Manuela Donnet delivers a tower of mushrooms on a nebulous puff of chestnut cream in one hand and a triangle of faina streaked with pesto, tomato sauce and a ground seeds in the other. She sees the place card, my name has been drawn in affectionate detail with flowers in pink highlighter, “You must be Kevin,” she sings loudly, leaning in to give me a kiss on either cheek, “Welcome to my house. Treat it like your own.”
It’s early evening on a quiet corner of Chacarita. The eponymously named Donnet suddenly pops into focus as strings of flashing blue lights and the chatter of twenty diners prove that the Polleria sign hung above the facade is false advertisement. Inside, Donnet grabs from a small display crammed with caramelized onions, brown stained mushrooms, plump knishes, pesto sauce and granola with relaxed haste.
Family photos and drawings are jammed underneath glass sheaths on tables crammed up against the walls. Shelves hold little plastic figurines, kitschy lamps and greenery in makeshift planters. In the bathroom, there is a stack of fanzines, free for the taking. I assume that the bowl of bananas on one of the dining tables is as well. It feels like your house, I say to her. “It is,” Donnet begins, “I had to decide between keeping an apartment or renting this place. Here we are.”
Donnet opened earlier this year in an old butcher shop, “It took a month to get the chicken off the tiles.” In May, she decided to rent the space next door and break down the wall, transporting the contents of her old apartment to the salon, which feels more like dining in a second-hand shop than a restaurant and creates a carefree dinner experience. Lucas Ozols, a violinist by trade, joined the one woman kitchen a few months back. “He was our most frequent customer and one day he told me he wanted to cook in the kitchen. It was as simple as that,” Donnet explains with a charming cackle.
But amongst the chaos, there is order. Donnet and Ozals debate endlessly the contents of the menu, which is short and direct. Ferran Adría, the Spanish chef who introduced molecular gastronomy and informed many of Buenos Aires high-end eateries, is amongst Donnet’s most important idols; his scientific discipline inspires many of the fermentation and drying processes used here.
All the dishes are vegan, celiac friendly and prepared with ingredients free of agro-toxins. The wine list is filled exclusively with organic vineyards and two beer options are made by local brewers and served in liter jugs. Mushrooms are the main ingredient, appearing in five of the ten available dishes. Everything is made fresh daily, and the waitress is able to steer you kindly in another direction when something runs out, “That was tonight’s favorite,” she explains, “but this is a close second.”
“I’m not a vegan myself. I consume mostly vegan food but I’m not a bleeding heart. If you invite me over to Imperio, I’ll throw down on a few slices of pizza,” she explains. “I think that with the vegan culture here, it’s vegans cooking for other vegans. So they aren’t really doing anything except serving people that fit into a certain category. I want to cook vegan food for non-vegans. A meat eater will come and eat a new dish and discover something new, that you can throw seeds on top of your dishes. These are things that our food culture doesn’t teach us. That is the seed I want to plant.”
The homey atmosphere extrapolates the sharing nature of the menu. For starters, over-sized knishes are stuffed with pillowy clouds of potato. They are the tamest flavor wise. Scalene slices of faina are topped with stripes of tomato that has been simmered into a thick savory paste, pesto with slick licks of olive oil and a slightly salty mix of powdered seeds. The faina is made thin and thrown into the oven so that it is crispy throughout. When I ask about the recipe, she shrugs her shoulders matter of factly. Whatever vegetables are on hand get thrown into the garbanzo bean batter. This time scallions and pumpkin were on the menu. The haphazard approach works. The dish was amongst my favorites—I’d be perfectly content eating a whole wheel of it for a meal.
Donnet dreams one day of a restaurant that exclusively sells soup but has decided to settle on just two. Potatoes are cooked into a milky cream and flavored with greens, or colored tangerine with the surprising addition of sweet orange. For mains, oyster and shitake mushrooms are lightly sautéed before being tossed into yamani rice with dried fruits, roasted almonds and honey. I particularly liked the stacks of portobellos—they are lightly caramelized in an olive liquor that gives the underside of the mushrooms a slight stickiness and subtle char. The densely textured mushroom pairs well with the fluffy chestnut cream and audibly crunch of granola seeds.
The menu changes frequently, for now every other week providing ample reasons to go again and again, but the future is “a restaurant without a menu where people come because they know they will eat well. Like eating in someone’s home.”
Fraga and Maure, Chacarita
Monday through Saturday, 6:00pm to 1:00am