San Carlos de Bariloche — My one regret about dining at Cassis is not taking night-vision goggles.
A wintry dinner at this San Carlos de Bariloche restaurant has romance written all over it. An open fire, a carefully considered seasonal tasting menu focusing on Patagonia’s key produce honed with many years working in Europe and around Argentina, and a lakeside location perfectly dusted with a smattering of snow. The makings of a magical meal.
But that watery panorama was missing. Cassis — run by a husband-and-wife team comprising chef Mariana ‘China” Müller and front-of-house manager Ernesto Wolf — has the most privileged of lake settings in the shadow of the mountains. But at dinner, only my imagination could create the rippling reflections showcasing lofty Cerro Catedral, which is a shame because the vista over Lake Gutiérrez would have enhanced my dining experience.
The other option is to book for lunch during the winter season, although that’s only possible with a minimum of eight people. That’s not to say you should skip dinner at Cassis, far from it. It remains a buzzword in terms of local gastronomy, a fine dining must. And the news with respect to Bariloche’s foremost culinary couple is that they are to move the current establishment to their home, located deeper within the forest, for next summer. The latest project, logically enough, will be called Casa Cassis, and is where their organic garden and Müller & Wolf, Bodega de Vinagres, vinegar production takes place.
As Mariana told me: “We get restless and enjoy change. We started out in Esquel, and have worked in Germany, downtown Bariloche, at Lake Gutiérrez: it’s time for us to move on again.”
That means this is probably the last winter to enjoy Cassis in its current format. In addition, two decades have flown by since the couple started out in the world of gastronomy, and the current seven-course tasting menu — which changes each season — marks those 20 years.
Each in its own world
Arriving is magical; given that it’s set on the banks of the lake, you walk down some snowy steps, not quite knowing what awaits. With ceiling-to-floor windows and a log fire large enough to transport you somewhere else, the look combines wood and stone, essential Bariloche elements that don’t go overboard on rustic. It’s also spacious with an unusual half-hexagon salon that comfortably accommodates up to 40 diners, ensuring each table is its own world without losing a sense of intimacy.
Cassis’ concept showcases regional products with central European inspiration. Think lamb, mushrooms, prawns and trout in terms of principal ingredients; herbs and other greens come from the restaurant’s organic garden, while vinegars are from their own production line. What’s interesting about the seasonal nature of the menu is that Mariana can pick and choose staples when they are at the best, regionally speaking: Esquel lamb is in season now, but in a few months she will select the best cuts from another part of Patagonia, for example.
The anniversary menu sadly doesn’t include their greatest hit, lamb strudel, though it is on the lunchtime à la carte menu.
A welcome cocktail made according to Ernesto’s whim kicked off the evening, a refreshing elderberry, white gooseberry and Sauvignon Blanc concoction. And the bread basket, including a stunning challah, is so delicious it will tempt the most allergic of coeliacs. Dip it into the crème brulée-style foie gras, topped with crunchy sugar that works curiously well with the pâté. (Think along the lines of Sauternes, a high sugar wine that is the absolute perfect foie partner.)
Some extra oomph
One starter was a trout tartare with a prawn foam, topped with spinach. The foam paired well with the local trout, letting the fillet shine through but giving it some extra fishy oomph. Another was a corn and tabasco soup served in a cute coffee cup, and its gentle kick meant Mariana hadn’t gone too easy on the hot sauce. The current menu offers up fennel and petit suisse cheese soup topped with dill, as well as blue Brie and plums dressed with cassis and coriander crystals.
Local fungi also took the spotlight in a morel, pine mushroom and bacon extravaganza, while the infamous lamb strudel (Hungarian origin) was pure delight. Confit of Esquel lamb is cooked slowly for between seven and eight hours in a Sauvignon Blanc reduction, and topped with thyme. Little Larry gets plenty of exercise in mountainous Esquel, which translates to a buttery yet not fatty meat on your plate.
A fungi alternative on the current menu includes Bavarian knödel made with morel and pine mushrooms, while the meat edition is hare from Esquel backed up by wild juniper aromas and organic veg. I wish I’d got to sample the trout in an elderberry flower foam reduction teamed up with baby sorrel from the garden, if only to say that I ate myself.
The seven-step tasting menu will set you back 700 pesos, and the great work team Cassis is doing in terms of focusing on Patagonia’s larder is inspirational. Do this (if you can afford to): go for a dark and mysterious dinner, then return for lunch with (new?) friends the next day for the full experience. And remember you only have until the end of the year, before Mariana and Ernesto move out for summer.
KM 6.5, RP 82, Km 6,500, Lake Gutiérrez, San Carlos de Bariloche
Tel: 0294 447-6167
Buenos Aires Herald, July 12, 2015
Ph: Courtesy of Cassis