Visitors to Mendoza — city and province — tend to have their eye on one pressing matter, and one pressing matter only: fermented grape juice. The reputation of Argentina’s greatest wine-producing province precedes it, however: it’s not just Malbec and its sibling varietals that are hogging the spotlight. A host of restaurants in Mendoza are making waves with their gastronomical and enological offerings, from steak flame-grilled seven ways to closed-door establishments and Asian fusion cuisine. If you missed out on the glorious Masters of Food & Wine Mendoza event taking place 1-4 May, never fear — you can play catch-up with our lowdown on 10 of the best eateries in and around Mendoza.
Siete Cocinas is a veritable United Nations under one roof, gastronomically speaking, given chef and owner Pablo Del Río’s diverse menu. Offering seven regional cuisines, Del Río’s fascinating fare runs the length and breadth of Argentina to include northern provinces Salta and Jujuy, also known as NOA, as well as Andean Patagonia and the Argentine Coast among others, ensuring he uses produce that replicates the different flavours and textures of each. Tuck into pan-fried pacú, a river fish caught in La Pampa or a dreamy goat’s cheese ravioli with sweet almonds and sundried tomatoes, a Cuyo and NOA fusion. Wine is also a serious business — check out the cava that doubles as a private dining room for 10.
From the hands of Vanina Chimeno comes María Antonieta, an essential lesson in casual yet creative cuisine. Catering from breakfast onwards, the style is modern French bistro, the coffee strong and the eggs scrambled, while service is sharp. A prominent downtown location keeps punters ticking over — those in the know head there for a juicy lunchtime burger, while a window-side table come nightfall is the place to be. The evening menu goes up several gears — starters include a delectable warm bean salad zipped up by courgette flowers and goat’s cheese tempura fried together, while the main game includes Kobe beef steak and a mouth-watering pork shoulder with crispy pesto. Minor but not irrelevant details: Chimeno is also the other half of Argentine super chef Francis Mallmann, and worked for many years at his 1884 restaurant.
Bistro M at Park Hyatt
Don’t let your credit card shy away from a five-star hotel dining experience — the Park Hyatt Mendoza’s Masters of Food & Wine, a four-day gastro-tastic event, and of course its own restaurants naturally cut the mustard. Resplendent with an open kitchen so you can see all the action, Bistro M offers a predominantly Italian menu — there’s more to ñoquis than potato stuffing here — and takes pride in using local ingredients, while a wood-fired oven takes charge of meatier affairs such as suckling pig. Service is impeccable, the wine list abundant. Drop by for the 130-peso pick ‘n mix lunch menu.
Named after the Spanish for saffron, city staple Azafrán, based in a converted warehouse, is a must for any gourmand. Chef Pablo Ranea’s culinary imagination has created a menu to accompany Mendoza’s sacred grape varietals — and it comes up smelling of rosé. Let a warm camembert with mushrooms wrapped in filo pastry with raspberry sauce whet your taste-buds ahead of kid and mushroom ravioli or the strangely enticing Surf-n-Turf — tenderloin steak with prawns and a soy reduction, wasabi mash and sweet chili sauce. Azafrán takes huge pride in its cellar, so be sure to tap into Fernando Szczurowski and Facundo Balverde’s expertise, the sommeliers leading the wine charge who also offer tastings. For an Azafrán roundup, try the five-course tasting menu. Tighter budgets should check out the 99-peso lunch menu — it’s a steal.
Out of Town
For the ultimate romantic dinner, head directly to Nadia OF in Chacras de Coria for a dreamy six-course tasting menu that will have you on your knees proposing to Spanish chef and owner Nadia Harón herself. The restored home also houses an intimate back patio complete with herb garden as well as a private dining room, although the former garage with its burgundy walls and candlelit tables is the sexiest spot. Maintaining diners’ interest by revamping the Spanish-Argentine menu on a weekly basis, Nadia OF also focuses on seasonal changes: autumn months might see a creamy pecorino risotto topped with caviar, while a melon gazpacho with mint and tomato water snow and watermelon juice will cool down overheated palettes in summer. And these dishes look as good as they sound. Every course merits a 1,000 words, so food bloggers in the making should come equipped with a camera. Given that Nadia is in the kitchen each evening — possibly juggling service with a photoshoot, such is her reputation — she’s always interested to have a chat — in Spanish or English. A note on wine: Nadia is married to the president of O.Fournier, so naturally the selected pairings come from that bodega’s extensive Urban line.
Siete Fuegos Asado
While the most excellent Francis Mallmann 1884 Restaurante falls into both the out-of-town and bodega-based categories, given that it’s based at Escorihuela Gascón in Godoy Cruz, his latest culinary creation is based in Valle de Uco. Taking the classic Argentine barbecue and vamping it up to within an inch of its life, executive chef Mallmann’s meat, fish, veg and fruit are flame-grilled seven different ways at Siete Fuegos Asado. Set among the grapes at The Vines of Mendoza, the cool mountain breeze will whistle through your hair while you work your way through the fixed lunch menu, which might include salt-crusted salmon or rosemary-speared kid. Pray that the charred peaches with cooling mascarpone are on the dessert menu; they’re a sweet treat from heaven. A unique location, the fiery menu is also one of a kind.
Back in Godoy Cruz, booking is essential at 1884, thanks to Mallmann’s ever-innovative menu and ultra-cool ambience. Blending rustic charm with contemporary place settings and natty waiters in schoolboy ties, the focus is on locally found ingredients — and it set the pace for Mendoza cuisine when it opened in 1996. Given that “fire-starter” should probably be Mallmann’s middle name, the focus is on clay-oven and parrilla cooking. Hungry tums should take on the Giant Steak, while those off cow would do worse than to order the slow-cooked lamb with grilled seasonal veg. Money no object? Take over the private dining room. Money an object? Drop by for a glass of Malbec at the bar. Obviously the cellar and 60-page wine list are worth their weight in gold. If the weather’s acting right, make a beeline for the romantic courtyard.
When Chef Mun announced the closure of his Buenos Aires restaurant in winter 2012, hearts stopped beating for a brief second. But this wasn’t the end of an era, merely the beginning. This puerta cerrada favourite, dear to expat hearts for making sushi as it should be and injecting much-needed spicy flavours into often dull Buenos Aires menus, was simply relocating. Now spicing up the Barrel Room at Casarena Boedga y Viñedos with a five-course Japanese, Korean and Chinese menu around a communal table, Mun’s delectable Argentine king crab hand rolls and spicy tuna on crispy rice are once again shaking up a local culinary scene. The move to Luján de Cuyo has been positive for the South Korean-born chef — he now opens daily for lunch, while combining a debut as the first Asian chef to feature on the Masters of Food & Wine agenda. Mun still operates as a closed-door restaurant so a reservation is essential.
Another winery restaurant definitely worth booking into is Bodega Tapiz’s. The top-notch Restaurant Terruño in Maipú specialises in local produce, such as rabbit, kid and trout, and picks veggies from its organic garden. Although the restaurant was purpose built, its style and décor perfectly replicate the neighbouring Casa Tapiz hotel, a Renaissance-style villa built in the 1890s amid 22 hectares of vines. On the short yet very sweet menu, give the dreamy arugula salad with figs, brie and roasted tomato long thrift, before devouring an exquisite ravioli-filled braised lamb with capers and walnut butter. Our tip? Stay overnight, so have lunch, have a siesta in your stunning room, then head back for dinner — you won’t have far to stumble.
If you thought closed-door dining was a strictly Buenos Aires experience, think again. It’s alive and thriving in Mendoza and you’ll find a prime example at Gonzalo Cuervo’s place. Located in Gonzalo and Tete the boxer’s lofty home that doubles up as Ituzaingo Restó, the living room and green back patio are designated dining areas, where musicians gently ply their wares in summer. There’s no better welcome than that from a hanging cava, which is swiftly followed up a glass of wine and appetisers from friendly staff. Although the eight-course paired tasting menu covers the spectrum of Argentine cuisine, Ituzaingo also injects criolla, gourmet, fusion and molecular techniques to its dishes. Northern flavours might include humita pie with grilled pepper emulsion, while a goat’s cheese salad with honey vinaigrette is straight from the Mendoza kitchen. With an easy-going crowd combining Argentines with visitors, Ituzaingo is relaxed gourmet dining personified. Gonzalo also takes it upon himself to turn the most gringo of gringos into a fine Argentine asador, so why not rise to the challenge with a cookery class at Ituzaingo.