I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: the best way to see Mendoza is ensuring a driver is on hand to meet your every wine whim.
Last week was no exception. Except the mode of transport was a double-decker coach, instead of the usual car of choice. And the chauffeur had been contracted by Park Hyatt Mendoza.
Now in its sixth year, Masters of Food & Wine rounded up some of Argentina’s best chefs and sommeliers for a four-day eating and drinking experience, and also threw in a Michelin-starred chef from Spain for good measure.
Although some of the amateur eaters and drinkers (I categorise myself as a semi-pro at the very least, you see…) turned up simply because they got a whiff of what was going on, coincidence or not, no matter – two coach loads of parched and famished food and drink fans from Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and California were shepherded around some of Mendoza’s finest vineyards.
The concept is this: following an elaborate launch night extravaganza showcasing some of the best cuisine in Mendoza, guest chefs then spend the next three days preparing out-of-the-ordinary menus as they take over kitchens at top wineries. Some of that bodega’s finest vintages are laid out to accompany aforementioned delicacies, with renowned sommeliers including Agustina de Alba from Buenos Aires restaurant Aramburu and Uruguay’s Charlie Arturaola, star of the film El camino del vino (2012), on hand to provide tasting notes.
Mendoza has plenty to offer, gastro wise, but obviously there is only so much digestion one can handle when spending a few days there. Picking and choosing where to luncheon and dine is paramount, so the food islands at the opening event allowed plenty of local and international choice in bite-size portions. I dipped into a succulent slow-cooked lamb and lentil stew served by the owner of Mendoza’s Siete Cocinas himself, Pablo Del Río, and also letched over works of art decorated with colourful edible floral splashes, courtesy of Michelin-starred Montse Estruch from Barcelona’s El Cingle.
Besides the obvious, outrageously high level of cuisine going on, what was striking was the access one had to all these big names that are so familiar on the BA restaurant scene, and often on the television. The diminutive Dolli Irigoyen, for example, is a tigress in the kitchen – a characteristic that has never been apparent to me before but was made perfectly clear from her pumpkin soup with coriander croutons and sautéed prawns that had (some of) us calling out for a second serving.
All these chefs and sommeliers are just as keen to eat and drink as the rest of us, perhaps more so once they come off duty so Masters proved to be a great blend, allowing one and all to let down their hair while sporting elasticated waistbands.
The aforementioned Dolli soup was a highlight – what a way to pep up pumpkin – forming part of a six-course lunch menu at the beautiful Bodega Zuccardi, also famed for its award-winning olive oil – the Arauco in particular is a potent potion that is ideal with focaccia. One perfect pairing at that meal was the braised asado that fell to pieces as I prodded it with a fork and was backed up by a juicy Zuccardi Q Malbec, while a personal highlight was watching 150 dishes of baked figs and my favourite burrata cheese being prepped.
Other one-of-a-kind moments included tank-side dinners at Trapiche, where Diego Muñoz from Peru’s Astrid & Gastón kept his amuse-bouche and starter seafood- and spice-heavy with a clam and prawn chalaca and crab causa respectively, indeed a welcome relief from beef even if the main was lomo salteado; and also at Escorihuela Gascón, the latter dominated by a vast hand-carved cask made in French oak from Nancy, good to hold 63,000 litres. Ah, to be surrounded by thousands of bottles of wine! Ah, the temptation to open the tanks! That said, we did try rosé straight from a stainless steel tank at Casarena Bodegas and although it has the makings of something exciting, it certainly isn’t that much fun sipping on fermenting wine.
Another personal triumph was to see friend Mun Kim at his new restaurant space set among the vines at Casarena. Mun had been hard at work preparing for hungry mouths and in spite of a power malfunction, spicy sushi and pork buns supported by some sparkling wine for breakfast was invariably a success.
It was also a great pleasure to have Uruguayan master griller Luis Acuña, the not so pobre (I imagine) Luis from the Belgrano steak house manhandling my meats, and we also had a look at the sparkling wine room at Escorihuela Gascón. Fascinating to see the protective face-masks lined up – it can be a hazardous job.
But the winner – if there can be one, given that everyone is full and content with wonderful dishes and spectacular wine – was Montse at Catena Zapata. In her fourth year at Masters, she’s more than a friend, she’s family and although this is the first time I’ve eaten Michelin-starred fare, it seemed liked all the stops had been pulled out.
From innovative fork use, each one individually stacked with salmon and arugula or goat’s cheese and beetroot (what a match!) to pop straight into an open beak to a delightful gazpacho I could barely tear myself from, I went straight to the pearly gates with the first mouthful of her salmon. Baked in butter on the grill in foil, she had masterfully covered it in gold salt, and each bite was so exquisite, I might well have eaten a whole fish’s worth. Whoops.
Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on May 12, 2013
Ph: Park Hyatt Mendoza