All fires ablaze

It’s been a year since Francis Mallmann – the face of Argentine cuisine if you’re outside Argentina – opened Siete Fuegos in Uco Valley.

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And although its smart setting within The Vines of Mendoza Hotel and Spa couldn’t be further away from the simple image of the mendocino cooking in the countryside that we see on the telly, so what. The good news is that 7F is now a must on the Uco dining circuit.

Besides, if your budget can’t quite meet a night at its luxurious hotel setting, then lunch or dinner is the next best thing. The stunning view is fortunately free.

And you know what? The price isn’t killer in terms of food to fill-yer-belly ratio.

I’ve visited The Vines’ ambitious project variously over the years, watching it expand to incorporate land for additional vineyards, plant new vines, add a winemaker’s village, see a few roof tops peek out above the grapes as vineyard owners slowly start to build homes and now a hotel (with spa set to open later this year). Hell, I was there the day before they filled the reservoir in front of the villas two years ago! Or was it three?

And so it’s ace to see ambitions fulfilled, little by little.

While other eateries such as La posada del jamón and Almacén de Uco have been on the valley’s gastronomical map for some time, it’s fair to say that Siete Fuegos has been a game raiser. Top-class service, staff who can perfectly communicate with diners in English, one of the finest views of the Andes, a top executive chef, stunning Lapas cutlery and a contemporary menu that shows off an impeccable skill set as well as creative dishes with flair, even down to the salads. And of course no expense has been spared when it comes to décor, comfort, linen and all.

Al pirulín
Al pirulín

The outdoor experience
Dine in or out, though the outdoor experience is preferable, next to the lake which backs onto the glorious outdoor swimming-pool. The only possible downside can be the pesky flies during hot summer months. And if they’re a bother, eat inside! And that view! Lawn, followed by vines, followed by foothills, followed by snow-capped Andes.

Mallmann’s kitchen naturally whips up various meaty delights from kid, lamb and beef with a strong hand in fish too, and wows diners by using seven different fire styles such as al pirulín – where chickens unhurriedly roast and smoke over coals while dangling from twine – classic grilling on the parrilla or underground smoking. Carcasses a-hanging was how Mallmann presented his wares at the first Raíz food fest two years ago, and a spectacular show it was indeed.

All seven fires blaze one night a week; the rest of the time it’s open daily with whole lamb cooking on the cross spit or pork ribs slowly turning pink atop the parrilla. And it’s really not just about the beef. Although we’re in prime cow country, Mallmann’s incorporated other cuts. Carnivores will adore the Malbec-glazed pork ribs (227 pesos) as a meaty alternative to the norm. Those bad boys have been baked and grilled, and are as succulent as a ripe peach. A simple potato mash with crunchy toasted pistachios give some fascinating and homely texture.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

That bean salad
That sexy bean salad

With an abundance of starters, such as prosciutto-wrapped pear salad with cheese (150 pesos) and courgette omelette topped with yoghurt, rocket and mint (110 pesos), I would bid you take a close look at the salads. Vegetarians will rejoice, despite being in a restaurant where cow is king, because Siete Fuegos has some of the most creative – and I don’t just mean an artfully placed lettuce leaf – green dishes going.

My go-to is the bean salad with chilli, hazelnuts, garlic and cheese curd (190 pesos). Soft creamy textures combine with crunchy nuts and there’s enough heat to make your tongue salsa. I appreciate the value of a fresh, bouncy, flavoursome salad, especially after I just ate the worst one ever yesterday. (Two out of three ingredients, the beans and beetroot, were grown in a can. Remove ‘la’ from the word salad and you get ‘sad.’ It was exactly that.)

Even the bloody pizza rocked my world. Thin crispy base set matters straight, topped goat’s cheese, prosciutto and fresh parsley (105 pesos). With four slices, it’s perfect to share or even devour as a main course. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil to complete the look.

Starters are excellent value for money. It might seem pricey to splash out 110 pesos on eggs, but for an average appetite they are filling. So much so, you might regret ordering a main as well, because you might not be able to finish it. As for my beany one, it’s a mountain of food, and can totally double up as a main. But I would say, go hungry and go big. The flavours and textures combined with the top-notch meat quality is second to none.

Why not do this. Order a main, or order two starters, possibly even to share. Or go extremely hungry because dishes are vast and pack a punch then double up with an entreé and a main.

That view
That view

Other wondrous dishes include the salt-crusted chicken with lemon, rosemary, garlic and tartare sauce (290 pesos), a succulent yet unsalty affair and you can choose from breast or thigh. This takes 40 minutes to prepare so only order it if you play the waiting game.

As for those Malbec-glazed pork ribs, these sumptuous beauties are backed up with a simple mash scattered with pistachios, again texture and flavour coming together. Really worth a go.

As for the wine list in an establishment that’s surrounded by 500 hectares of vines and makes dozens of single owner wines, this 72-page extravaganza has been curated by in-house sommelier Martín Krawczyk, who ranked seventh in the Argentina Sommelier Association competition last year. Besides listing some of The Vines’ finest own vintages, this encyclopedic menu naturally focuses on some of Argentina’s best offerings. Pop down to the cellar for inspiration. If it’s too much to handle, certainly ask for advice as experts are on hand to guide you.

Siete Fuegos
The Vines of Mendoza
Ruta 94 Km 11, Tunuyan, Uco Valley
Tel: 0261 461-3910

Buenos Aires Herald, March 15, 2015

Ph: Courtesy of The Vines of Mendoza, except bean salad: SMW

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