Warm Autumn aromas fill the city of Mendoza, dry leaves falling to the sidewalk, charcoal and wood grills being fired up in yards and restaurant kitchens, escaping scents of onions frying and butternut squash or pumpkin roasting away, like that moment when your Halloween pumpkin is kissed by the flame of the candle in the Jack-o-lantern. We stroll around parks and streets just taking inventory of the local shops and doing some people watching, not creepy, just curious. Every man has a sweater on and every woman has big chunky, clunky boots, like Kiss meets Wyatt Earp, ah fashion. I am quite comfortable in my light shirt and blazer but rugged mountaineer looking men sit on terraces shivering while sipping steaming hot mugs of café con leche. I’m always warm though, and tonight that fire will be fueled by meat sweats after we partake in the cooking of Francis Mallman’s crew, his ubiquitous meat fire cuisine has captured our attention. That’s later though.
Anna and I observe a number of protests as tomorrow is Labour Day and many are holding rallies to decry the big machine of corrupt politicians, bankers and industrialists. It is peaceful and despite the noise there is a bit of a carnival celebration as there are all sorts of vendors in an open air market selling crafts. Many of the demonstrators are drinking Yerba Mate from gourds or cups. I have not seen anyone drink the mountain tea associated with Gaucho culture in restaurants but it is very much a home thing, showing friendship and so the fact that these demonstrators have brought the hot water in thermos’ and the goods, it is very much a DIY show of camaraderie. A lady in a shop explains that the Mate does indeed contain caffeine and uses a cup and metal straw that has a strainer in the bottom. You add the dry “tea” then hot (never boiling!) water and sip away, adding more water as necessary.
One of the shops we look into is a sort of deli, with some hams, olives and salami and mountains of generic looking cheese, soft grating stuff, high potential for melting on sandwiches and such. Despite the national obsession with eating beef, there does not seem to be an equal passion for dairy, yes there are wonderful yogurts, cremas and custards plus we have eaten some nice mozzarella and burrata but there is not a huge variety of cheese like you would see in European countries. There is one dish that keeps reappearing and it is Provoletta, a slab of Provolone cheese that is either grilled or pan fried and served soft, warm and gooey with chimichurri or salsa. I joked with Anna that it reminded me of the healthy kitchen snacks that fuel chefs during service, melted cheese filling that has escaped stuffed chicken breasts or the shrapnel stuck to the sides of lasagna dishes, ha. It is tasty though, honest Doc.
Getting back to the park near our hotel, I meet a gentleman selling handmade knives in bone and wood handles. Please understand this is my version of a shop selling Prada bags, I knew that I would find one of these characters. He looks like a hefty version of Pure Prairie Gibberish Gabby Johnson from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. And he is carved out of stone and wood. Shaking his hand I felt like I was gripping firewood. The knives are beautiful and sharp like a razor, his proves so by effortlessly slicing through a thick piece of leather, like a hot knife through butter. What I really like is that he has done the metal and all the work alone, by himself, stamping his initials into each blade. They are perfectly imperfect, cracks in the bone handle that would relegate each to the Factory Seconds bin in a manufacturing facility, nicks in the blade and not s single true surface. I picture him sitting near a fire with his trusty dog near his feet, a cup of steaming Yerba Mate and a pot of beans on the simmer while he makes the knives (I know what you are thinking; he is in his condo with Downton Abby on Netflix and a microwave dinner but No Way, get out of my dream!). We strike a bargain and I walk back to the hotel clutching my knives, wrapped in paper bags, Anna having suggested that we not go for lunch with my new weapons.
A short walk past pizza and pasta joints (up to 60% of Argentinians have Italian heritage) and steak restos to get to Maria Antonieta, smallish open kitchen restaurant that has been recommended. The place is packed and they suggest we can get a table in 30 minutes, we do notice a free deuce but know that they are not overloading the kitchen or service to the point of fail so we agree. We head out to pound the pavement again, building up those Food & Beverage credits. Part of me is thinking, ah, let’s cancel and just go to a more convenient place rather than waiting. Of course we burn up the time and once seated, I am again reminded to relax and wait for good things. Nothing against the other restaurants that had lots of seats available, but that short pause gave us access to a well oiled machine, solid service and determined, precise cooking; basically, a better restaurant by a factor of at least two. It is easy to spot the chef in the open kitchen, her quiet demeanor but fierce “eye of the tiger” rule, tasting everything, watching every preparation and plating on the pass the whole time. We were told that she is in fact, married to the chef of the place where we’ve booked tonight, another couple built in a kitchen! This, Maria Antonieta, this is a busy bistro, there is a humble quiet confidence that runs through the place. Not overconfident, no attitude, but they know what they are doing. Service is brisk and educated and the food, lighter than we’ve seen elsewhere in Argentina has a feminine strength to it. Clean, unfussy flavours, solid cooking and the kind of food that only chefs with a certain intellectual maturity can deliver. After you’ve tried all sorts of combinations and have been influenced by the various cultural cooking styles of the moment do you reach the point where you develop your own style and cook the food that represents how your mind works, not imitating someone else’s work. This restaurant serves that food – like going to an excellent chef’s house on her day off and she cooks lunch for you and her. We started with a composed salad of pear, prosciutto, burrata, greens and dark roasted almonds in lemon and spectacular local olive oil. Clean, fresh and hitting all the marks of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Anna had the “tart&salad of the day” – a pumpkin, corn & cheese curd quiche with mixed greens (reminds me of the old cooking at Le Select) while I dove into a pan roasted chicken leg smothered in a mix of green peas, leeks and green beans in a lemon pan juice. Intense flavours, and the chicken moist – again a sign of skill as any fool can cook a boneless skinless chicken breast but the leg takes a little more work. We thought about dessert but decided to hold off as we will certainly be back later this week. We chatted with the pastry chef on the way out, she spotted Anna and wanted to visit.
After a gym break, rest and clean up at the hotel we started out on our evening journey. A short taxi ride took us to 1884, named after the winery building that houses it, of course which was built in that year. You are dropped off outside a compound and greeted by attendant/security types that verify your reservation then escort you to the understated doorway. A little James Bond spy game kinda feeling, very private and secret. Yet once the door opens, we are hit with a warm breeze of grilling beef aroma, so inviting that we turned to each other, wide-eyed and grinned like a couple of star struck fans. Funny how aroma memories come back to you, here we are entering what will promise a special night of dining and all I can think about is visiting relatives as a kid with my parents. Uncle Cliff worked for the railroad and had long hauls out then several days off in a row, devoting his time to cooking while Aunt Sophie ran her hair salon. I recall so many times where we would arrive to the intense aroma of roasting beef, that dripping fat beckoning for you to steal a burnt bit off the edge, that I have always connected the smell of good beef with Uncle Cliff. Wow.
We entered the long narrow bar and were greeted by several young men in two-tone tuxedo jackets, like a down and out lounge band look but cool. They asked if we’d like to relax at the bar prior to taking our table. Our eyes caught a garden lounge with a full on decked-to-the-nines outdoor kitchen and I must have made some serious sad baby clown eyes because the guy immediately asked if we wanted to visit the kitchen. Walking out into the darkness, there was a tribal feeling as we came upon a group of young men tending to fire and meat over a gigantic wood fired grill, a monstrous clay beehive oven and a circular metal teepee shaped implement called a fire dome that was 3 metres across and 4 metres tall, a roaring fire encased in a metal ring then racks and hooks and shelves up to the tip of this “grill” so that all manner of food could be cooked on surface or hung over open coal. Crazy. The chefs were not yet into the full swing of service, it was only 9:30 p.m. after all, so we chatted, took pictures and they played show and tell with the cooking equipment. These were macho guys, two of them looked like assassins and they were tough as nails. Giving the lead cook a jovial back slap in a sort of “hey, I ‘m part of your team”, it was like slapping a stone wall.
We made our way in to the dining room, an elegant, tall ceiling, old place with high backed white and black chairs. There are signs of skilled work everywhere, the bread station in the main path rather than being hidden in a back hall, the hot kitchen in display behind glass wall (it used to be the laboratory for the original winery). We settled in, were poured sparking water and selected a Vina Cobos Single Vineyard Malbec, one that we tasted just yesterday from the phone book of a wine list. Nearly all of the wines on the list are from within the province, a pretty clear sign of local purchasing philosophy. I did recognize several of the labels and even without that, the pricing was very fair, with many of the offerings in what I would call the “very affordable” category. I like this; what I don’t like is when wine lists have a couple of affordable wines then stack the deck with over the top expensive ones, I mean, really. However, I also prepared myself for what might seem like an overwhelming list – in all fairness, when you go to a serious restaurant staffed with hyper excited professionals all keen on doing a great job, don’t expect a wine list like you will find at TGIFridays. I did five minutes of homework and was prepared.
Lucky for us, the chef (Dan Alterman) came out to greet us and even though we had already spotted a number of items on the menu that intrigued us, he offered to take care of the selections. Go for it, I recall muttering before the frenzy began.
Breads and eggplant pickles arrived and the wine appeared – so delicious, deep and rich, it appeared in the middle of the pack in yesterday’s tasting but on its own a real star. The first course was a flight of salads; 1)Arugula with Goat’s Cheese, Fresh Figs, and Lemon Confit 2) Zucchini Ribbons in Olive Oil with Mint, Almonds and Grated Parmesan 3) Salt Roasted and Seared Pear with Burrata, Greens and Bacon – each so very simple yet complex. The humble zucchini brought to life with great accompaniments – sophisticated cooking but so approachable and familiar. The middle course was a double whammy with Cured and Smoked Trout with Radish and Greens plus a Roasted Octopus with Crisp Roasted Potatoes and Aioli, both wildly fresh and tasty. The octopus so tender against the outrageously crunch potato and wasabi-like numb of great garlic in the aioli. Dan explained that the fresh trout was cured like Gravlax for just two hours then slow smoked on the Fire Dome. Nice work.
At this point we were started to get a little full and then the Argentinian Meat Parade marched over to our table. Just a note: when in this lovely country, the steak portions are generally twice as big as what you might expect, the beef fantastic and the cooking very good, just remember. The wait staff air lifted in a wooden board with a Char Grilled Beef Rib Eye with Chimichurri, Domino (Hasselback meets Fondant) Potatoes, and Greens then next to that Clay Oven Braised Rabbit with Roast Pear, Bacon, Endive and Tomato. Two serious meat dishes. Let me catch my breath. The rabbit falling off the bone and in place of a sauce, the roast pear for sweet, endive for bitter, bacon for salty and tomato for sour accompaniments. It is an essay on food matching on a plate. And of course the magnificent beef steak. Earlier we saw the Asador men gently bringing the whole rib eye roasts up to near rare on the Dome in a cloud of wood smoke, then cut into steaks for searing on the grill. Crispy salty crust and rosy fleshy interior, this was a steak to reackon with, mineral, peppery flavours, perfect with our Malbec.
We finished off with a super rich Dulce de Lece Flan with Whipped Cream, just that, no conflicting flavours, just the classic custard with rich toffee character.
Feeling extremely satisfied, we talked about top tastes and discussed how each of us silently feared that we might be disappointed with an experience which we had built up in our imagination prior to arriving. What is really outstanding about 1884 is that there really is an aspect of theatre due to the setting and extreme efforts put forward by the staff, especially the kitchen. Think about it, you could easily cook steaks and roasts in an oven in the kitchen rather than staffing an entire outdoor second kitchen working under less than modern conditions. They certainly do not do things the easy way. But this is what makes it wonderful. And the staff did not for a moment give us that “we are way the hell cooler than you, just in case you’re paying attention” attitude that so many places have. There is a thread of humble professionalism throughout the operation. The food is true cooking, using excellent produce and avoiding silly technique or outlandish ego-driven presentation. Again, this is cooking mellowed by maturity and emotional IQ. For the chef de cuisine Dan to be able to manage a diverse group and keep the standards set by Francis Mallman, this also is a sign of dedication. A young chef has so many forces compelling her or him to be innovative, always inventing and changing, that it is hard to reign it in and deliver simple, direct cooking.
Anna and I were treated to a tour of the wine cellar, a former concrete fermenter down a story, an ancient smelling vault of Malbec and others. A wonderful night to remember, we lit our chariot, er, ah got in the cab and went back to the hotel, content, full, and me, just a little sweaty.