Raise the Red Lantern

2011.May.09 Monday · 7 comments

in Restaurants

“Faith means living with uncertainty – feeling your way through life, letting your heart guide you like a lantern in the dark.”

– Dan Millman, author

One of my goals for this year, as I think I mentioned a couple of months ago, is to get myself out to my competition – i.e.,, the other puertas cerradas here (and other places as I travel). It’ll mean an occasional rearrangement of our schedule, and, hopefully a lot of fun. There may be one or two that I don’t end up writing up – I simply won’t mention them – I may be willing to occasionally trash a “regular” restaurant that truly gets it wrong, but in the case of a home business, I’d prefer to just not bring them up.

So, I’m happy to report back on one of the newest spots, Casa Mun, with very positive thoughts. I met Mun and his partner about a year ago when they visited Buenos Aires. At the time they were thinking of opening up a mixed sushi-bar and Korean restaurant, and had it in mind that they’d start off with a closed door spot as a trial, to see if people liked Mun’s food and style. Saturday night a friend and I trundled off to a small home in Palermo where we were told to look for a red lantern lit in the window. We found it with no problem and entered around 8:30 in the evening. [Update as of end of January 2012: Casa Mun has moved to a share shared mixed used space with a wine distributor and some other puertas cerradas in Palermo that’s roughly double the size of Mun’s home, a bit more restaurant-like. I plan to return to check things out when I have a chance.] [Update to Update: As of August 2012 Casa Mun has closed up as a regular operation and moved to Mendoza, where they’ve reopened as the restaurant at the Casarena winery. Once every month or two they come to Buenos Aires and run a one or two night pop-up.] [U to U to U: A short-lived project in Mendoza, and they moved to Germany.]

Casa Mun

This was Mun’s 9th dinner since opening in March. They’re still in the stage of being the new hotspot to try amongst the foodie cognoscenti – so it was no surprise that the majority of the 16 people who showed up were among a tight circle that tend to know each other, including some fellow food writers. The room is beautifully and simply appointed, in primarily red surfaces, with white tablecloths on the tables, charger plates (very formal), silverware and chopsticks at each position. We were greeted by the trio of Mun’s partner and two servers who tend to the room, and a glass of sparkling wine. A bit of mingling for about half an hour and then we sat down around the two tables – perhaps slightly crowded together fitting sixteen around the two tables designed for probably twelve.

Casa Mun - tempura

Mun came out and introduced the evening. He’s quite soft-spoken, but entertaining, with a charming accent (does anyone have a non-charming accent?). A duo of women at, thankfully, the other table, never stopped talking throughout the evening, including when he was talking to the room, and actually got louder then, which was annoying, but he took it in stride. He told us about the food we would be eating as well as the wines, and then headed back into the kitchen. He and the two servers quickly removed the set plates and then returned to serve up a beautifully arranged room temp vegetable and prawn tempura in a light and delicate beer batter that was spot-on delicious, though I might have preferred it hot.

Casa Mun - sushi/sashimi

Next up, a sushi and sashimi plate. Delicate slivers of Chilean salmon served atop ribbons of cucumber for the sashimi were wonderful. Good, the maki roll, which fascinatingly moved through four different slices that started subtle and moved on to stronger flavor. It also passed from “crab stick” at the left, a slight dismay when there’s good quality crab available in this country (then again, crab stick is so common these days in sushi rolls that perhaps it’s almost expected), to a crispy prawn at the right.

Casa Mun - singapore noodles

The third course, Singapore Noodles, I’d say was a disappointment. It wasn’t bad, but it was out of balance, particularly in comparison to the rest of the food and the approach to everything else in the evening. Rice noodles, shrimp (for the third dish in a row, which was commented on by a couple of people at the table), a lightly perfumed curry sauce, radish and bean sprouts, and the one component that was a touch overwhelming, a mix of green and red peppers that were just too strongly flavored for the rest of the dish’s elements. It was apparent at least at our table, as all but one person ate through less than half of the dish and then just pushed it aside.

Casa Mun - bibimbap

But everything was redeemed and life was bright and shiny with the arrival of the next course, a vegetable and quail egg bibimbap, which is not only my favorite Korean dish of all time, but the flavors, the balance, and Mun’s mom’s “secret hot sauce” made this one of the best versions of this dish I’ve had in a very long time. I was a very happy camper and could even more happily just made a dinner out of a very large bowl of this.

Casa Mun - chocolate mousse cake

Now, despite having recently trained as a pastry chef to improve my skills, I’m still not much of a dessert person, and very rarely will order anything sweet at the end of the meal. A chocolate mousse cake, light and fluffy, was tasty, and the rest of the table plowed through it with abandon, so I’ll assert that it was very good, though for me, I ate the fruit, tasted a bite or two of the cake, and just relaxed with some delightful green tea. The little chocolate Chinese character meaning “home” was a cute touch.

Overall, beautiful space, lovely stylish service. Two truly great dishes and two good, with one so-so – not a bad showing, particularly in a closed door setting with one person cooking for 16 people a five course tasting menu. Gorgeous, artistic presentation of the food. A trifle pricey – coming in at 195 pesos for five courses but only three wine pairings (two whites and one red – and an announcement that the pours were set and if you wanted more wine you’d have to pay for it), and the advance request for a gratuity to be added is a little odd for a closed door setting – not that it’s not typical to leave one for the service staff, but asking for it in writing is strange (we did that when we first opened, as a suggestion, but it was received really negatively by customers and we heard about it numerous times within our first couple of months open, so we dropped it and it made no difference in whether people choose to leave on or not as best I can tell). The price is not out of line for a tasting menu in a closed door setting – we’re only five pesos cheaper, and several spots are more expensive, some significantly, but usually there’s a different paired wine with each course and refills are generally included. In the end, however, we left sated and I’d recommend it as a nice evening out.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

S May 10, 2011 at 18:01

You guys are just cozy like peas in a pod aren’t you? I was at the same dinner you were at the other table and it was crap food. The tempura was cold and greasy, the sushi was as bad as most takeaway places here, couldn’t even eat that noodle curry and the main course was just vegetables. It was supposed to be a seafood dinner and there was just crap shrimp on three of the dishes and nothing on what was supposed to be the main course. The chocolate cake was good you missed out if you didn’t eat that but I don’t think he made it. and then they have the bollocks to ask for a tip on top of 200 pesos! “negatively received”? It was just all flash and crap. You shouldn’t review places that your friends are at if you can’t be honest.

dan May 11, 2011 at 08:18

S – no question it’s tough to review someone I know’s place, though I don’t know how cozy we are – I met Mun and his partner once a year ago – still, no question that on the puertas cerradas I don’t do negative reviews. If I don’t like a place, I just don’t write about it, which is different from regular restaurants – though I think if it was a friend’s restaurant, the same would be true. I like Mun and I know that in the first few weeks of having a place open, there’s a lot of figuring it all out and getting it all to work – if you look back at when Casa SaltShaker first opened, I served up some food that was pretty questionable sometimes. And, it’s all different tastes too – on our “past menus” pages on our website, I post the good and the bad commentary (why oh why do I do that?) – sometimes someone thinks a dish is “crap” and sometimes at the same dinner someone else loves it.

The vegetable tempura was room temperature, but I assumed that was intentional, and the shrimp was hot – Mun was making it while we were all having our champagne, and laying it out, so I just figured he planned it that way. I didn’t think it was greasy, I thought it was light and crunchy, and really quite good. If that sushi was “as bad” as the takeout places near where you live, I want to know where they are because I’m going to start ordering from them! The curry, yeah, none of us was really happy with it, but it wasn’t like it wasn’t edible or something. On the bibimbap I was surprised too that there wasn’t some kind of seafood (and yes, I thought the shrimp on three courses in a row was a little strange), but, once I dug in it was so good, I didn’t care. Besides, I don’t think given the size of the courses that it was really a main course, it was just a series of four plates that were all roughly the same size. I somehow doubt Mun is buying the chocolate cake from someone else, he doesn’t strike me as the type to not have made it himself. The tip thing – well, I covered that. Different from us though, he’s actually got waitresses, whereas Henry and I do it all ourselves, which I think contributed to why we got negative feedback when we did it at the beginning.

Expensive? Yes. But everything here is getting that way – we’ll probably have to raise our price soon, and I know that many of my colleagues already have. Worth it? I say yes. You say no. Wasn’t there a song about that?

John K May 19, 2011 at 07:23

I wanted to eat here but there email was so rude and wanted likerefernences just trying to get a reserve that I said fuckit.

dan May 19, 2011 at 08:30

Umm, hmm… I think you might have made their point for them…. most of us do some amount of screening based on the email or phone call and gut feeling.

But on the subject, I did hear from a few friends and Casa S guests that they felt it was a bit too secretive – not getting the address until last minute, asking who recommended them. But remember, this is their home, and, they’re new to the game, so I imagine that they’re being very security conscious. We were the same way when we first opened up, I used to ask people the same thing – who recommended them, and sometimes I even contacted that person to see if the one asking for the reservation was “okay”. I was new to BA and to having strangers come to the house like this, I don’t think it’s really that out of line – sometimes I think I’ve gotten too lax about it these days. As to the address, it adds a little air of mystery to the whole thing – true, it’s usually done more with pop-up type dinners where the location moves each time, and doesn’t necessarily make sense for a fixed spot, but I didn’t find it off-putting.

Teri M July 13, 2011 at 15:47

Ever since coming to your place a couple of months ago we’ve been on a kick to try more secret restaurants. We’ve been getting to one about every two weeks. We were particularly excited about going to Casa Mun because the food sounded so good and you recommended it. I can’t say we were thrilled. The food was great (though the wine didn’t really go with any of it and looking at their menus it looks like they just serve the same wines every time no matter what the dishes), don’t get me wrong, and such a nice change from most of the Asian food here, but the whole experience was just so lacking in warmth. Mun’s partner, whose name I don’t know since he never introduced himself, said hello to us, got us some champagne and then just left us to stand around, and everyone else was doing the same, there was no real attempt to get people to meet each other or mix. We were left to figure things out like seating, no one said anything except to sit down. During the dinner we never saw Mun except when he kidn of woodenly came out said what we were eating and although the other guy was hovering around in the room he really never interacted with any of the guests. At the end of the night we were left to figure out about paying and just kind of leave on our own. Neither of the guys said anything much more to us than goodbye. We kind of felt the same way at Cocina Sunae when we tried it too, even though we never saw much of Christina or her husband at least the waitress was friendly and the food is better and the price is cheaper than at Mun’s place.

It was so different from the warm feeling you and Henry give, welcoming us into your house, mingling with us, even when you have stuff to cook, at the beginning, explaining everything as we went along, and chatting with all of us during each course and then at the end of meal over coffee. I’d far rather come back to your place for that and even pay more for the experience and you charge less!

dan July 13, 2011 at 16:52

Teri – Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed coming to our place so much back in April! Give the boys a chance, they’re still new to it all, it took us awhile to get into the rhythm of things too and realize that we could actually let some of the logistical stuff slide in exchange for spending more time with our guests.

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