Tiny ‘closed door’ restaurants offer the city’s most exciting and eclectic dining experiences
The driver of our yellow-and-black cab rattles through the cobbled streets of Palermo Hollywood in downtown Buenos Aires, slows to a crawl on Calle Soler and peers through his smeary windscreen, searching for No 5518. “Doesn’t look like a restaurant,” he mutters. It isn’t. It’s a puerta cerrada, one of the city’s so-called “closed-door” restaurants, a cross between a pop-up and a speakeasy, where a handful of guests gather to dine on a limited-choice menu, often in the chef’s home.
The four of us tumble out of the taxi and ring the bell. After a pause, our host, Santiago Mymicopulo, opens the door, confirms we’re in the right place and welcomes us to Casa Coupage.
Closed-door dining made its appearance in Buenos Aires more than a decade ago and is now an established fixture in the city’s thriving food scene — estimates put the number of such places at about 100, though given the informal nature of the beast, the figure can only be a wild guess. The attraction — apart from the informality and the frisson you get from what feels like a mildly illicit experience — is the food.
Among the capitals of Latin America, Buenos Aires has always trailed, say, Lima or Mexico City on the restaurant front. By consensus, it’s in puertas cerradas that you’ll find some of the city’s most exciting and eclectic eating. They provide the visitor with an appealing alternative to the customary Argentine diet of unmitigated beef with blockbuster Malbec, which, after a few days, leaves even the most unrepentant carnivore craving a meatless Monday and a bottle of crisp white.
Casa Coupage, owned and run by Mymicopulo and Inés Mendieta, sommeliers both, opened in 2005. It started life as a private wine club and soon added food to the offering. Like most closed-doors, it’s open in the evenings only, Wednesday to Saturday. “It gives us a better work-life balance,” explains Santiago, “and more flexibility — we get to choose which days to open, and apart from dinners we still do the wine club.” Unlike many such places, it’s legit — it pays its taxes, puts its address on the website, is fully licensed and takes cards, cash and dollars.
As befits a place owned by two sommeliers, wine is big here. Their speciality is small-production, under-the-radar wines; there’s barely a bog-standard Malbec in sight. The food, described as cocina Argentina moderna, is conceived hand-in-hand with the wine offering, and rather than a single menu served at a large convivial table, Casa Coupage offers a tasting menu and à la carte options served at several tables spread between two rooms.
Armed with glasses of local bubbly (a Riesling-Torrontés blend from Amalaya in Cafayate, in the northwestern Salta province) we peruse the succinct menu (four starters, four mains, four desserts) and decide on a romp through as many dishes as possible to test the chef. He does us proud with a giant crab-stuffed pasta shell perched on avocado, a crisp croquette of mushrooms with Brie and red-fruit chutney, and a couscous and shellfish salad. We get our first taste of Torrontés, a crisp white from the highlands of Salta, and an elegant Silos Pinot Noir, grown by the Estrada family within sight of the Atlantic and cooled by sea breezes.
To accompany our diverse meaty choices (fork-tender beef with peppers and roasted tomatoes, sweet-sour noisettes and cutlets of lamb and belly pork with loin and creamed corn), there’s a Cabernet Franc from Lagarde, Argentina’s oldest bodega in Mendoza, a second and subtly different Pinot Noir from Salentein in the Valle de Uco, and a succulent fruit-salad blend of Cab Franc, Malbec, Bonarda and Petit Verdot, also from the Valle de Uco and made in limited quantities by Pulcu.
Puddings — a peanut parfait wreathed in chocolate and ringed with crunchy granola, an all-mango riff and a chocolate-and-toffee creation with plum sorbet — bring forth a couple of late-harvest whites and a port-like fortified Malbec, sweet and brambly and perfect with chocolate.
We hail a cab to cross town again, singing the praises of the puertas cerradas, replete with the tastes of modern Argentine cuisine and its elegant, new-wave wines.
Illustration by Matthew Cook