Despite the fact that truly innovative cooking in Mendoza is a yet to-be-discovered El Dorado, the steak is so good, the wine so juicy, and the Italian tradition so alive and well that even if Michelin is still only a rubber tyre in these parts, there’s much to be said for Mendoza’s food and wine. Argentina made history last month by winning the most International Trophies at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2011 by any single country since the competition began. The restaurant scene too in Mendoza has improved beyond recognition since my first visit in 1998, shortly after La Marchigiana was burnt down for displaying a ‘no politicians’ sign in the window. Not hard mind, given that gastronomy at the time amounted to little more than a slab of overcooked meat.
Inspired by The River Café’s Rose Gray, Francis Mallmann 1884 was, and remains, Mendoza's flagship restaurant, an impressive setting in Bodega Escorihuela with indoor and outdoor dining, pisco sours as dangerously good as Chile’s, and steaks on the parilla to match. Azafrán in central Mendoza is more casual, with indoor and pavement eating and a showcase wine cellar offering a wide range. The set lunch I had consisted of a selection of warm breads and chimichurri butter and an amuse-bouche seafood bisque before a first course of two richly gooey and crunchy empanadas, one filled with black pudding, the other chorizo. The special was a rich gnocchi stew with mushroom, caramelised onion and grated courgette, washed down by a refreshingly juicy 2009 Ruca Malen Yauquen Malbec. With coffee and water, the bill came to a modest 95 pesos (£15.75).
I have always been a fan of the traditional Italian style of Don Mario and Montecatini, but my softest spot is reserved for La Marchigiana, now restored as a larger but equally popular local establishment that still betrays its Italian origins. Fine dining it ain’t but rather, it’s the place to observe Mendocinos on a night out: families, husbands and wives, girls-nights-outs, lads-nights-outs, company get-togethers and couples barely trying to conceal illicit relationships. With the bife de filet (fillet), my favourite side order is a palm hearts salad and an unassuming and very reasonable half-litre (45 pesos = around £7.50) of Trapiche's 2010 Fond de Cave Malbec. It’s best to avoid the Marchigiana trimmings which tend to mean rich sauces otiosely slopped over what's otherwise some of the best meat in town.
In Chacras de Coria, the smart-set address in Mendoza, I was tempted at Las Negras, by the 'concrete goat's cheese', an almost aptly-described solid lump of goat's cheese with salad. The rib-eye steak was cooked to perfection, but you need to ask for it to be 'jugoso', ‘quasi-crudo’, or just make mooing noises. It was so good in fact (and cheap of course at current rates of six pesos to the pound) that I repeated the experience the following evening, washing it down with a mouthwatering quintessence-of-malbec 2009 Pulenta Estate. On a balmy summer’s evening in Chacras de Coria, Nadia O.F. is the place to enjoy Nadia’s inventive local cuisine, sitting in the inner garden al fresco in the dry warmth under the stars.
In the vineyards, La Bourgogne at the Carlos Pulenta Winery, Club Tapiz at Tapiz and the Norton winery restaurant (the latter two do lunch only) are normally regarded as the best restaurants. I've enjoyed La Bourgogne and Club Tapiz in the past, so this time round I opted for Norton's place, La Vid, and it was good , if rather sombre on a sunny day, and not helped by a muzak loop of Argentinian cover versions of irritating songs like Can't Get You Out of my Head. Starters included three different empanadas, one heart-attack-inducingly deep-fried. Surviving, thanks to a heartwarming 2007 Norton Privada Malbec, my companion, Jo, chose a relatively healthy prosciutto salad while I had the sirloin, cooked rare of course.
With a growing number of restaurants in the trendy new wine region of Uco Valley south of Mendoza, this once remote valley is becoming an increasingly popular destination for the intrepid traveller. Ilo in downtown Tupungato is an unpretentious high street restaurant that brings fresh fish in daily from Chile, while Almacen de Uco, in the foothills of the Andes, is another popular venue. Salentein has a large tourist restaurant, but more intimate places are springing up. Tupungato Divino is a small operation in the vineyards with its own cabins and a cosy restaurant, a log fire, fabulous views of the Andes and a fine selection of wines. The meat is good here as you'd expect but there's plump Chilean salmon too and the home-made pasta, the asparagus and the pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in particular, make a welcome change from wall-to-wall steak. Rutini just down the road plans a new restaurant, and if chief winemaker, Mariano de Paola's girth, is anything to go by, it should be a bit special.
For the best grill in town, or rather out of town, you need to head for El Cielo, a small corner restaurant in the little town of La Consulta in San Carlos, frequented mainly by local vineyard managers and winemakers. Showing just how good the fresh vegetables are in Mendoza, a green salad is actually a plentiful salad of mixed leaves, avocado, palm hearts, gherkins and all sorts. The centrepiece is the steak of course, bespoke cut, sizes and timed. Three of us there for lunch all chose the 500gm bife de chorozo (sirloin), executed with considerable skill on the parilla by the aptly named Gerardo Mercado. The 40mm-thick slab arrived somewhere between rare and medium rare, so to those tempted to go for rare (or blue in these parts), I'd say go for the in-between. It's pink all the way through, tender and juicy with a thick charred crust adding texture, but that's as pink as you want it in a steak of this size; otherwise it could be a little indigestible. As it was, we ended up in El Cielo – in heaven.
Francis Mallmann 1884, Belgrano 1188, Godoy Cruz, Mendoza, Argentina, +54-261-424-2698
Azafrán, Sarmiento 765 Ciudad, Mendoza, +54-261-429-4200/9009
La Marchigiana, Patricias Mendocinas 1550, Mendoza 5500, +54 (0)261 4291590
Norton, La Vid, Bodega Norton, Ruta 15 - km23.5 Perdriel, +CP (5509) Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, +54-261-490-9790
Nadia O.F., Italia 6055, Chacras de Coria, Mendoza, + 54-261-496-1731
Las Negras, Chacras de Coria, Viamonte 496 (Bodega La Misión) – 4962267
Tupungato Divino, Ruta 89 y calle Los Europeos, 02622-15448948/9
El Cielo, San Martin 102 – (5567) La Consulta, San Carlos, Mendoza, Tel-Fax 02622 - 470814