Yes to NOLA

NOLA style: slow-cooked pork shoulder with grits.
NOLA style: slow-cooked pork shoulder with grits.
What I find so fascinating about the puerta cerrada concept is how easily they seemingly spring up. A whirling dervish, usually the chef, acquires a space and seamlessly produces a menu with dishes to kickstart an immediate drool session, also known in the business as salivation. Unusual, sometimes experimental, or simply rarely seen on a porteño menu before (it’s hard to get ingredients these days, isn’t it?), these cosy closed-door restaurants offer an experience by sharing an uncommon cuisine – sometimes at a communal table – bringing expertise often garnered in another country to this gathering of hungry strangers.

What’s equally fascinating is the transitory life of these secret supper clubs. Some have thrived for donkeys’ years while preferring to maintain a lower profile, and only supply their address on reservation – long-established Argentine offerings include 30 Sillas, Casa Félix, and Almacen Secreto.

Others pop for a few months, taking advantage of fewer heads as a pre-cursor to running a larger kitchen, before wilting away like a day-old rocket leaf. It’s the ideal scenario for a cook looking to gain experience, and allows a creative flair to shine with a little less pressure than a larger restaurant’s cooking arena. One, long-closed, such enterprise was Max’s Supper Club. His art-inspired dishes were accompanied by a related exhibition, and dinners were held at a gallery. It doesn’t get more bobo (bohemian-bourgeoise, like the wine from Bodega Trapezio) than that.

Another closed door that will be, yes, closing its doors come June is The Lost Asian’s Hidden Kitchen. Frances Ren Huang, a genuine expat in the sense that her husband was sent to Argentina to work, literally pops up with camp stoves to concoct Chinese-Taiwanese deliciousness in front of your eyes with the minimum of fuss. Crisp roasted duck and Taiwanese short ribs form part of the short yet sweet fixed menu, but the flavours and price – 200 pesos for three courses that includes a dazzling array of starters – is great value. The Lost Asian will bepopping up and out for one-off events around the city so keep ‘em peeled. Tick-tock.

But one lady whose doors are definitely not shutting any time soon is the NOLA chef. New Orleans, Louisiana, transplant Liza Puglia has moved and shaken her away around Buenos Aires since her arrival two years ago, and her Creole-fused menu has meteorically thrust her to the top of Trip Advisor.

Brick by brick is how Liza, cute as a button in a black-and-white gingham apron, has started to construct her small yet thriving empire in BA. First came a Mexican pop-up at now-closed The Office bar. Then came her own regular Thursday nighter that dedicated followers of spice make pilgrimages to. This was followed up by the real deal, NOLA Buenos Aires, the weekend restaurant situated in her mother-in-law’s beautifully renovated home set up for communal or more intimate dinners to the sounds of Liza’s native jazz.

My dealings with Creole fare – a feisty French, Spanish and Caribbean fusion – commonly eaten in southern USA, are limited, but I was thrilled to have a go on what I had always considered a fictitious dish, fried green tomatoes.

This is in fact a two-person show, with Liza P’s boyfriend, sommelier-in-the-making Francisco, taking charge of wine pairings. And what is nice, for want of a better word, is this tag team undertake all roles together – from prepping the four courses (350 pesos) to service and the washing-up (which was a touch on the loud side so perhaps the jazz could be more raucous, although efficiency is of course appreciated!).

Greeted with a glass of sparkling wine helps ease introductions on the sofa, and so often happens in this city, six degrees of separation were in full force. The young Australian couple had been on a parrilla tour with the NYC mother-and-son duo who had stepped off a cruise ship just the day before, while the son and I had an NYC journalist friend in common.

Ushered to the large communal table – candle-lit, you could pitch up over the Valentine’s weekend and meet your one true love right there – part one of four was like a cool Arctic breeze sweeping in over this muggy city.

A mango gazpacho with a most ample serving of prawns and some double chili action as well as a crunchy plantain chip for digging into the tomato salsa had a glowing but not obnoxious heat to it. Pretty as a picture in an earthenware bowl, the colourful tones of this dish was paradoxically cooling and warming. Accompanied by a Territorio Torrontés, we diners were soon busy peering into our dining partner’s bowl for leftovers.

Round two brought fried green tomatoes to life for me for the first time, and this was so much better than I thought this could ever taste. Lightly battered with an octopus salsa, the tomatoes were creamy and melt in the mouth. Surprising. Fried green tomatoes served with a spicy Malbec-Bonarda-Syrah rosé, where have you been all my life?

The main attraction was pork shoulder slow cooked for four-and-a-half hours, served on a bed of grits, which looks like mash potato but tastes more like polenta, and drizzled with an ancho and chipotle pepper salsa. As tender as can be, my knife was redundant as I pulled the meat apart. The subtle heat was still coming through several minutes after my plate was licked clean. Passion 4’s 2010 Malbec certainly held its own with the chilis, with Francisco declaring it a personal favourite.

Although I’m not often big on dessert, I’m big on the main components of Liza’s blueberry and goat’s cheese tart. Stuffed into a buttermilk crust, this was a cracker, the cheese cutting the sweet fruits to blend together seamlessly. Great companions. Needless to say the plate was clean by the end.

Wining On verdict: Fine wine, finer NOLA fare, this closed-door is a great intro to Creole cuisine, and the only one you’ll probably get in BA. It can’t be long before Liza Puglia opens doors to a more permanent establishment.

NOLA Buenos Aires, Palermo
Address on reservation

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on February 10, 2013

Ph: Jocelyn Mandryk

You migh enjoy last week’s Wining On – a disaster of a high tea

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