The last and first time I ate ceso was in 1999. Grilled, and too pale to be healthy, it was memorable because it was beef brain and not for any other reason. But in 2014, and in Mendoza, I’m thrilled to announce that this maligned cow part has been considerably vamped up.
At Casa del Visitante, one of two restaurants at Familia Zuccardi winery in Maipú, seso has had a double whammy of a makeover — it now comes in carpaccio format and is part one of a 12-course tasting menu.
In fact on Tuesday, we were about to start attacking the regional tasting menu but looking over the physical list of offerings, something caught Yu Sheng’s beady eye. It was the seso carpaccio accompanied by fig ice-cream and parsley oil.
Julia Zuccardi — she after whom the sibling winery’s Bodega Santa Julia is named — willing obliged his whim and three dishes of finely sliced stuff appeared. Beautifully presented like any octopus or beef effort in fact the ice-cream, tasty as it was, was a little overwhelming for the rather delicate ceso pieces when eaten together. On its own, the delicate, texture of this offal came through and if anything, it had a poultry flavour to it. Never one to chicken out, I savoured a few pieces before calling it quits: it still seems a bit odd to my Anglo-Saxon mind to consume that particular animal part.
The regional menu is a good deal at Casa del Visitante — it’s 360 pesos with wine pairings from the Santa Julia line and you can go back for more without having actually to go back for more because the meats come to you. Basically: go hungry.
With a little soupy amuse-bouche and three varieties of empanada, as well as those tasty and teeny tiny little chorizos and blood sausages to kick off with, abundant salads and dishes of grilled veggies, drizzled with the house olive oil, then turned up. Some would be happy with just that but then the meats roll out on a human conveyor belt. From short ribs to sirloin and kid, a complete highlight were the tender oblongs of matambrito de cerdo. Perfectly salted, perfectly juicy and utterly succulent, that pork cut was out of this world.
In such a perfect location, surrounded by organic vines and with a beautiful garden to lounge around in, pick a lovely spring day for a visit. Or, pick a lovely winter day and discard your clothes to lounge around in front of the fireplace. Given that Zuccardi is the pioneer of eco-tourism in the region, they get things right and it is worth the 40-minute drive from the city to reach the site in Maipú. Diners also have a tour of the winery included.
Back in town however, is another pioneer but in chef format. Pablo del Río, a porteño transplant who’s lived in Mendoza since 2002, has run Siete Cocinas for four years, although he says the concept has been alive in his work for much longer.
This restaurant’s menu runs the length and breadth of Argentina to highlight the cuisines of seven regions — from the northwest, down to Patagonia and even including Buenos Aires as Metropolitana — showcasing ingredients and dishes, even fusing areas at times, which have had elaborate redesigns and been brought up to date.
Del Río changes up the menu on a seasonal basis to ensure ingredient rotation and to best represent what is in offer, and again, there’s another gift in the tasting menu — four steps for 275 pesos is a great deal.
Located on a prime corner in downtown Mendoza City, two blocks from Plaza Italia, step into the old mansion that is now Siete Cocinas. An open kitchen awaits —although for an eyeful of all the culinary action it’s best to book the table closest to it as the window is rather high — and besides two main salons there’s also a private dining room and cava.
Cute hipster waiters are very much on the ball, attentive with wine, water and delicious warm mini ciabatta. Add some extra virgin olive oil and we’ve got the Mediterranean basics. A nice additional touch given the overall sophistication of the restaurant could be some balsamic vinegar to drizzle into the olive oil — just a thought.
Step one of this four-course tasting menu, which is available until the end of June, is mote wheat, green bean and bocconcini from Cuyo and the Pampa regions. The simplicity spoke volumes and it was a great and refreshing way to start — and I’m pretty sure I’ve never tried mote wheat before.
The next part was the weakest dish — fried Atlantic pink cusk-eel cheeks with a sweetcorn salsa from the Mar Argentino region. Although the fish was tender and not overcooked, it was a little bit bland overall.
Then came a dreamy bonus track (thanks Pablo): goat’s cheese ravioli backed up by caramelized sunflower seeds and pan-fried tomatoes from northwest Argentina and Metropolitana.
As soon as I forked open the pasta and smelled the cheese, I knew this would be a winning situation. The softness of the creamy pasta fused with the crunchy seeds was texturally pleasurable and as soon as I had demolished mine, I was busy scouring the table for any stray raviolis that needed a home. Sadly, perhaps fortunately, it wasn’t to be.
It was then back on schedule with the fourth — read as third — dish, an absolutely succulent piece of clay-oven roasted kid from Cuyo. A boneless piece, it was falling away from itself as it was so tender thanks to the slow-cooking method. I had the vision to take this dish with patience, savouring those rustic, perfectly roasted, pieces of kid. And as luck would have it, Belu sitting next to me couldn’t quite finish hers. The diet obviously begins tomorrow…
If a tasting menu sounds too organized, then opt for standalone dishes. Starters cost between 74 pesos and 90 pesos, while mains covering kid, rabbit and lamb rock between 131 and 178 pesos — clearly the better deal is taking up the tasting option and enjoying a gastro tour of Argentina.
Casa del Visitante
Ruta Provincial 33, KM 7.5, Maipú, Mendoza
Bartolomé Mitre 794, Mendoza City, Mendoza
Buenos Aires Herald, May 25, 2014