Mendoza Day 1: Food, Wine, and Unexpected Archaeological Fun

When I was living in New York and taking classes at Instituto Cervantes I had a wonderful Spanish teacher from Argentina.  I think it was her love of Argentina, her strange accent (most of my other teachers were from Madrid), her intelligence and spirit that first made an impression on me about this beautiful country.  I ended up volunteering for her elder son’s nonprofit organization in Argentina that provides arts education to talented young people and it was this teacher whose photos from Patagonia captured my imagination to make the trip there myself.

Several years back her son got married in the Argentine wine country of Mendoza and since we get a lot of malbec in New York, Mendoza was a place I’d heard a lot about and wanted to visit.  Last week after living happily in Buenos Aires for three months I got a chance to get away from the city to this famous wine region of Argentina where 70% of the country’s wine is produced in over 1,300 bodegas (it’s the 6th largest in the world).

My girlfriend R and I took a mid-morning flight from Aeroparque and were in Mendoza by lunch time (flight time ~1:30).  We checked into a cute little hotel a few blocks away from the city center and were pleasantly surprised that we had a full house/apartment at our disposal, with a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, etc.  We were situated by the pool and as we walked towards our “apartment” I looked up to see grapevines overhead that were drooping heavily with beautifully purple globe grapes.  Melisa, an employee from the hotel, explained that it’s quite traditional to have grapevines planted in and around the houses in Mendoza and that her Grandmother’s house was set up the same way.  These grapes were delicious and juicy, and were part of our breakfast every morning during our stay.

We set out to have lunch at Azafrán, a pretty little restaurant with a nice outdoor seating area just down the street from our hotel.  We had dinner reservations at Francis Mallmann’s 1884 our first night in Mendoza so we were careful not to eat and drink too much at lunch.  I had a yummy tortilla Espanola with caramelized onions and R had a great Caesar salad with grilled seafood.  I really wish we could have had another meal at Azafrán because the food was really quite good and R was crazy about their bread service, which included several different types of bread including one with bacon baked into it.

After lunch we took a leisurely walk through the city of Mendoza, all the way over to the original center of the city and its Plaza Principal.

I walked into the Museo Fundacional to find myself the only visitor.  As I was paying the admissions fee I asked about the location of the ruins of San Francisco, an old Jesuit church and school.  A guy who was sitting by the counter told me that it was closed and I couldn’t visit it, but he offered to give me some information about the history of the plaza area and the work he was doing.  He turned out to be an archaeologist and was very kind to take a few minutes to explain the excavation work going on underneath the plaza.

In 1861 a massive earthquake hit Mendoza, which was then followed by 4 days of fires and 3 days of floods that destroyed the city.  The main plaza was moved to the present day Plaza Independencia when they re-built Mendoza.  This museum had artifacts going back to the indigenous population around the Andes, arrival of the Spanish, and the subsequent development of the life in Mendoza.  As I was walking through the museum the archaeologist (Marco) came around and asked me if I wanted to go see the excavation site under the plaza.  Why of course!  There were a few other visitors that just arrived and he’d take us down below for a peek.  It sure was unexpected and totally fun.

Our fabulous dinner that evening was at Francis Mallmann’s 1884, a restaurant I’d been very much looking forward to going.  We pulled up in our taxi to a large walled structure with a giant door; it appeared from the outside like an entrance to an abandoned medieval castle or a warehouse.  A security guard with a clipboard approached our cab and asked under whose name was the reservation.  Only after we confirmed we were let in through the gates.

The restaurant was spacious and nicely decorated without feeling too stuffy or formal.  The large dining room had banquet seating lining the walls and we could easily look into the kitchen where the staff worked busily to prepare the evening’s meals.  Our bilingual waiter was friendly, ready to give us his opinions about various dishes and navigating 1884’s Bible-like wine list was made easy by the informative sommelier.  We ordered a bottle of 2004 D’Autor from the bodega Santa Faustina (the sommelier seemed to really like this wine and described it as being “special”), which was a blend of Malbec (74%) from Lunlunta , Luján and Syrah (26%) from Medrano, Junín.   It’d been aged in French oak for 17 months and our bottle was one of only 7,500 produced.  It was beautiful…

To eat with this gorgeous wine I started with salt crusted pear with burrata and arugula and R chose prawns in an “iron box,” which was an oblong shaped cast iron skillet.  Her starter came to the table sizzling and smoking, which made the underlying pieces of potatoes and bacon crisp.  We’d gone outside for a quick look before our entradas arrived and saw the giant outdoor parrilla and the wood burning clay oven; no doubt R’s shrimp were cooked there.  Her dish was delicious; mine was creamy (burrata), tart (lemony vinaigrette), peppery (arugula), crunchy (bits of bacon), salty and sweet (salt crusted and perfectly cooked pear) all at once.

For our main, I ordered the lamb which had been cooked for not 7 hours or 8 hours but cooked for 7 1/2 hours (forgot to ask why but maybe there is a reason other than being mysterious and/or poetic?).  It was served with mashed potatoes with slivers of almonds and arugula, and an intensely concentrated sauce which clearly contained red wine.  R chose the “king tournedos,” a center part of beef tenderloin wrapped in bacon and sage (yes, I see the bacon theme).  I didn’t take many photos at the restaurant as R’s camera and her photographic abilities are far superior to mine.  When I get her photos of the evening I’ll update the post- UPDATED on June 1, 2012.

We shared a dessert to end our wonderful meal (“burnt fruits,” read on the English menu but “frutas quemadas en el horno de barro con helado” sounds so much better…) and then retired to the garden to sip our port and gaze up at the sky.  What a great way to start our four days in Mendoza.

More food, wine, and gorgeous landscape to come!

Azafrán: Sarmiento 765 (between Belgrano and Perú)

Restaurant 1884: Belgrano 1188 (at Presidente Alvear) in Godoy Gruz, Mendoza

Bohemian Boutique Hotel: Granaderos 954, Mendoza

Museo Fundacional: Videla Castillo (between Beltrán and Alberdi), Mendoza

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