“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor
Buenos Aires – One of the most common questions I get at Casa SaltShaker dinners, as well as via e-mail, is about the whole “restaurant de puertas cerradas” movement. There seems to be a common belief out there that I practically invented the concept, which isn’t remotely true – some of these places, like Mis Raíces, have been around for decades, there are at least a couple of dozen spots here, many of them here long before us, and as I’ve explored the world of “underground dining” more, I discover them in spots all over the world. I think that what it simply comes down to, is that we, by random chance, opened at just the right time, and that a couple of local writers took interest in us, and in short order we had a couple of pieces of press out there about us that attracted alot of attention. But much of it was happenstance – Ernesto Oldenburg of Bacanal magazine was invited to come to dinner by Elisabeth Checa, a local food and wine writer who is also, I believe, his aunt, and she was there as the guest of a winery owner from Mendoza, who was there because a mutual friend in the wine business had told him about us. Ernesto was casting about for an interesting story for his “Espia Gourmet” column, and we got lucky. Ian Mount, who wrote up the much touted piece in the NY Times about puertas cerradas, was, at the time, a friend of a friend whom I’d met at a wine tasting. He and his wife came to check us out, and a month or two later he asked if I minded if he “included” us in a piece about underground dining – I agreed, never dreaming that we’d be one of only two restaurants featured, nor that both major local newspapers would pick up and reprint his article translated into Spanish. And it’s taken off from there. But trust me, I didn’t invent the concept.
Now, the second piece of the question I get is, of course, a request for recommendations of other spots to try. Problem is, with only a couple of exceptions that I know of, most of the puertas cerradas restaurants here seem to operate on weekends, same as us. That means that for the most part, none of us have been to each others’ places. We’re all working at the same time. Many of you have explored far more of these places than I have, and I end up hearing about other spots more from our customers than from anywhere else (and if you know of places, please let me know, don’t worry about it if you think I might already have heard about it). So it’s a pleasure when I get a chance to check a place out on a night when we’re not working, which, by pure chance, happened this past weekend. For whatever reason, despite being full, with waiting lists, for last Thursday and Friday, Saturday had two people reserved for it, and no additional inquiries, and as it came down to the wire, we decided, with apologies to the two folk, to close for the evening.
A last minute call on my part garnered us a table at one of the relative newcomers…
Casa Colectivo Felix. Well, sort of a newcomer. Diego Felix actually had a small spot in Palermo years ago. Then he decided to head off to California for a few years, where he spent some time with some serious folk in both the vegetarian and sushi restaurant worlds, two of his passions in the world of gastronomy. He returned early this year and re-opened his smaller venue, but decided quickly that he wanted something that fit his dreams of opening up their home (he works with his girlfriend Sanra, who joined him here from San Diego), rather than a small apartment, along with having a garden where he could grow various interesting ingredients – and they’ve moved into a beautiful home in Chacarita, bordering on Colegiales. There, Diego gets to indulge in his culinary investigation passion – growing herbs that are simply unavailable here in Buenos Aires – in particular, he’s focused his attention on herbs that are grown in other parts of the country – flavors that are known to local populations in the north and west, that just aren’t part of the culinary scene here.
The night was a bit brisk, so they’d decided to seat us all indoors, rather than out in the open courtyard where they often hold the dinners. Slated for the night were, at the time, just three couples (seems like it was just a slow night all around), and Henry and I, and another couple, got the grand tour of the house, along with a shotglass of a welcome drink – a sangria of white wine, peach, cedron (a medicinal herb), before sitting ourselves down at a couple of low tables in the living room. The third couple arrived after we were already into our second courses, and at some point, Sanra appeared and setup another table for four, apparently having just received a call – and it was near to 11 p.m. when the quartet of tourists arrived. Though they call the dinners for a set time, 9:30, apparently given that diners are seated separately, they’re happy to accommodate arrivals when they get there. Interesting, too, that he had enough product on hand to take a late reservation like that – we tend to buy pretty much just what we need for the number of reservations we have, so rarely have a way to add in last minute diners. The feel, despite being in a home, is more restaurant like than what we do here at Casa SaltShaker, where everyone dines together. We weren’t introduced to the other diners, and there was no conversation between the tables – actually they’re spaced far enough apart that conversation would likely have been awkward anyway – and all three couples at least, were on romantic dates.
The food served up is a mix of vegetarian and fish, though on request, Diego and his assistant (an assistant in the kitchen, a mere fantasy of mine – we just don’t have the space) will produce an all vegetarian menu for you. I asked… he and Sanra are not vegetarians themselves, it’s more of an interest. The food is delightful, creative, interesting, and beautifully presented. The service is warm and friendly – Sanra taking care of the dining room, and Diego coming out and explaining each dish… to each table… which has to be a bit wearing, though I guess that assistant thing helps, since he’s able to spend more time in the dining room chatting with people and answering questions. I don’t have any serious criticisms of any of the dishes, which I’ll get to in a moment, other than just the sort of “I would have tried this this way…” but that’s just a difference in creative vision, not a negative about his choices. It’s not an inexpensive evening – coming in at 70 pesos for a four course meal (there’s also an “intermezzo”, but a shotglass of sorbet, at least for me, doesn’t count as a course) – however, the portions were decent sized, and we certainly didn’t leave hungry, nor dissatisfied with what we spent. They offer a short wine list with wines by both bottle and glass, plus an option to pair wines by the glass with each course. We each just had a glass of the Familia Gascon Rosado, a favorite of ours.
On to the food. On the left, the first course, and the favorite of the evening for both of us. An escabeche of oyster mushrooms with bright orange and herbal flavors (an indigenous type of mint called peperina), and a beautifully silky texture to the mushrooms, a scattering of other vegetables, and served atop small toasted diamonds of pan casero. On the right, an interesting presentation of stuffed flowers – a squash blossom and a hibiscus blossom, each filled with a corn and ricotta mixture, along with a small fried cake of the same filling – the one point both Henry and I thought was that good as it was, it would have been interesting to have different fillings and the cake, just for some contrast. Still, it was delicious, and the accompanying tangy fresh plum and almond sauce was perfect with the flavors.
The intermezzo was served, a demitasse spoon or two of apricot granité – tasty in its own way, though in some ways perhaps a little too close of a flavor note to the fresh plum sauce we’d just been served. I’m not complaining mind you, just an observation. The main course, slated to be a grilled pejerrey, a local river fish, was served as a lisa, or mullet, as Diego wasn’t happy with the pejerrey available in the fish market that day. The fish was simply sauteed, and served with a braised tomato sauce that complemented it perfectly, and it was perched atop a couple of slices of his interpretation of a Paraguayan bread, mbeyú, made from tapioca flour, eggs, milk, and cheese, and normally fried up to give it some crispness. To my mind, the dish might have taken on an added dimension if the bread had been fried, just that touch of crunch, instead it was much the same texture as the fish. Still, the flavors were great. Our only disappointment was the dessert, and really only in contrast to the other three dishes, all of which we enjoyed immensely. The dessert just didn’t seem to fit into the menu, as if it had been plucked from thin air, and it was merely okay – a couple of pillows of rice cooked with coconut milk and molded to simulate sushi with some slices of fruit on top. The coconut flavor was muted, the rice was chilled and a trifle gummy, the fruit slices were fine – nice and fresh – it was all pretty, but somehow just didn’t seem as creative and interesting as the rest of the meal. Hey, things like that happen when you’re experimenting with ideas, as you’ve all seen from following along my Casa S exploits.
All in all, we had a great time, enjoyed dinner, enjoyed getting to finally meet Diego and Sanra, and I would definitely recommend the experience at Casa Felix.