Mendoza Is For Foodies Posted on 22 Oct 03:22 , 0 comments
Article by Anna Lowe.
In England a worker is granted just 4 bank holidays a year – precious long weekends where the addition of a Monday is cause for great celebration – head to the coast! Hey, you’ve even got time to hop over to France! We Brits in Argentina are determined to make the most of those extras days off work despite the fact that Argentina has an amazing 14 ‘feriados’ (public holidays) a year. So faced with an October long-weekend and buoyed by the warm Spring sunshine it seemed an opportune moment to book a luxury break in Mendoza.
Mendoza is a rugged and sun-soaked part of western Argentina and, although popular for adventure activities in the nearby Andes, is usually visited for its great wine and food. My weekend was no exception. There are countless restaurants and bodegas to choose from serving anything from traditional Argentine cuisine to innovative fusions. These are my top picks…
Casa Glebinias. Medrano 2272, Chacras de Coria. 0261 496-2116
Mendoza city itself isn’t particularly special, so unless you want a buzzy hostel and some clubbing options, opt for staying closer to the bodegas in charming Chacras de Coria (30 minutes out of town). I don’t much like posh hotels, for me a small, eclectic place with friendly service is my idea of luxury and this was exactly what family-run Casa Glebinias provides. Perhaps more suited to couples and families, it boasts a huge garden with pool. Well-decorated personal cottages have every comfort like heated floors and powerful showers, but in a rustic, relaxed style. Most importantly, no request was too much trouble for the staff who promptly arranged anything – bikes, cabs, reservations etc.
Ampora. Sarmiento 647. 0261-4292931
Many travellers hire a driver for the day or, for more local vineyards, rent bikes. However, if you want to learn about wine-tasting in an informal way without the hassle of making personal reservations at the bodegas the Ampora tour is faultless. Ampora know how to balance expert knowledge (for those interested) with unpretentious drinking (bottle swigging on the bus anyone?) Although one of the pricier options, they choose 3 diverse bodegas for a small group of maximum 8 people and include a huge lunch at the final vineyard. On our trip this was O’ Fournier, a dramatic spaceship style bodega with a 2,800 oak barrel underground cellar. I must confess, while ‘reviewing’ this meal I got so smashed I can’t remember a thing about it. Instead of creating a poetic reconstruction based on a borrowed menu and photos I appear to have taken, I will just say that the food was pretty good, although the setting a little formal for my taste and state.
The gourmet tasting menu…
Brindillas. Guardia vieja 2898. Vistalba, Luján de Cuyo. 54 261 4963650
(350 AR p.p without wine)
I had heard Brindillas was the place for ‘foodies’ in Mendoza and so reserved a table for my first night. The food was faultless and for a wonderfully low price (compared to BsAs). Eight immaculate plates from the tasting menu were all inventive, seasonal and could really merit a thousand word description. Acclaimed chefs Mariano Gallego and Florencia D’Amic use the most modern techniques to present interesting Argentine-inspired, fusion cuisine. The meal culminated in a dulce-de-leche tart which didn’t sound much on paper, but in reality, was the single most delicious thing I’ve eaten this year. The only problem? Brindillas is sadly lacking atmosphere. The ceiling is low and the room boxy and sparse. The 6 tables are much too big for easy conversation and while this directs your attention solely to the food, unfortunately it leaves the restaurant feeling cold and slightly awkward. With dimmer lighting, backed-up by some candles and decent music, this place could feel as special as its food tastes.
The closed-door restaurant…
Ituzaingo Resto. 1548 Ituzaingo St. 54 261 915666577
(450 AR p.p including wine… lots)
In total contrast to Brindillas’ Michelin -star aspirations, Gonzalo Cuervo’s close-door restaurant Ituzaingo is all about a unique atmosphere. The restaurant is set in his trendy loft with subtle lighting, well-chosen art, a beautiful patio and a fabulously cool jazz soundtrack. But if you forget you’re in a home, Gonzalo’s two cheeky boxer dogs watch from the open-plan bedroom upstairs and the restroom is complete with shower and toothbrush. Gonzalo opens his home to 25-30 people per night and the easy-going crowd combines Argentines and visitors. He is a charismatic host and, upon entering you sip cava and nibble appetizers on the sofa while he skillfully breaks the ice with fellow guests.
Ituzaingo’s tasting menu is heavily Argentine. A warming choclo soup with goat’s cheese is followed by two of the best empanadas I’ve eaten in Argentina. Yes, I just said that. There are four simple mains to choose from which are accomplished if not stunning, and paired with exquisite wine selected personally by Gonzalo. Desert was a delicious cheesecake and interesting pancake stuffed with caramelized alcayota (a sort of melon local to Mendoza). Itzuaingo also provide for celiacs.
Gonzalo values giving guests privacy to enjoy dinner at their own table but is also keen to be welcoming and have a chat. While filling our glass he mentioned that he started the restaurant in 2010, opening just two times a week for eight guests as a fun way to meet new people. The huge popularity today is testament to the winning combination of friendly service and quality food. In Mendoza, where every restaurant/bodega seems to want to impress with the illusion of the ultimate ‘gourmet’ experience, it’s refreshing to eat extremely good home-style food without the hassle and fuss. Ituzaingo provides all the warmth, chit-chat and jollity of a dinner party, but without the moment where your mate brings out the burnt ratatouille and fish smelling of dustbin.
The lazy Sunday lunch…
- Primula Cantina Ferroviaria. Olavarria 255, Perdriel, Luján de Cuyo. 261 152213899
- (Around 500 AR p.p including wine)
I love it when a plan comes together. Having failed to make a reservation for Sunday lunch, all the big names were full so a quick recommendation from the ever obliging staff at Casa Glebinias was needed to find a fill-in. Primula is an Italian inspired (Cinzano sponsored) parilla/restaurant just outside Chacras de Coria. It oozes laid-back cool with white wooden paneling and beautiful airy rooms full of vintage objects. It’s only been open a year and, though still off the tourist radar, was packed with locals sitting out front soaking up the perfect Spring sunshine while getting quietly drunk on Cinzano cocktails and fine local wine.
And it was beautifully done. There was a basket of excellent bread – homemade, warm and rich with cheese. There was beef that fell apart, served with bacon and new potatoes and a pork dish – sweet with sundried tomatoes. But these were unable to compete with the sweet-breads on toast, confirming my long-held conviction that the bits most people consider prime cuts are nothing more than a shell to protect the precious offal jewels inside. We were full, but once again tipsy enough to call in desert. Beautiful pistachio ice-cream was thick with nuts and the Argentine favourite, flan, had perfect texture and sat with soft peaks of fresh cream.
The local spot…
Barloa (also known as ‘Papito’). Corner of San Martin and Morales, Mendoza.
(33 AR per lomito)
A destination sandwich. A sandwich so great it’s worth a 20-block cab ride to a slightly grubby part of town where plastic tables and chairs cluster around an unassuming restaurant. When I say restaurant, Barloa is actually more a street food joint – an empty room dominated by a huge open parrilla, a couple of fridges for soda and beer and frantic waitresses assembling the legendary steak sandwiches at record speed. I wouldn’t recommend this place for anyone looking for romantic/fine dining (or for tourists unwilling to venture into the more dodgy parts of town), but if you’re poor and hip and youngish and want to eat the best lomito in Argentina, this is a must-visit. More than any fancy bodega Barloa, I would contend, is the true culinary soul of Mendoza. Every local seems to know about it and by the same token, you can find every type of group eating there – large families, teenagers, businessmen in suits and even the very poorest. Indeed, the story goes that when Barloa burnt down on New Year’s Eve 2013, people gave money and time and the place was rebuilt in 4 days. They love it.
The menu is only lomito. Perhaps they have chori-pan too but no one cares. We were told they don’t do fries but you’re welcome to buy them over the road and bring them in. The sandwich arrives efficiently and is flat and functional, shaped to post into the mouth. Bread is fresh and perfectly toasted. Meat is salty, soft and crisp in all the right places. All the condiments and spreads inside are home-made and provide a perfect contrast in both flavor and texture (ask for an extra side of their secret-recipe mayonnaise). It was delicious and over far too soon. So we ordered another. Just to check it really was that good. It was.
The following Tuesday morning I inevitably climbed on the bathroom scales (after having stripped naked, wee’d, blown my nose and breathed out). There is always a price for excess but I’m just relieved we hadn’t had time for olive oil tasting (another pride of Mendoza). Slurping down shots of fat will have to wait for next time. There are, of course more reasons to love Mendoza than food and wine. The people are passionate and love to chat (particularly in smaller boutique bodegas) and the landscape is magnificent for exploring. But if feasting is your goal, you will not be disappointed. Perhaps like me, you may find it helpful to recite the words of Erma Bombeck: ‘I am not a glutton – I am an explorer of food”.