Casa SaltShaker is one of several puerta cerradas (closed door dining places) in Buenos Aires and is a trend that seems to be taking place all over the world with similar "private dinner parties or dinner clubs" all over the United States, in Europe and even in Asia. I have even read about one run by former Chez Panisse chef David Tanis in Paris and several in Hong Kong. I suppose these private residences turned into an impromptu dinner party several times a week is a chance for travelers to experience a meal at a local's home. One must have a sense of adventure, no complicated food requests and be open to share a table with strangers for one night.
On our last few days in Buenos Aires, A & I decided to take the plunge and try this novel concept. I contacted Dan Perlman, the chef at Casa SaltShaker and received a reply right away. We had booked three places for their dinner on Thursday evening, October 20 as we had invited A's mom to join us. After having breakfast with our friend F, on the same Thursday, we mentioned that we were going to a puerta cerrada that evening and invited him to come along as well.
Dinners at Casa SaltShaker are for ten people at a shared table and take place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Menus change every week and are 5-courses and may be enjoyed with or without the accompanying wines. A reservation fee of 50% per diner must be paid in advance via PayPal and the only other requirement is that we arrive between 8:45 p.m and 9:00 p.m. so we can all sit down to dinner by around 9:15 p.m.
We keep to the rule and arrive a little after 8:45 and are led into a cozy ground floor duplex apartment with an outdoor patio at the far end of the room. Another couple, Americans living in Paraguay, are already there and soon after, the rest of the group arrived just in time for the welcome cocktail - a sweet apple juice and vodka mix served in a shot glass. There were a total of seven Americans, 2 Argentines (my husband and mother-in-law) and 1 Filipino (myself) - not as international as we expected.
We head to the table and split up so each one is seated beside someone they have just met which makes for an interesting start to the evening. The menu that week was themed on the bicentennial of Hungarian musician Franz Liszt so some of the dishes were Hungarian-influenced. Dinner started after a short announcement by the chef then our first wine - Chandon Brut sparkling wine - was poured with the interesting first course: a salad of escarole with roasted garbanzos topped with a chunk of breaded Port Salut (French mild-flavored semi-soft cheese) - the hot, crispy cheese combined well with the chick peas and the bitter greens. It was an auspicious start to the evening.
Next up was a soup of potato and apple flavored with sour cream and crab (a novelty in itself as Argentine restaurants hardly ever have soup on the menu). The soup was creamy and sweet with a slightly spicy hint at the end, which we found out later on came from the addition of a spice mix from Chile called Merken (it's a combination of dried and smoked goat's horn pepper with salt, cumin and coriander seeds), another novelty as none of us had ever heard of it. This was served with an Algodon Semillon-Sauvignon blanc.
Mid-course was a Hungarian-inspired salty strudel of smoked turkey and shiitake with a parsley sauce which came with a rose Estiba I Tempranillo Rosado from Bodegas Esmeralda. I'm not sure the pairing with a rose was right for the strong flavors of mushroom and smoked turkey.
The main course was ground lamb with aubergines, brussel sprouts and olives was a lamb meatloaf topped with the vegetables was served with the Nieto Senetiner Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought the meat loaf was bland and stodgy, although A seemed to enjoy it, and left half uneaten. To be fair, I was already quite full at this point and we still had one course to go.
Dessert was a poppy seed muffin-shaped cake with dulce de leche and chocolate. This was a failure - the cake was hard and the chocolate topping even harder making it almost impossible to slice. The saving grace were the sweetened pecans and the whipped cream which made each mouthful okay. The wine served with the final course was a Quara Torrontes Dulce Natural - a very interesting late harvest Torrontes which is an excellent dessert wine.
So, what's the verdict? It was enjoyable and fun to try something new. Would I do it again? Maybe. The food was good, the wines were fine, the dinner went smoothly enough and the conversation flowed, although a more diverse mix of nationalities would have made for a more interesting evening.
A duplex apartment in Recoleta, Buenos Aires
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