It was a Friday night and the city was in complete chaos. A lethal mixture of roadblocks and rain proved too difficult for the neighborhood of Congreso to handle. Horns and sirens sung an ugly orchestra that followed me up the avenue. My shoes, fancy blue canvas reserved for special occasions, struggled to grab traction on the slippery pavement as I cautiously trudged the two short blocks with an invisible walker. I buzzed up and could hear a faint unfamiliar voice on the other side made totally inaudible by the loud construction happening just two feet away. I crossed my fingers someone would come down. Agustina Mazzini, our hostess for the evening, soon opened the elevator gate and swung the door open with an electric smile, “Bienvenido, Kevin”.
Fuego has just a year under its belt as one of many of the city’s private closed door restaurants. Although invisible by design, the puerta cerrada is as ubiquitous to the Buenos Aires dining scene as the pizzerias and parrillas that dot every city block. It is a tradition that spans decades that picked up traction (and press) following the 2001 financial crisis. Since then, many have gone bottom up, some built brick-and-mortars, and the ones left over are the survivors (or brave new souls) of a difficult business model that, although similar to the Cuban paladar, is considered by many a complete anomaly. A recent article in Forbes theorized—albeit ham-handed in the opinion of this writer—that the Buenos Aires closed door was itself an allegory to modern life in Argentina.
The first puerta cerrada I ever went to was the now defunct Planetorion, a veggie potluck that felt more like a hippie Thanksgiving than a formal affair. Guests were given joints upon arrival, the majority of the seating was on the floor and you had to fetch your own food from the kitchen. That experience could not have been any different than my second outing to the recently expanded Casa Coupage, one of the city’s first puerta cerradas’, which features an intricate eight course seasonal tasting menu with wine pairings.
At Fuego, diners immediately feel like they are part of a secret world. Agustina leads you to an apartment that is buried behind a long hallway past a large landing and two spiral staircases. Rich wood floors and hushed lighting immediately make this fourth floor flat feel welcoming. A large photograph by local artist Irina Werning of a gloved chambermaid spies out of the large French windows that gaze into the nostalgic Congreso skyline. The apartment also serves as the home of Agustina and Nicolás Díaz Martini—chef of Fuego—and is dotted with mementos from travels around Europe and Asia and Díaz’ visible obsession with cookbooks.
“The idea behind ‘Fuego’ is going back to the basics and appreciating spice and fire. Cooks today value technology too much and are skipping over the foundations. It’s like going to college before you finish high school,” explains Díaz, his gentle smile sits in contrast to black tattoos that range from Maori patterns to a reference to Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. The Buenos Aires native spent the last twenty years in and out of different kitchens. At the renowned Gato Dumas culinary institute, a class on Asian cuisines planted his interests firmly in Eastern cooking, “They use spices to cook, we often use spices to dust the food after it’s been prepared.” The kitchen is packed with spices from all over the world, including many imported from India that are used to make his signature masalas. He worked briefly at Sucre, where in his final week he watched Isodoro Dillon—of recently opened Scandinavian restaurant Söder—put together a minimalist menu that drew from 10 years of working in Sweden. “His mind works differently, it was amazing to watch him at work. He is a true vanguard.”
Every month, Díaz designs a four course fixed menu that mixes ingredients from various Asian traditions within a more local context. Like an Indian carrot soup prepared with huacatay and mollejas—sweet breads. Or a korean galbi dish—beef short ribs cooked in a soy sauce based marinade—served in a way that is familiar to locals: by themselves stacked high on a plate with homemade kimchi and bean sprouts replacing the bowls of chimi and salsa criolla. The short ribs were tender and juicy having been roasted for hours rather than grilled, and paired wonderfully with a kimchi that had a vinegary spiciness similar to a horseradish or wasabi. Dessert was a homemade chocolate that bordered between a rich mousse and a dense brownie prepared with coriander and chilies and laid over a bitter sauce made of unripened oranges that took on a flavor profile reminiscent of a grapefruit. Diáz’ special attention to appreciating simple but unique spice combinations are present in every dish.
“I went through a small crisis working in big restaurants. The idea was to create something small and relaxed in our home, something where people could come and get an experience that offers a little bit more.” Diaz also offers cooking classes throughout the week where he teaches a small group of six students dishes from places as far flung as Bali. “It feels very familial. We had two Korean girls that came and when the class ended they invited me to their home to watch their grandma cook kimchi in a traditional ceremony.”
And that is exactly where Fuego distinguishes itself from other closed doors. It is neither too informal, nor too fancy, but just the right mix of both — the oasis that both Agustina and Nicolás were looking to build and the secret hidden in plain view we all hope to discover in Buenos Aires.
address confirmed upon reservation, Congreso
Dinner: Fri & Sat 9:30-close; cooking classes given throughout the week