International cuisine in Buenos Aires’ puertas cerradas
A torta alfajor rogel (left) and fresh sushi (right) at Casa Mun (centre). (Karina Martinez-Carter)
Casa Mun’s two tables were each set for eight people, a pair of sturdy, bamboo chopsticks resting diagonally across the square porcelain plates imported from China. Soft light from the candle centrepieces played off the deep red walls of the Buenos Aires loft, and dinner guests filled the communal dining tables, chatting with new acquaintances. As they sipped the last of their welcome reception champagne, a chef emerged from the adjacent kitchen, bowls of steaming Chinese wonton soup in his hands. Aromas of the impending five-course Asian meal had been wafting through the room since the guests arrived.
As the chef explained the first dish, the bowls moved up and down with his gesticulations. With each word, the diners craned their necks further, discreetly trying to glimpse the handmade wontons before the dish arrived in front of them. The more people ate, the more they were eager to try, and the cat-and-mouse game played out for the remaining four courses, all of which came paired with wine. Next was the fresh sushi and sashimi plate, then the fish tacos, decorated with a dollop of jalapeño wasabi guacamole. The main course was the signature Korean rice and vegetable dish, bibimbap. Every ingredient was cooked individually, topped with a quail egg and accompanied with a side of spicy sauce; the recipe courtesy of the chef’s mother. And then the dessert finale: a torta alfajor rogel, thin layers of sweet wafer and dulce de leche filling, with fresh fruit and the Chinese symbol for “home” scrawled on the plate in homemade chocolate sauce.
The intimate gathering at Casa Mun, which Chef Mun Kim and his business partner opened in March, felt like a dinner party among friends. But the dining experience was actually taking place in a puerta cerrada, or closed-door restaurant that operates out of a chef’s private home and welcomes one seating of 12 to 30 people, a few nights per week, to partake in a fixed-price, multi-course menu. Some are open Thursday through Saturday; others start the week on Wednesday and some, like Casa Mun, are once-a-week happenings.
While Argentina is a country of immigrants, the culinary landscape — predominantly a mix of parrilla (red meat) and pastas — has remained fairly homogenous. But several puerta cerradas from foreign-born chefs like Kim are infusing Buenos Aires’s gastronomic scene with international flair.
Kim travelled to Buenos Aires four times before he decided to quit his high-paying but all-consuming corporate job in Los Angeles and open Casa Mun in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo. The lack of restaurants serving Asian cuisine, coupled with the energy of the city —the same buena onda (good vibes) that lure many foreigners to Buenos Aires — motivated Mun to take the dinner parties he had been throwing for friends at home, relocate them to Buenos Aires and expand. Kim now serves traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean food, including dishes he learned from his mother growing up in Hawaii and sushi he perfected while training with Iron Chef Makota Okuwa.
Others transplant-run puertas cerradas include the husband-wife team at Casa Felix, serving up a seasonal South American pescatarian menu with local products. Chef Diego Felix is originally from a Buenos Aires suburb but also cooked and trained under chefs in San Francisco; his wife Sanra is from San Diego. South Asian chef Christina Sunae opened Cocina Sunae, the go-to place for flavourful Thai food in Buenos Aires. And American chef Dan Perlman crafts his thematic menus for Casa Saltshaker with a Mediterranean base and tailors them to coincide with upcoming holidays. All three restaurants have been in business for at least four years.
Sanra and Diego Felix started their supperclub out of their airy home in Chacarita without realizing others in Buenos Aires were employing similar concepts. “Our main objective has always been to conduct culinary investigations, look for and document interesting lesser known foodstuffs and present them in our South American-inspired cuisine,” Sanra said.