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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
The pair is currently on a four-month food tour through the
US, but both were present to host and cook the last dinners of the season in
mid-May. The evening began on the back patio, with a burrito,
a lemon verbena caipirinha cocktail (reminiscent of the traditional Brazilian drink)
and Patagonian cheese wrapped in chayote leaves. Once the guests were seated,
Diego served a tasty, comforting meal, starting with a vegetarian, autumnal
version of the traditional Argentine stew locro,
an exotic mushroom empanada, frozen grape granita intermezzo and a main course
of calamari shepherd’s pie. Many of the ingredients for the dishes came from
the couple’s garden. Casa
Felix will resume serving dinner Thursday through Saturday when the
couple returns this autumn.
opened Cocina Sunae in Colegiales in 2005, there were three, maybe four, restaurants in the city serving
up the sweet, salty, savoury and spicy flavours of South Asian food, and only
one place, in her opinion, was serving a decent curry. Six years later, she is
serving dishes like shrimp sautéed in a spicy tamarind sauce, pork shoulder
braised in a garlic-vinegar sauce, and red curry chicken with coconut milk, grapes, cherry tomatoes and bamboo. The Thai tea flavoured chocolate
ganache is complemented with orange slices, a ginger cookie and a scoop of
homemade green tea ice cream, a flavour rarely found in the city’s local heladerías.
Sunae has grown, so has the city’s interest in ethnic food, Sunae said. In addition
to taking reservations at Cocina Sunae Thursday through Saturday, she has
catering gigs throughout the week, appears on local cooking shows from time to
time and has had her recipes, like one for Thai-style garlic prawns and another
for pansit guisado, a Filipino noodle
dish, published in a few Spanish-language Argentinean publications.
believes an increased interest in ethnic food could lead to an increased
awareness of other cultures. “This is my way of educating people,” Sunae said.
The chef often shares the cultural and historical context of the dishes she
serves, as do Mun, Perlman and Felix.
considers Perlman a mentor in owning and operating a puerta cerrada, though their menus diverge. At Perlman’s Casa Saltshaker, an international group of visitors
gathered for a festive Cinco de Mayo dinner of jalapeño poppers, vegetarian pozole with cracked white rice, sautéed
calamari and ocas (potato-like Andean
tubers) in a roasted cashew and chipotle sauce. The main course of pork spareribs were
marinated in a nutty Chatino mole. The meal ended with a slice of margarita
cheesecake, which smelled and tasted exactly like a margarita-turned-cheesecake
should: salty, zesty,
creamy and sweet, with a kick of tequila.
“There are certainly more and more Argentine chefs who are
being very creative and bringing in elements of fusion and such, although they
still tend to have a base of the Argentine cuisine, which makes it familiar to
locals even if they bring in other elements to it,” Perlman said. “We’ve
clearly, I think, gone further than that.”