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Buenos Aires by way of a menu, not a map

Underground dining inspires chefs and tourists

In Buenos Aires, guests dine on the patio at Casa Felix, where a bowl of summer locro, a northern Argentinian stew, one night included vegetarian chorizo. In Buenos Aires, guests dine on the patio at Casa Felix, where a bowl of summer locro, a northern Argentinian stew, one night included vegetarian chorizo. (Sanra Ritten (Left Photos); Henry Tapia for The Boston Globe (Center Photos); Ariel Mendieta for The Boston Globe (Right Photos))
By Tracey Ceurvels
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2010

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BUENOS AIRES — I am about to make a dinner reservation, except that I don’t know where I’ll be eating. I’ve been told that once I book a table the location will be revealed. What is certain: I will be eating at one of the “puertas cerradas,’’ or closed-door restaurants, that are the rage here. These quirky, underground “anti-restaurants’’ are where many chefs serve their best dishes.

“The closed-door restaurant concept, essentially an unofficial restaurant in a chef’s home, has existed for centuries in Buenos Aires,’’ says Paul Irvine of Dehouche, a travel agency based in South America that offers unique, tailor-made vacations. “But in recent years the scene has really taken off, perhaps due to the hard economic times, as well as the creative freedom a young chef cooking from his home can enjoy.’’

One enticement to these excursions is that clandestine feeling you get not knowing the location or even when they’re serving. “When these secret establishments are open varies from restaurant to restaurant, and week to week, depending on how many bookings they have, which location is to be used, even whether the chef is in town,’’ says Irvine.

While the feeling of being an insider is an attraction, it’s also the cuisine that lures diners. Irvine, who sends many of his clients on these adventures, says that because it’s not a public restaurant, the chefs can be as innovative and creative as they wish.

This is the case with the engaging chef Diego Felix and his eponymous Casa Felix in the charming Chacarita neighborhood. Although Buenos Aires cuisine is heavy on meat dishes (steakhouses, called “parrillas,’’ are ubiquitous), Felix follows his own culinary path by crafting a seafood-centric menu (he also makes vegan and vegetarian dishes upon request). One of Felix’s favorite pastimes is traveling around the country in search of wild berries and herbs, and new ingredients from small, regional producers. Along the way he has learned traditional cooking techniques. Diners reap the benefits of his travels in dishes like stuffed chili peppers and chorizo made of seitan.

After booking a table for two at 9:30 p.m, (the only time dinner is served at Casa Felix), I am given the address. When we arrive other diners (only 12 per night, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays) are sitting at tables on the patio. I have let go of any preconceived notions of what I’d like for dinner since the chef makes what he wishes. I am looking forward to the five-course tasting menu of local, organic ingredients that includes an arugula and spinach salad with hulled wheat and dressing made with chanar (berries from a tree indigenous to Argentina) and grilled surubi (fish) in a Mesopotamian broth with fennel and fresh flowers.

Dan Perlman, who moved here five years ago from Georgia, also enjoys the creative freedom of having a “home’’ restaurant. The chef, certified sommelier, and owner of Casa SaltShaker, says, “I enjoy doing this because I get to be more creative and have more control over the menu than I would in a regular restaurant setting. And, as importantly, we get to meet new and interesting people every week, many of whom become friends.’’

Irvine says his clients appreciate the authentic, non-touristy experience where they meet residents and other travelers. “After an evening at a puerta cerrada, they leave with new knowledge about the food, some great tips for the best local wines to bring home, and often an invite to someone’s party the next night,’’ he says.

Diners can’t help but meet at the intimate dinners at Casa SaltShaker, where they convene around one large communal table. In fact, Perlman refers to his place as a salon for food and conversation. Two to three times a week he opens his home to about 12 guests who come for his eclectic themed dinners, many of which are based on an event or an offbeat holiday. At the Umbrian Flower Festival dinner, dishes included celery root soup with black truffles, umbricelli pasta with green olives, and for dessert, a sweet pizza. And each course is paired with a local wine.

Dining at a chef’s home is also a great way to socialize with the hosts, especially when they’re as warm, dynamic, and hospitable as Inés Mendieta and Santiago Mymicopulo. Their Casa Coupage is held in the private dining room at their grand midcentury apartment in Palermo. It’s one of the most sought-after of these closed-door restaurants, with only five tables available on Thursdays and Fridays. What started as a private wine tasting club for oenophiles (Mendieta and Mymicopulo are professional sommeliers) turned into an upscale puerta cerrada.

At Casa Coupage, the evolving tasting menu of high-end Argentinian food by chef Martín Lukesh may include grilled trout with a fennel emulsion and apple or artichoke hearts with poached egg and roasted beetroot. Each course is paired with fine Argentinian wines. Indeed wine is the star at these lavish dinners, and the opportunity to learn about them from two passionate wine lovers is paramount.

The hosts have set the perfect scene for dinners in their gorgeous home, complete with music they love, and they absolutely enjoy mingling with their guests. “The cultural exchanges go far beyond a conventional dinner in a restaurant,’’ said Mymicopulo. “What is for certain is that Casa Coupage lets us see, experience, and exchange very diverse cultures, in the simple and intimate act of giving and receiving a plate of food and a good glass of wine.’’

And that exchange, of food, wine, and conversation — plus that in-the-know exclusivity — is what makes these places so alluring. “They’re a breath of fresh air from traditional restaurants,’’ says Irvine, “and certainly a great way to see a different side of Buenos Aires.’’

Tracey Ceurvels can be reached at tracey@thebusyhedonist.com.

If You Go

Call or e-mail ahead for a reservation. Address and directions will be provided at time of reservation.
Casa Felix
011-54-11-4555-1882
Casa SaltShaker
casasaltshaker@gmail.com
Casa Coupag
e 011-54-11-4833-6354
Dehouche Travel Specialists
(800-690-6899) can also arrange dinners.