BUENOS AIRES SUPPER CLUBS: Go underground or go home

As published in The Real Argentina, Aug 2011 http://www.therealargentina.com/argentinian-wine-blog/buenos-aires-supper-clubs-go-underground-or-go-home/

When in Buenos Aires, open your eyes and bellies to the craze that keeps evolving – underground supper clubs. Last week I dined with an ousted cult from Alabama, a brain surgeon on sabbatical and an ex-prostitute from Amsterdam, complete with mini-me poodle (still a poodle).

Welcome to the puerta cerrada closed-door dining experience. Fixed menus, themed nights and paired wines, all hosted in someone’s house. It sounds very bourgeois bohemian, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

Max's Supper Club
Max’s Supper Club, held at non-profit organization Juanele AR

The original US and UK supper clubs might have been anarchic counter-prohibition ‘anti-restaurants’, but not so in Buenos Aires. They are now part of Latin American culture and some have been open for four decades. Behind closed doors, food breaks away from traditional Argentine dishes with experimental vegan cuisine, pan-Asian chow and – shock, horror – spicy food! But nothing is more surprising than the people you meet. These organised nights with strangers sat around communal tables are perfect for foodies, solo travellers, expats, Argentines who want to improve their English, and those who want to show off how much they know about the city. I warn you, don’t sit me next to a snorecore travelbore food blogger, or those carefully selected wines will be downed faster than a married man’s trousers in a telo.

Dan Perlman of Casa Saltshaker, one of the best known puertas cerradas, first brought media attention to the scene a few years back. The New York sommelier opens his Recoleta doors to “fancy home cooking” and themed menus coinciding with upcoming holidays. This July I celebrated Argentina’s Independence Day with his locro with a twist. There’s something about having each course’s cultural context being introduced by a charismatic intellectual that I like. It certainly doesn’t happen in my home.

Casa Saltshaker's Locro
Casa Saltshaker’s hearty locro and quiquirimichi

Here are some of my favourite dining out (but in) Buenos Aires experiences.

1. EXOTIC: Cocina Sunae, Colegiales

Miss comida picante? Owner Cristina’s homemade roasted chilli and garlic sauces are as far away from typical Argentine tastes as you can get. The pan-Asian cuisine is inspired by her Korean roots, years living in the Philippines and Japan, and time in a Thai restaurant in New York. I felt very in the know when I arrived in the city having pre-booked dinner here. It’s probably not right to start off with such an un-local meal, but hey, we’re not in Rome.

Sunae
Enter the spicy, savory and sweet world of Sunae

For AR$110, a typical meal includes Thai hot and sour soup, Vietnamese summer rolls, a tasty Thai curry and Key Lime Pie – all topped off with her signature homemade green tea ice cream. Make sure you start off with a ginger kamikaze cocktail. They say a change is as good as a holiday – and Sunae brings Asia to Colegiales all year round.

2. FIERY: Casa Mun, Palermo

Casa Mun
6 hours of shopping + 13 hours of prep = Mun’s attention to detail – Photo by Duff and Frances Photography

A newer puerta cerrada on the scene, Chef Mun’s unique selling point is a changing menu of intriguing Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Californian dishes. A recent AR$195 five course menu, including ludicrously generous wine pairings, featured sushi, sashimi, dim sum, bibimbop and Korean BBQ. His sushi is up there amongst the best in town and as for the ‘Fiery Fish Tacos’…

Fish Taco
… Mmmmun – Photo by Duff and Frances Photography

More sensational than the food is Mun himself. Once a guest showed up a day early, so he opened a bottle of wine and she stayed until midnight. Now she dines at Casa Mun every month. That’s because as well as loving the food, wine, extended family table and modern bamboo-decorated space, everyone loves Mun. After an evening of sniper-like wineglass refills, I left more than a little tipsy as well as full – and surely that’s what you want.

3. HEALTHY: Jueves a la Mesa, San Telmo

Run by BuenaOnda yoga bunny Meghan Lewis from Colorado, Jueves a la Mesa (Thursdays at the Table) is a clandestine restaurant that provides a healthy vegetarian alternative to the carne-val that is the Argentine parrilla. Expect hearty salads, homemade breads and spicy mains in her San Telmo home – and a crowd that’s, thankfully, not too preachy or worthy. The entire communal table ended up in Gibraltar after, downing shots and pints, and undoing all the good we’d put into our body. Isn’t that the point – balance?It’s all about Meghan’s attention to little touches – there’s cinnamon in the water pitchers, she makes the sour cream from scratch and chocolate hearts by hand, plus prints the recipes out as a going home gift. Oh, and it’s BYOV – you can bring your own vino – all for AR$80. Bargain. The only thing missing is the fact you can’t go on Fridays, Saturdays or… you get the idea. Thursdays are the new black.

4. COOL: Ferona Club Social, Palermo

Iron Maiden’s management can attest this place rocks. We went the night before the rockers played Estadio Vélez Sarsfield. They nearly didn’t make the gig. At 5am the crew were smoking away with owners Fo and Fer, hollering over disco classics “This is the best house party I’ve ever been to!”– and then headed back to the Four Seasons to deal with their hangovers. That’s because after dinner it turns into a bar/club – the tables make way for a friendly (read: drunk) mixed crowd. With a French DJ, vintage furniture, quirky paintings and makeshift bar, it all feels a bit Prohibition era. But hang on, what about the food?The very talented Chef ‘Fo’ (Agustín) draws on his experience at the Ritz Paris and working in Ibiza to design the AR$87 four-course menu – and cooks some of the best white salmon I’ve had. Book one of the four tables inside, or one of the four on the fun, heated balcony outside – and claim it until 5am (and-then-some). Rock and roll me home.

Ferona Club Social
Ferona encourages devil horns

5. ARTY: Max’s Supper Club, Barrio Norte

Now to a surreal option. This is a true adventure in the supper club underbelly – 16 strangers, 5 aphrodisiac courses and a human-poodle (an ex-lady of the night who kept slapping the rear of the Michelangelo’s David apron-wearing chef as he tried to serve) – oh, and her canine mini-me. A party’s not a party unless there is a miniature dog dressed in pink, right?

Max's Supper Club
Spot the dog

At non-profit arts organization Juanele AR, London chef Max cooks up memorable bi-monthly themed nights that combine art with food. The launch was all about ‘Aphrodisiacs’ – saucy images were scattered over walls and the food was just as explicit to eat. We lost our oyster virginities, chomped on chorizo, and for dessert enticed chocolate to be licked off our faces.

Juanele definitely wins the award for the most photogenic room and colourful concept. Other themes have included Street Art/food and Hands (sans silverware). The five-course meal comes with wines for AR$190 or without for AR$130. If you’re shy, get over it. Buenos Aires is a friendly city with a very welcoming scene – if you’re travelling alone, this is the way to eat well and meet new friends – and potentially comedy dogs too.

Face Painting at Max's Supper Club
Saucy. And for dessert, I’m having…

For more closed-door eateries to look out for, such as Peruvian fusion at Casa Jauretche, or popular pescatarian Diego Felix, click here.

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