MENDOZA — It’s not hard to have a great meal in Mendoza, given the abundance of bodega restaurants that take pride in their fare in the wine-producing region.
But wineries such as Lagarde, Tapiz and Casarena are often located quite a distance, obviously, from the city centre, meaning you need to fork out for a cab to get you there and back.
There are also a host of ace options in town dotted around the main Plaza Independencia square but they are the usual suspects when it comes to fine dining.
Mendoza city eateries with a great rep include Azafrán, which recently reopened after a six-month refurbishment; Nadia OF, which has shifted premises from Chacras de Coria to downtown in this past year; María Antonieta run by Francis Mallmann’s talented missus Vanina Chimeno; and Pablo Del Río’s Siete Cocinas.
I’m a fan of Siete Cocinas thanks to Del Río’s innovative concept that offers seven regional cuisines spanning the length and breadth of Argentina to include northern provinces Salta and Jujuy as well as Andean Patagonia and the Argentine Coast among others.
And fortunately Del Río has expanded his restaurant portfolio in downtown Mendoza.
In a concept shift similar to Buenos Aires’ Gonzalo Aramburu — who started high end with his eponymous San Telmo restaurant then opened a more casual bistro-style affair with Bis in mid-2014 —Del Río also took matters down a casual notch to open Fuente y Fonda a few months ago.
The space is understated shabby chic; a gorgeous refurbished casona complete with original features such as ceramic floor tiles that has returned to its glory days, while the outdoor patio retains original character — indeed the whole property does.
In fact we can safely say that updating old mansions is now a Del Río trademark, as he does it so well, and makes them so welcoming, using each room for a different salon, whether it’s a private dining space or an open-plan arena resplendent with communal table.
Communal is very much a buzz word in this latest project, and family is the backbone. All dishes are for sharing, and that is made perfectly clear on the menu. (Although it’s a bit gutting if you want to return on your own. I had a yen for the cannelloni but there was no way in hell I could contemplate tackling the vast dish for a family of four. Worse-case scenario, however, I could have ordered a couple of starters). And it’s a great idea, making food more hands-on and familiar, removing some of the formality yet none of the culinary knowhow.
Don’t get me wrong, Fuente y Fonda isn’t about the glamorous tasting menu — it’s about what my Argentine abuela would whip up for her favourite granddaughter, classic home cooking, if I had such a granny.
A certain pleasure
Kick off with escabeche, succulent and well-prepared pickled chicken. There is a certain pleasure to dipping a fork in and pulling out a chunk, and sharing the dish.
Some might sniff in disgust at “double dipping” but you can shove some on the metal blue and white camping dishware to avoid germs. Personally the double dip doesn’t bother me, as the next thing to enter my mouth is probably a slug of wine and the alcohol will kill off any bugs. (Serious note, since I started sommelier training two years ago, I haven’t been sick once, not even with a common cold.)
The Serrano-style ham sourced from Córdoba is also another win, very buttery and not overly salty, while the pickled tongue is also worth the effort to get over the phobia of eating it.
The matambre didn’t float my boat, then again it rarely does. Bread of course is baked in house, fresh, white and hearty and ideal for mopping up slivers of ham or escabeche.
Mains are so vast they could feed a small Central American nation. Monstrous dishes such as spinach cannelloni, and milanesa completa dominate the wooden table tops. So while prices might seem excessive for what can be seen as standard fare, in fact feeding a four-strong group suddenly becomes a bit more economical.
Pasta is made in-house, naturally (and makes me wistfully think of the goat’s cheese ravioli and Siete Cocinas) and is simple yet effective. Fresh ingredients — tomatoes, herbs — are the order of the day and you can taste the difference in the simplicity. Again, another epic adventure in ovenware, delivered straight to the table by young and friendly staff.
And, not surprisingly, by the end of the eating shift, bellies are stuffed, and hearts, as they say in Spanish, are happy.
For the full Fuente y Fonda experience, go in a group and book the communal table in the back salon. And, if you’re dining solo, go anyway and hoof down a couple of starters.
A welcome addition to Mendoza City’s slowly flourishing food scene.
Fuente y Fonda
Montevideo 675, Mendoza
Buenos Aires Herald, January 4, 2015
Ph: F&F, María Laura Ortiz