As the French saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That certainly can be said about touring Argentina’s Mendoza.
On one hand, this province of about one million people is evolving and maturing as a destination; Mendoza (city population about 400,000) always has new restaurants worth trying, new lodging options, new wineries to visit and a crop of new tour guides eager to shuttle around an increasing number of visitors to the region. At the same time, far too many dilapidated smoke-belching cars and buses are still on the road, filling Mendoza’s high-desert air with black clouds of filth. And the roads themselves? The majority are filled with pot holes or made of dirt, something you’ll be reminded of as you swab your ears before heading off to sleep at night.
But amid the rusticity and third-world holdovers that define this slice of western Argentina, there’s a prevalent Old West charm that makes Mendoza, which sits flush up against the mammoth Andes range, a unique and enjoyable spot for wine-driven tourism. According to Wines of Argentina, nearly 600,000 foreigners visited Mendoza in 2010, with more than half coming for “enotourism.” Surely tourism has never been more vital to the Mendoza economy, and Mendocinos have responded to their region’s heightened popularity by welcoming visitors with open arms, affordable prices and wine glasses ready to be filled.
The following are tips from my November 2010 trip to Mendoza on where to eat, sip and sleep in the shadows of the Andes.
Siete Cocinas is a new venture from Buenos Aires-born chef Pablo del Rio (left), whose cooking is inspired by seven regional Argentine cuisines, including southerly Patagonia, local Cuyo and northerly Salta and Tucumán. The wine list is excellent, as the restaurant has become popular with Mendoza’s wine trade.
Open since last spring, Nadia O.F. (photo below) in the tree-filled suburb of Chacras de Coria is an oasis for refined dining and the perfect place to experiment with a variety of wines you may be hoarding during your visit. Owned and operated by chef Nadia Harón, wife of Bodegas O. Fournier chairman José Manuel Ortega, the menu changes weekly while BYO is encouraged and unlimited for 25 pesos, or about $7.
La Barra is a very good but pricy parrilla (steakhouse and grill) located a few blocks from Mendoza’s main plaza. Start with a provoleta (a grilled disk of herb-covered domestic provolone cheese) and some salads before moving on to a mix of skirt steak, ribs and the pièce de resistance, a perfectly cooked New York strip known locally as bifé de chorizo (Belgrano 1086; tel. 15.654.1950).
1884 Restaurante Francis Mallmann, located at the historic Escorihuela winery on the outskirts of Mendoza, remains a tried and true option for full-price fine dining and equally fine wines. Mallmann, a celebrity Argentine chef and cookbook author, is the king of clay-oven cooking; excellent roast baby goat after an appetizer of burnt carrots with goat cheese, fried garlic chips and arugula is the way to go.
Dining in private homes has become popular in Buenos Aires. In Mendoza, Gonzalo Cuervo has turned his funky loft into Ituzaingo, where he hires a chef and waiter to serve guests either in his living room or out back on the patio. The previous owner of Cuervo’s house was an architect, thus the place has a cool bachelor pad feel. An evening at Ituzaingo may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely an experience.
Eating at a winery can be a hit-or-miss experience. But at Ruca Malen, where chef Lucas Bustos turns out delicious five-course prix-fixe meals with wine pairings, the hits win out. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Bustos relies on gourmet takes on classic plates, i.e. mini milanesas (fried veal cutlets) topped with pumpkin terrine, and beet-and-carrot croquettes served with chimichurri.
Since opening in 2002, the Park Hyatt on Mendoza’s main Plaza de Independencia has been the region’s only luxury, full-service hotel. And if you’re looking for a stone-and-glass lobby, marble bathrooms, a casino, multiple restaurants, spa treatments and a pool scene complete with towel boys, it still is.
In 2009, the Hyatt was joined downtown by Diplomatic Park Suites, an independently owned and operated five star hotel that caters to the wine trade. Rooms are spacious and modern, while the concierge desk is fully capable of arranging winery visits, transportation and English-speaking guides.
If you wish to stay amid the vineyards, Cavas Wine Lodge in Agrelo is the dandy of the region. Surrounded by 35 acres of vineyards and located a stone’s throw from several top wine producers, Cavas features 14 private bungalows, a modern-leaning restaurant and beautiful artwork and artifacts throughout. Managers Martín Rigal and Cecilia Diaz Chuit are tops when it comes to the details.
Off the beaten path in Tupungato (about 50 minutes south of Mendoza), you’ll find the quaint Tupungato Divino Hotel and Restaurant, which offers good access to a number of Uco Valley wineries as well as breathtaking views of the Andes. Built and run by the architect Sergio Viegas, Tupungato Divino is modern and comfortable; the restaurant serves creative Argentine dishes.