” says Santiago. “Write down what you like about each one. There are no good or bad things, just what you feel. It should be personal.” Smiling, he pours a cherry-red wine into my glass and moves to another table.
 
There are 12 guests seated across three tables, which our sociable hosts move between constantly, asking each person's opinion on the wine, discussing possible tastes and aromas, and explaining the art of interpretation. For Ines and Santiago, wine tasting is not about knowing the correct thing to say, but about judging the flavours on a personal level. “Sometimes the first – and most important – information is whether or not you like the wine,” explains Santiago. “If you're at a tasting and you're talking about the wine for half an hour, sometimes you're not even sure if you like it by the end.”
 
We are treated to a rich 2006 Rutini from the Syrah region, a warm Patagonian Gran Reserva and a smooth purple Malbec from Mendoza. When the food appears, we are asked to consider the wines in relation to the each dish. Three independent
Argentina's Secret Supper Clubs
meals are served on one plate, contrasting strongly in their flavours: 'gazpacho' – a subtly-flavoured, cold tomato-based soup, a punchy bird pate with peppers and mozzarella, and a succulent tuna steak on a tart base. Desert is a light, sweet cake of ricotta with goats cheese and Dulce de Leche (a delicious caramel, and every Argentinean’s favourite vice).

Santiago tells me that wines with a higher tactile sensation (rather than light wines) should taste better with food. Predictably, though, opinions differ on the best marriages between tastes. And I suspect this is what our hosts enjoy the most about running Casa Coupage – the variety of opinions and the resulting lively debates.
 
It is a sociable atmosphere, too, that defines meals at Casa Saltshaker, where I take my second foray into the world of Buenos Aires's secret restaurants. In a stylish flat at a hidden location (the address isn't revealed until a booking has been made), guests are encouraged to come in small groups, or even alone, so that people socialise easily with one another.
 
Seated at a table of eight, I fall easily into conversation with the other guests – two Argentineans, three Americans, and a Spaniard. Casa Saltshaker is one of the better known supper clubs, and draws visitors from all over the world. Unlike the sommeliers at Casa Coupage, however, American expat owner Dan Perlman doesn't focus his efforts on Argentinean cuisine, but instead creates themed meals. When I visit, the menu is designed in honour of the 150th celebration of the unification of the Kingdom of Sardinia.
 
There are five courses, kicked off with an 'Insalata de Calamari', salty blanched squid rings and tentacles, tossed with garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, basil, shallots and mint, and served with a fresh sparkling Santa Julia Extra Brut. This is followed by a combination of the chef's two favourite chickpea based soups, one with saffron, one with fennel, to create 'Minestra di Ceci con Zafferano e Finocchi' - which turns out to be an unusual and rich combination, paired with a Chenin Blanc.
 
As his co-owner and host Henry Tapia serves the next meal, Dan explains to us that the third dish is his own version of 'Pane Frattau', a food that he encountered at a Sardinian restaurant in Buenos Aires and has developed through researching traditional recipes: a chewy flatbread made from semolina flour, topped with a tomato sauce with hints of garlic and thyme, and fried egg and pecorino cheese.
 
It's an unusual dish, and not something I would usually order for myself, but then this is the very reason I made a reservation: the inviting thing about closed door restaurants is that you will almost certainly experience the unexpected – through meeting new people and trying new foods. I am particularly pleased to stumble on Dan's 'Bistecchine de Maile', a delicious Sardinian holiday dish of pork shoulder (usually wild boar) seasoned with bitter chocolate, bay leaves, raisins and prunes and complimented with deep red Don Nicanor Syrah.
 
The food is accompanied by lively talk. Two of the American's warn against getting burnt on the Buenos Aires open-top bus tour, while a generous Argentinean called Maria offers to show me around - “call me if you need anything. Anything at all”. Down the other end of the table, everyone is laughing at the Spaniard's fervent distaste for Paris, a topic he returns to repeatedly. Our hosts finish with a grappa and citrus desert called 'seadas', paired with a sweet white Santa Julia Tardio. And then? They come and join the conversation.
 
Casa Coupage can be found at Guemes 4382, Palmero, Buenos Aires. For more information visit www.casacoupage.com or call +54 11 4833 6354.
 
Casa Saltshaker is at a hidden location, revealed once a booking has been confirmed. For more information (and also for links to other secret restaurants in the city) visit www.casasaltshaker.com.
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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17 May 2010
By: Ruth Stokes
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