Think Argentina is all rump steak and raunchy – not to mention randy – gauchos? Then it’s time to discover the latest craze in buzzy Buenos Aires as puertas cerradas are revolutionising the city’s eating habits.
“You get together in their living room and talk to all these people you’ve never met while the home owner is cooking you up a feast in his kitchen”, my porteños boyfriend Seb chatters excitedly about the latest food phenomenon to hit Buenos Aires, as we walk beneath the winking, dappled shade of plane trees to our first gourmet rendezvous with one of the city’s puertas cerradas. Translating as “closed doors”, puerta cerradas are Buenos Aires’ version of pop-up restaurants and I’m glad to be with a local as we hop on and off buses, then take a taxi to reach our hard-to-find destination.
Paying the driver, Seb pulls out a bible-sized wad of pesos. He winks at my appalled expression. “Well, they don’t take credit cards”, he tells me as we step out into a paved street.
Not necessarily cheap, with their four-or-five-course menus (around 390 Argentinian pesos, £19, excluding drinks), puertas cerradas still represent good value in this city of galloping inflation, and all my friends are excited about this new formula that seems set to change the Buenos Aires’ foodie scene – even though you often have to reserve weeks in advance.
“You have to understand that here in Argentina, even in the capital, we’ve always had pretty conservative palates – most of our restaurants serve beef and pasta – so we’re pretty excited about tasting all this different food,” Seb explains.
With its slogan: “Food. Wine. Conversation. New friends.”, Casa Salt Shaker offers the classic cerrada experience. In a cobbled side street of the hip Barrio Norte district, we’re met by our host Henry Tapia and led into the one-bedroom duplex that he shares with his partner, American chef Dan Perlman. Entering a spacious lounge we join eight other guests sat around a polished wooden table. While Henry serves us a welcoming cocktail, Dan walks us through the menu. “I call it fancy home cooking,” he jokes.
At first the atmosphere is slightly stiff, but by the time we’ve steamed our way through Dan’s sumptuous gazpacho, followed by fish served on a bed of corn purée topped with vegetable and herbs and succulent white-chocolate-topped cheese cake, we are all firm friends. Since I’m the only foreigner at the table my Spanish is put to good use as we discuss the holy Argentine trinity of politics, steak and football.
By now I’ve got the cerrada bug, so the following week Seb and I head for the leafy suburb of Villa Crespo, where the cab leaves us outside a line of narrow late 18th century houses. Theres no sign outside iLatina but Camillo our host, who took our reservation, is waiting to greet us by the high garden gate. He leads us through a small vegetable garden into a charming open-plan room with wooden floors, half-a-dozen occupied tables and a cooking bar at the end where Camillo’s brother, Santiago, is preparing the meal.
As we sip an apéritif of Fernet-Branca, Camillo brings us baskets piled high with homemade banana bread and corn bread. Next comes a spicy seafood salad, followed by pato encevichado, which Santiago explains is duck prepared like ceviche (a Peruvian fish dish), and comes smothered in a sumptuous goats cheese and avocado mousse. “iLatina is all about experimenting with interesting foods in a homely atmosphere,” he says.
A week later, Seb and I are knocking at the ornate door of Paladar another of the city’s hip dining pads. Hostess Ivana Piñar leads us upstairs to a large second-floor room. There are red walls, a crackling fireplace and the ambiance is intimate, with individual candlelit, tables – “some people don’t like to sit altogether,” Ivana tells us.
Although there is less chat with strangers at Paladar, the menu is just as inventive. To Seb’s delight, chef Pablo Abramovsky cooks classic Argentine food, with-a-twist. Stand-out dishes, paired with wines from Mendoza’s Atilio Avena vineyards, include crispy sweet potato gnocchi served with a pungent venison ragout, and a zest-packed mint-and-mandarin sorbet. Glowing with good food we stumble outside at midnight to be met by a cab hailed by our hosts.
So, with only a week left in Buenos Aires, our final puerta cerrada pit stop is Cocina Sunae. Reputed to be one of the city’s best-value closed door eateries, owner-chef Sunae serves up succulent Thai and Philippine food, inspired by her childhood in Asia. Sitting at a table in the family’s blissfully shaded courtyard, we sip cocktails and sniff the heavenly odours of chilli and fresh herbs that rise from Sunae’s sizzling woks.
Seb raises a toast to the couple sitting next to us. They are from Ecuador and this is their first time in one of the capital’s puertas cerradas. “ I thought you could only get steak and pasta in this city,” the man confides.
“I think you’ll find that these puertas cerradas have changed all that,” Seb laughs.