Show up to a dinner party where you don't know the host. Or any of his guests. Or a word of their language. Gentedimontagna reader Gretchen Finn did and has no regrets. A reader story.
MENDOZA, Argentina – I'm standing in front of a small house on a dark side street of Mendoza. I blink in an attempt to revive myself from the morning's flight. I've come a long way, from the United States through Chile and to my much-anticipated destination in Argentina. I try to gain composure and confidence as I walk toward this stranger's door. What the hell have I gotten myself into? With no Spanish language skills to speak of, I feel like kicking myself for agreeing to dine with two private chefs in their home. With strangers. Around their dinner table. I am embarking on my first experience at an underground supper club called Los Chocos. At this point, the supper club movement is slowly venturing to the United States but it has been celebrated for decades in Argentina as a way for chefs to experiment with food and their creative impulses. I take a deep breath and knock on the door. But first, an extra layer of lipstick.
The door flings open with such enthusiasm that I step back towards the curb and debate sliding back into the taxi before I'm seen. No chance. Martin smiles bright and offers besos and greetings. I cross the threshold into the young chef's home and my eyes scan the room looking for clues into their lives. The dining room table is welcoming. Pots and pans clang together with intention behind a door that I assume leads to the kitchen. Martin disappears while I seize a cocktail and attempt to mingle with three other diners. I notice the bubbles rushing from the bottom to the top of the drink. Bubbles settle my nerves.
The lights dim and Martin gathers us around the table to introduce us to our chef for the evening. His name is ... Martin. Martin and Martin are hosting us in their living room! They promise a multi-course meal that will highlight the beauty, life, and spirit of Mendoza. I listen closely, hoping my years of French will somehow aid my translation of Spanish. I'm pleasantly astonished that it does to some degree. Martin, an incredibly kind host, braves his English skills to help me understand. He is convivial and eager to share his stories by way of food.
I settle into my chair and receive my first surprise: a pinkish cocktail, rosé sangria, made from local grapes, fruit, and sugars. Chef Martin brings our first course to the table to accompany the divine pink concoction. It is paired with a delicate crostini topped with chicken liver pâté and sweet quince marmalade.
Each course is carefully presented and served as an edible masterpiece, while Host Martin tells stories that increase our appreciation of every bite. Chef Martin delights in our honest enjoyment of the spirits and food. I am handed a plate of pumpkin puree with pesto, local chèvre, and pumpkin seeds along with a beet and pomegranate salad. I sip Mendoza's wines and enjoy Mendoza's beef and chimichuri.
With each bite, I listen to stories of the local farmers and learn the different seasons of the local produce. The farm-to-table movement is happening in the United States, but it is something far more passionate and natural for Mendoza. Their livelihood is intrinsically intertwined with their land, their soil, and their agriculture. Only hours ago, I was eating a questionable pasta dish on the airplane and now I feel like I'm dining with the best of Mendoza. The stories and conversations make the food taste even better. The spirit of Mendoza is thriving, and I cannot imagine a better way to be introduced to such a remarkable culture than by dining with Martin and Martin, around their table, at their house.
I sip my espresso and reach for another alfajor. The evening is coming to an end, though it's clear that no one wishes it to be over. Chef Martin appears with cans of paint and points to a blank canvas hanging over the dining room table. He helps me out of my chair and invites me to put my fingerprint on the canvas as my way to forever be a part of this fine experience. I started this evening with the apprehension of a foreigner, and I leave feeling like a close friend with sangria and the spirit of Mendoza flowing through me.
Los Chocos Sangria
1 Bottle of nice young rosé wine
3 tablespoons of organic brown sugar
1 grape cluster
2 acidic plums
Combine and serve chilled with ice. Salud!