Dining in Buenos Aires offers adventurous visitors the intrigue of places that are anything but conventional. There are also bargains with the weakening Argentine peso.
Take the puerta cerrada, or closed-door restaurant, which occupies a culinary and legal gray area between a licensed eatery and a dinner party. Often in private homes, the puerta cerrada features limited seating and menus.
Elsewhere you’ll find secret dining places favored by cabbies and other underground as well as above-board establishments. Here’s a selection of my favorite tables in Buenos Aires.
Jazz music plays at a low volume to help set the New Orleans atmosphere of NOLA Buenos Aires, a 12-seat puerta cerrada in the Palermo Viejo district.
Louisiana native Liza Puglia started NOLA last August. Nomadic since Katrina, her first response was studying at New York’s French Culinary Institute. In El Salvador she met her Argentine boyfriend, Francisco Terren, NOLA’s wine and dessert expert.
Puglia calls the puerta cerrada a “blind date, but for a group. I like to play puppet master and watch it from behind the curtain.”
The couple’s mixed Argentine-American relationship shows up on the plate in her andouille sausage stew, using okra and local chorizo.
The main course is a chipotle pork dish, the meat soft, flaking and buttery after cooking for seven hours. Dessert is a piquant tart of blueberries and goat cheese from the Suipacha Ruta del Queso, or cheese trail, washed down with an artisanal chestnut beer that Terren designed.
NOLA Buenos Aires is in a private home serving only on weekends with a reservation (which gets you the address). Dinner including wine pairings is $75. Information: +54-9-11-5348-4509; www.nolabuenosaires.com.
I once lived near Secret Parrilla in the Las Canitas neighborhood and never knew of it. The place looks abandoned. Entry requires rapping on a locked gate and telling the woman who answers that I’m meeting David Carlisle.
She smiles and brings me to a worn wooden seat and a waiting glass of Malbec.
Catering mainly to taxi drivers, Secret Parrilla would have remained unknown to me if not for Carlisle, a native of Portland, Oregon, and his Argentine business partner, Santiago Palermo, who started tours of these restaurants in March 2012.
Carlisle learned of the place because “food is a good way into the culture. Through meeting Argentines, they brought me to places like this.”
“Parrilla” means both the grill cooking beef and the restaurant serving it. Our group represented the only foreigners.
Workers at Secret Parrilla take the venue’s name to heart. The cook and apparent owner poking blood-dripping hunks of meat over hot charcoals says, “I am Tito Jose. But maybe that’s not my real name.”
I don’t mind the charade though, as Tito sends me on my way with a slab of juicy bife de chorizo, a flavorful cut of beef with crisped fatty edges. Carlisle reminds me that his tour is conducted on an all-you-can-eat-and-drink basis. Parrilla Tour Buenos Aires offers walking tours in the San Telmo or Las Canitas neighborhoods with food and wine in 4-6 parrillas costing $69 per person. Information: +54-9-11-5808-9687; www.parrillatour.com.
Access to Floreria Atlantico is confusingly through a flower shop with a vault-like door leading to the basement. Like speakeasy code, mention the name of co-owner Tato, whose actual name is Renato Giovannoni.
“I wanted a basement bar, like in New York or London,” but in a secret way, says Giovannoni, who opened in January in the Retiro district.
Mixologist Martin Bruno serves me his signature drink Coctel del Atlantico ($11), sea water, the yerba-mate-infused gin Principe de los Apostoles, Ardbeg single-malt whiskey and Cinzano dry. It’s fresh, light and viscous.
Food is served as tapas. Ribeye steak ($21) is cut like thick black-edged rubies on a slab of wood, blood soaking into the grain. Octopus comes with potatoes in lemon and black-olive sauce, ($20) a chunky, salty experience. Sea bass arrives with a bacon and orange sauce, ($19) the fish flaking into my mouth.
Floreria Atlantico is at Arroyo 872. Information: +54-11-4313-6093; www.floreriaatlantico.com.ar.
Mun Kim, who trained under Iron Chef Makoto Okuwa, and fellow American Cary Gilbert develop wines for Asian foods with Casarena Winery in the western city of Mendoza. They come monthly to Argentina’s capital to host a pop-up.
It’s clear as Mun greets us that many of the 30 diners are return visitors. I’m at the gringo table with U.S. Embassy expatriates and a Canadian running Foto-Ruta tours.
Mun says that when he came to Buenos Aires, he “fell in love with the energy of the place” but found the cuisine limited. Waving at his creations, he says, “I knew the people would like something like this here in Buenos Aires, with a spicier, Asian feel.”
We begin with the 505 Salad, field greens with honey mustard glazed shrimp and chukka dressing, paired with Casarena’s 505 Chardonnay, strong citrus and tropical fruit notes against the salad’s seafood and soy-sauce elements.
Another favorite is the Momofuku-style pork bun and fiery fish taco combination, paired with Rama Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon.
We finish with an oozy chocolate volcano, paired with a syrupy, deep purple Rama Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Late Harvest 2011. Born with a sweet tooth, I drink a whole bottle, embarrassing myself for the next time I need something at the embassy.
Chef Mun Pop-Up: Dinners run about $80 at different locations in Buenos Aires. Information: +54-9-261-691-9732 or +1-323-325-8861; www.chefmun.com.
Gonzalo Aramburu opened his namesake restaurant in 2007 in the Constitucion neighborhood, a gentrifying area known for crime, “because when I came, I really didn’t have any money,” he says.
Moody tango music pulses through the split dining room, its lower-level tables with couples romancing against exposed-brick walls. I sit at a glass window overlooking the kitchen.
The 12-step tasting menu is creative in textures, contrasts and presentation. One of my favorites is beetroot roll with Waldorf salad and a red wine sorbet, deeply sweet cut by a tangy yogurt sauce.
Armenian kadaif, a shredded filo bird’s nest with shrimp at its center is formed over a scalding rock. Hostess Carolina Guariniello gives me a small bowl of bell pepper and peanut sauce, telling me to drown the nest as noisy, aromatic steam burst forth.
The concoction is gently spicy, with a kicking afterburn. I pair it with a sauvignon blanc. Watching my reaction, Guariniello says, “The idea is you can feel the flavor.”
Twelve-step programs are designed for addicts. This is one no foodie should resist.
Aramburu is at Salta 1050. The 12-step tasting menu is $68, with $45 additional for wine pairings. Information: +54-11-4305-0439; www.arambururesto.com.ar.
(Michael Luongo writes about travel for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Last month he was named Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Any opinions expressed are his own.)