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Saturday, 25 February 2012

Casa Felix - address received on booking

The smiling face of Diego beams from behind the door a few seconds after we ring the bell. With barely a word we are warmly welcomed into the beautiful home that plays host to Casa Felix, one of the longer-standing puerta cerradas (pop-up or 'closed door' restaurants) of the city, a foodie trend that shows no signs of abating in Buenos Aires. We are gringo-ishly punctual, the first to arrive we sit in the living room and chat easily with Diego, clad in chef's gear, he is animated and visibly excited by the prospect of the evening's meal, which promises to be inspired by flavours from the length of Latin America. 

Once the second group of guests arrive we are led through the patio and kitchen to the compact garden at the rear where Diego proudly shows us all the herbs and vegetables they grow there. They will make up a significant part of the meal he tells us, before we are handed right on cue, an aperitif flavoured with lemon verbena from the tree we are standing under. 

Next, a plate of amuse bouche (how I have always wanted to use those two words...) materialise as if from nowhere. According to the adorable hand-written menu on a scrap of paper we later find on our table, it is 'Fontina cheese wrapped in Chayote leaves with Arrope de Chañar'. And yes, this is the English version. The ingredients are apparently non-translatable and I am left wondering what the delicious chutney-like substance that goes by the name of 'arrope de chañar' could possibly be. Most importantly the 'taste from the garden', as these canapes have been named, are a delicious combination of melting cheese and thick glossy sweetness decoratively enveloped in a leaf.

Unlike many puerta cerradas, Casa Felix does not subscribe to sitting all their guests together at the same table to awkwardly contemplate casual chatter with one another. Each booking is given their own table on the patio which is decorated with murals and colourful Mexican papel picado flags. Despite this, there is a communal air, the pre-dinner drink in the garden encourages people to converse, creating some sense of being at a dinner party, albeit a relatively pricey one (210 pesos - more than £30 - a head not including drinks). Having made the easy decision of having wine-pairings with each course of our meal (of which there are five) we eagerly sit ourselves at our assigned table.

The first course is 'Shrimp ceviche over Mbeyú, cream of corn and chilli infused oil'. Mbeyú as Diego kindly explains is a Paraguayan dish, a kind of omelette made from cassava starch and cheese. Paired with the fresh, tangy Peruvian ceviche and a rich creamy base of corn (which Latin American country was the inspiration for this component I wonder?), the flavours are overwhelming, and nothing short of divine. I immediately want to ask for a second helping, but the thought of another four courses to come - and simple good manners - mean I refrain from doing so.

goat cheese, almond and papaya stuffed hibiscus 
flowers, freshly picked herbs and greens 
Next up according to our menu is 'Goat cheese, almond and papaya stuffed hibiscus flowers, freshly picked herbs and greens'. Nicely presented with the abundant mound of verdant herbs - from the garden of course - in the centre, encircled by three nuggets of smooth yet crisp, sweet and deep dull flavours. We are happy, only more so because of the delicious wine pairings (the names of which I forget to note down in the midst of all the indulgence). The next two courses are also good, a palate-cleansing minty sorbet followed by fish as the main course. The only vague disappointment is dessert, a coconut cheesecake which has been over-fed with gelatine, making the consistency unappetisingly glutinous. Having said that, this is clearly the menu of a chef not afraid to try new combinations, to be innovative in his cooking. Four out of five (five out of six if you count the amuse bouche) is not a bad ratio of success. 

The menu changes every week, depending on what is available at the market, what is sprouting in the garden, Diego's mood, and the direction in which the wind is blowing (perhaps). This, along with the heart and soul that is so clearly invested in the cooking, and the project as a whole, is discernible in the outcome and the wonderful flavours that emerge.

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