Postcard from Argentina, part eight: behind closed doors

By | Category: Travel destinations

Continued from last time

Kaye discovers a secret world of dining in Buenos Aires

 

I emerged from Federico Lacroze subte station one wet, wild (the skies of Buenos Aires are like the city itself – full of drama – and consequently BA is either being battered by rain or by blistering sun, there’s no in-between) in search of a street in the Chacarita neighbourhood.

“What are you doing in Chacarita?” asked one perplexed Porteño, after he had kindly pointed me in the right direction. “I’m having dinner here,” I stuttered in Spanish. “In Chacarita?” he shot back. (Chacarita, dear reader, is a charming neighbourhood but a quiet one and, as such, isn’t known for its nightlife.) “You won’t find many restaurants in this barrio.”

But I wasn’t looking for a restaurant per se. Rather I had a reservation at Casa Felix – one of BA’s top puertas cerradas aka closed-door restaurants. This underground dining concept has swept Argentina’s charismatic capital and, subsequently, talented chefs from Chacarita to Villa Crespo are serving private dinners in their own abodes.

Upon making a reservation at Casa Felix, I was given an address (which I’ve been requested not to divulge) and asked to arrive at the very Argentine dining hour of 10pm. On the night – thanks to a little help from my new friend – I turned up at what looked like an ordinary apartment block where I rung the bell and gave my name, before being buzzed in by the friendly Dina, who was to be our host for the evening.

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Dinner at Casa Felix had been on my Argentine bucket list for some time. And for good reason: everyone raves about Argentina’s beef but if, like me, you’re not mad about meat, mealtimes here invariably revolve around pasta, pizza and helado. That’s fine for a fortnight or so but linger a little longer (you wouldn’t be the first to do so) and your diet quickly becomes very bland…. Enter Casa Felix – a puerta cerrada which stands out, in this country of carnivores, for catering for pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans alike.

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I met my fellow guests – a mix of inquisitive travellers, seasoned expats and curious locals – in Casa Felix’s beautiful back garden where, under the stars and over a cocktail (or two), we swapped South American stories and experiences.

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Dining with what are, in essence, complete strangers may not be everyone’s cup of Mate (Argentina’s beloved herb tea) but – for me at least – this was a big part of the attraction. I loved breaking bread (both bitterly and metaphorically) with fellow foodies who, after a glass of Malbec, soon felt like old friends at a private dinner party. I felt a sense of community, together with a frisson of excitement throughout the evening – although the fact that most puertas cerradas are illegal may have had something to do with it.

For while Casa Felix is very much above aboard, the majority of closed-door restaurants don’t actually have a licence to serve alcohol and food and thus flout health and safety codes. Are they  breaking the law? Sure. But what can I say except “ahi es Argentina...” This is a country where corruption is rife and rules are rarely enforced. All of which adds up to an excitingly illicit dining experience….

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But I digress… by far the biggest draw of dining at a closed-door restaurant is the food. It’s in a puerta cerrada, not a parrilla, that you’ll find some of the city’s most eclectic eating. In the case of Casa Felix – the brainchild of Argentine couple Felix Diego ( a lifelong vegetarian who enjoyed a spell working at San Francisco’s vegan temple Millennium) and Sandra Ritten – this means fragrant fish or vegetable based dishes whipped up using seasonal spices, herbs and vegetables from their ‘secret’ garden. Trust me when I say that even the staunchest carnivore will want to shun steak for at least one night, in favour of Casa Felix’s fresh vegetarian fare…

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Frissons and food aside, another attraction of entering this secret world of supper clubs is the affordability factor. While plenty of Porteños baulk at the prices charged by BA’s puertas cerradas, the fact remains that – for a foreigner – they’re exceptionally good value when compared to a meal at say Don Parrilla (the Palermo steakhouse which features in every single guidebook). Case in point? A five course tasting menu at Casa Felix (including coffee, water and a welcome drink) costs a reasonable ARS$420 per person – approximately £20. Want to pair each course with wine? Plan on paying an extra ARS$180 (£7.50). Just don’t forget to bring cash (it’s a cash only world in Argentina) and book ahead: most closed-door restaurants are only open in the evenings from Wednesday to Saturday and, the buzz surrounding them is so big, that they tend to fill up fast.

For diners, the appeal of puertas cerradas is obvious – “it’s not just a meal at another tourist-crowded table in Palermo,” as the honeymooning American couple sat opposite me at Casa Felix were at pains to point out. But why have so many BA residents rushed to open closed-door restaurants?

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Talk to you tomorrow,

Kaye

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To read the second part of Kaye’s postcard from Argentina: part eight, don’t forget to log onto Just About Travel tomorrow!

To read part one of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

To read part two of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

To read part three of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

To read part four of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here and here

To read part five of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here  and here

To read part six Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here  and here

To read part seven of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here and here

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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