5 Bites of Mendoza

Argentina's premier wine country dazzles with culinary jewels

As far as landscapes go, wine regions offer some of the most dramatic scenery, and on that account, Argentina’s Mendoza is a top competitor. In a warm, dry valley tucked under the Andes, the small city is surrounded by the vineyards that supply a lion’s share of the Argentinean wine consumed across the world, including the malbec many associate with the country. Wine tasting will take travelers beyond the city, to the Maipú and Luján counties, where the majority of the wineries are, but there are reasons to stay in town as well. The downtown has gotten prettier over the years as tourism has increased, and a spin in the park around Plaza Independencia is worth the trip, but the city’s real draw is its ever-finer dining.

Breakfast: Make an early morning visit to Paseo Sarmiento for the shady pedestrian walkway’s laid-back atmosphere and choose one of the sidewalk cafes, such as Havana, for a coffee and pastry like a medialuna. You may be able to catch some of the artists' shows along the walkway (but watch out for the little street urchins straight out of Oliver Twist). Called a cortito, coffee in Argentina, unlike many other South American countries, is thankfully espresso rather than instant Nescafé and, ordered “con leche,” is served with warmed milk.

Lunch: Bodega Catena Zapata’s distinct pyramid shape (pictured, left) makes it one of the most visited wineries in Mendoza. Add to that their wide variety of high-quality wines and place in history as the innovators of high-altitude viticulture and you’ve got a real bright spot on your itinerary. Welcoming and accessible, the bodega, overseen by Laura Catena, whose book Vino Argentino we featured last year, overlooks vineyards that seem to stretch up into the imposing Mount Acongagua. The tasting rooms are cozy but refined, and each have that spectacular view, including an elegant dining room where a private chef will create a multi-course wine tasting lunch for guests, as long as visitors pre-arrange it with the winery. Menu items like a sweet corn soufflé, beef tenderloin, and flan with preserved fruit are matched perfectly with Catena Zapata wines.

Snack: For the afternoon, or if a private meal cannot be arranged at La Pirámide, Azafrán, which serves Argentinean cuisine with international flourishes, also works for lunch or dinner.  One of the city’s most well-known restaurants, it started out long ago as an almacén, a type of deli selling cured meats and cheeses and wine, and then turned into full-blown eatery with the country’s largest menu of Mendocino wines, including numerous bottles from Trapiche, Catena Zapata, and many others. Diners can choose a bottle from the shelves of the temperature-controlled room at the front of the restaurant, where there is also a table that can be reserved for lunch or dinner. Get a selection of the cured meats, including smoked trout and wild boar, and try the baked cheese and empanadas with inventive fillings like sweetbreads and wild mushrooms.

Dinner: Without exception, a visit to 1884 Francis Mallman is a must-stop on the mobile feast. It’s been hyped in countless articles about Mendoza, and because of this, some diners come with expectations of precious nouvelle cuisine, but the upscale setting inside the historic Bodegas Escorihuela Gascón winery belies the simplicity of the restaurant’s ethos — meat cooked the way the gauchos did, over open fire.

Other than the succulent beef empanadas, the appetizers take a back seat to the meaty main courses, among them the chivito, grilled baby goat, and the enormous whole rib-eye steak , well-charred and topped with chimichurri sauce, making you feel like Fred Flintstone (pictured, above). Begin or end with a tour of the sweetly preserved winery (noting the huge carved barrel) that is set within the city of Mendoza and still functions as a bodega (pictured, right) for neighbors who want to buy a bottle or two of wine. More tips: Request a table in the candlelit courtyard, utilize the knowledgeable sommelier, and be sure to order some of the Escorihuela Gascón wines that aren't available for export in the U.S.

Dessert: If the chocolate fanático dessert at 1884 didn’t satisfy, gelato at one of the city’s Helados Ferruccio Soppelsa will likely hit the spot, especially during the warmer months. Keep it local with the flan flavor or go international with Rocher chocolate (like the candy). The location on Arístides Villanueva is an excellent segue to a night of drinking at one of the many sidewalk bars that line the street. People-watch alongside young Mendocinos ordering beer-bong-looking dispensers of Fernet and bopping their heads to the music pumping out of the glitzy, if slightly cheesy, discotecas.

 

 

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