Let me start by saying, do not trust Google Maps with directions to Casa Saltshaker. The email confirming your reservation gives you precise instructions to the apartment where you will be dining, so please make a note of it. Otherwise you will end up across town at a dead end street in a scary alley on a barely lit sidewalk looking to place blame on your partner when you are already 15 minutes late. And catching a cab in this desolate part of the city is hit or miss, mostly miss in our case. You’ve been warned.
We finally arrived in Recoleta, sweaty, harried and stressed. Roem squeezed my hand on the way in and I squeezed back, our apologies offered and accepted before walking into a room of strangers. The rest of the diners were gathered on the patio, drinking complimentary cocktails with freshly squeezed juice with nicely balanced acidity and just the hint of vodka on the back of your throat. I took a gulp of mine before I acknowledged the other diners standing in an awkward throng, nervously smiling and haltingly asking one another questions at all the wrong intervals so their voices overlapped.
I felt a twinge of nervousness as Roem and I jumped into socializing, determined to bring this awkward dinner party together. It was an eclectic group of people from all over the world, mostly English-speaking couples. One thing I’ve heard is not to attend a closed door restaurant expecting to meet Argentinians, most likely you will meet other travelers like yourself. This was definitely the case at Casa Saltshaker and we were surrounded by American and Australian accents.
The night was seasonably warm with a light breeze and it was a nice treat to sit out on a veranda and relax. The apartment was very small but filled with eclectic international treasures, beautiful art and overstuffed bookcases with literature, cookbooks and magazines. My innate curiosity was definitely satiated – I even saw Argentinean toothpaste and soaps in the bathroom. The place looked lived in and the kitchen looked a lot like our rented BA apartment.
As we moved to the dining room for dinner I noticed there were two table set up: a long one with 8 seats and a smaller, child-like table for four. I caught Roem’s eye and we made a beeline for the larger table as we saw this slightly obnoxious Irish couple commandeer the smaller one. All the guests seem to be very interested in food and wine, but no one was particularly snobby about either. The couple across from us were the stereotypical and much maligned American travelers. They talked too loud, swilled wine with the wrong course, and discussed Argentineans with a slightly condescending tone. When the only Argentinian in the room sloshed coffee onto the husband’s arm at the end of dinner, he caught my eye and we shared a private smile.
The menu celebrated Morocco’s Day of Independence and used Argentinian ingredients with spicy and elusive Moroccan influences. Our first course was composed of two salads. The first had fava beans sauteed with garlic, cumin, lemon and sprinkled with cilantro and the second contained grilled eggplant and bell peppers lightly sauteed with onions, garlic, tomatoes, chili pepper and some other Morrocan spices that gave it some warm heat. Argentinian food tends to be mild and very lighlty spiced so this bold and dynamic dish was a welcome treat and the fava beans were a burst of spring in the middle of November for this North American girl. The two salads were plated on a long dish and were served fresh, homemade pita bread that soaked up the flavors and had a lovely chewy bite.
The first course was served with Codorniu Maria Brut Rosado which is a light, crisp sparkling wine from Spain that tastes of freshly ripened berries with a heady nose of strawberries. The bubbles are not too aggressive which lets you really taste the dry, fruity grapes without the sharp stinging carbonation that sometimes ruins pink champagne for me. It paired nicely with the char on the eggplant and the fresh, bright, complex chew of the fava beans.
The second course was a chunky chickpea soup that had pieces of celery, onion and tomatoes in the fragrant broth with rich spices like ginger and turmeric complete with a sprinkle of cilantro and parsley. Unfortunately, the soup was a bit disappointing with overcooked chickpeas and thinly flavored stock. It really didn’t have that kick I was hoping for and the texture was off for me. I really missed the richly balanced, spicy and sour flavor that I crave from Moroccan food. The soup was paired with A Chardonnay/Viognier blend from Mendoza’s Cuyo Valley that is aged in both oak and stainless steel. The wine was a light straw color with a fruit forward nose and a tart, dry mouthfeel that develops over the palate as a crisp, bright wine with staying power. It cut through the mildly bland soup with bravado and really brightened the acid in the dish and enhanced the smoky spices.
The third dish was a vegetable based couscous that looked beautiful on the plate with vibrant onions, carrots, and
fennel with plump golden raisin over a nice bed of perfectly cooked couscous. The vegetables were well cooked and retained some of their crunch in the light, tomato based sauce rich with cumin, cloves, paprika and turmeric. There was a hint of cinnamon on the back of your throat, perfectly balanced with the more savory elements of lemon, garlic and salt. The dish was finished with the raisins, some glistening yellow butter for richness and a sprinkle of crunchy almonds that added texture. The dish tasted good, it was well balanced and flavorful, but I think the spices were still in the background. It tasted more like something I would make at home with my Americanized Moroccan spice mix and wasn’t something that left me wanting more. The dish was saved from being ordinary with the thick smear of the hot, spicy harissa paste on the side.
The couscous dish was paired with a Rosé de Sangiovese from the Esmeralda “Rodas Collection” that was bright and fruity but a little thin when the couscous was mixed with the harissa paste. I really wanted a wine with more body and heft, with maybe a little fruit and bright minerality to elevate the couscous to amazing, but the rosé just didn’t do it for me.
The main course was a predictable tagine that is synonymous with Moroccan food and can be sublime. The seasoning and flavors in the mini tagine was really rich, dynamic and haunting. You could taste the heat and cinnamon in the back of your throat and it was so good, I really wanted to drink the liquid. The beautiful pieces of homemade, preserved lemons was the highlight of the dish, perfectly tart and salty with the bright lemon sluicing through the rich sauce and making it sing.
I would have loved to have this tagine with some perfectly cooked lamb or chicken, but it was prepared with fish instead. I love fish, but the handling of the beautiful fresh fillet was heavy. It was over marinated, tough and lacked that elusive, tender texture that would have made this tagine amazing. I ate around the fish and still thoroughly enjoyed the sauce. The tagine was paired with Lamadrid Bonarda, a varietal I had never tasted before but will definitely look for again. The Bonarda was rich and spicy with a balanced mouthfeel that tasted of concentrated fruit and mineral notes. It was perfection with the preserved lemons and the other bright notes of the tangine.
For dessert, we had zucre coco, which translates to coconut sugar. It was crunchy, crumbly, sand-like sugar cooked
down with dulce de leche and coconut. I love dessert, but even I found the dish to be overly sweet and the texture somewhat off putting. It was mealy in your mouth before it dissolved and paired with the whipped cream, it just disappeared. The candied kumquat was a nice bitter accompaniment but still couldn’t save the lackluster dish. Thankfully the course was served with a superb dessert wine from Las Moras that was richly sweet with honeyed notes and a slow burn of minerally alcohol that was completely satisfying after the rich meal. I was perfectly happy with my glass of dessert wine and skipped the french pressed, lukewarm coffee.
Overall, I think we should have made a different decision when it came to the Closed Door restaurants in Buenos Aires. We chose the staid, well known, and highly reviewed Casa Saltshaker, when we should have opted for one more off the beaten tracks. The Chef, Dan, was really a lovely person and was cordial and welcoming but it just wasn’t adventurous enough. I can safely say the rest of the guests had a wonderful time and really enjoyed the food. I think our expectations were really high and coming from San Francisco, any ethnic food we consumed was probably going to be a bit disappointing. The other guests weren’t really reflective of the scrappy, adventurous, up for anything travelers we see ourselves as and it was difficult to relate to them in a real way.
Have any of you tried a Closed Door Restaurant? What were your thoughts?