Puertas Cerradas, or Closed Door restaurants, are a big thing in BA – restaurants set up in people’s own homes, available by reservation only and usually only open on weekends. I have heard differing versions of their origin, and it may be the case that a little of each is true. The general premise is that they were established by chefs wanting to flex their own creativity outside the confines of a commercial restaurant, particularly in a city where many restaurants have the same standard menu. Chefs who want to be able to change their menu regularly in line with locally available market produce, and to present new flavours not often experienced in BA. Some would say they are created by foreigners, sick of the standard BA fare, and for foreigners, being the most likely people to seek out the different flavours, and be able to pay the price. Originally only promoted by word-of-mouth, the internet has boosted their reach and popularity, making them more accessible to tourists passing through. One thing that is clear though, they are created by people with a genuine love of food, for people who share their passion.
I was lucky enough to get a last minute booking at NOLA, which I’ve since been told is listed on TripAdvisor as the most recommended restaurant in Buenos Aires. NOLA is an acronym for New Orleans, Los Angeles, representing the inspiration for the food and the origin of the chef, Liza.
The location is kept secret until payment has been confirmed, and an email sent one day before the booking containing the actual address. These are people’s homes after all, and they don’t want people turning up unexpectedly on the nights when they are trying to relax in the comfort of it.
I found the unmarked red door easily mainly because, as I approached, I could see another couple looking around a little lost and finally ringing the buzzer. I was greeted by name at the door by Francisco, our co-host and sommelier, and led into a large foyer where I was handed a welcoming glass of bubbles. The foyer area had one table of 8 set up, and I was led into the adjoining room which contained another communal table of 10, and a large living area. Most of the other guests had already arrived, and we chatted for a while before we were shown to our designated tables. My table consisted of an older couple from New York, their adult son and gorgeous Californian/Mexican wife, a couple from Bermuda, a texan couple, and a BA-based English journalist who was writing an article about the Top 5 new puertas cerradas in BA. It was an entertaining group and the conversation flowed easily as we learnt where each of us were from and what brought us to BA, etc.
We were soon introduced to Liza, our chef and co-host, who was bursting out of her skin with enthusiasm and energy. She presented us with a lovely homemade baguette, the crunch of which paired perfectly with our first course, a spicy and tasty shrimp gumbo. Francisco poured us our first matching wine, a fresh Torrentes (a white grape quite particular to Argentina), and explained the characteristics and how it would complement the dish. In a country where spice is not widely used or liked, it was nice to eat something with a little bite to it.
The meal continued like this, with the bubbly chef presenting the dish, and the knowledgeable sommelier explaining the paired wine.
The next dish was a nice contrast to the first, a crunchy mexican-style “sope” on a lettuce leaf, topped with a fresh avocado salad for me, and the addition of ceviche for the fish eating guests, matched with a refreshing rose of Argentina’s most famous grape, Malbec, with 15% Torrentes. A truly Argentinian wine!
The main followed, Liza’s version of “pork and grits”, a slow-cooked piece of pork served over grits. It was a little on the salty side, but was tender and flavoursome, and was paired with a very nice 100% Malbec.
As the conversation advanced through dinner, I learnt that the Bermudan couple next to me had spent time in country Victoria on a previous holiday where one of them has a grandmother – where else, but Bendigo! It also turned out that our journalist (who, although writing for a New York publication, has somehow managed to never set foot in the States) had a mutual contact with the New York couple. It certainly is a small world!
Dessert was a delicious individual pecan pie served with a “Viognier Dulce” dessert wine. Liza explained that it was difficult to get brown sugar in Argentina, but that there is a locally produced black cane sugar that has similar characteristics and she had improvised for the dish. I must remember to take some black sugar back to Australia with me.
Overall, a extremely delicious meal with beautiful wines, and some really good company and conversation.
After dinner, our locally based journalist took us to a “milonga”, a dance hall where locals of all ages gather to dance tango, very unlike the flashy, touristy tango shows. There was a certain formality to events – in the way the men selected their partners between sets, with when they started to dance to each song after an accepted period of chatting between numbers, and when they would all retire at the end of each set – a set of long established rules that seem curious and interesting to the uninitiated. It was great to see so many people there, just to dance and socialise, without the need to entertain a tourist public, and fascinating to watch the intricacies of the dance and the subtle gestures that allow the lead to guide his partner around a very full dance floor without incident. After about an hour of just watching the crowd dance, there was a “show” where one elderly, and obviously very experienced, couple had the floor to themselves and danced a half dozen tangos. It was great to watch, to see the couple obviously enjoy themselves, and to hear the crowd appreciate their talent.
The local crowd showed no sign of abating, but I decided to call it a night after the show, considering it was now about 3.00 am! Another late night out in Buenos Aires, but a thoroughly enjoyable and uniquely Argentinian experience.