Visiting the same restaurant every day of the week wasn’t always a sign of good times. Back in the day, I was a frequent patron of Ugi’s (shudders); it was cheap, and I was sleeping on a mattress no thicker than a yoga mat in a crappy Abasto apartment, so shoot me. Not to mention the head pizza master looked like his name could actually be Ugi and I was enchanted (read: fooling myself) by the run down romanticism of it all. The hot pizza oven was replaced by tacky cumbia music videos and chicken doused in all the hot sauce at my menu del día establishment of choice, La Rica Vicky, which wasn’t so much a symbol of impoverished early 20s (it was) as it was a sign of me not getting anything done for the rest of the day because after a fat Peruvian lunch you gonna need a nap.
Today, I’m not exactly sure what it all means. That I’m just that lazy, that single, that decadent, or that Vinotinto is the best lunch option in this city that I was compelled to eat there five days in a row last week. But after my fifth meal, a delicious risotto with squid, I choose to plead the Drake. Started from the bottom, now I’m here.
And I almost didn’t get there. My trainer and serial lunch date Fred had been bragging about finding a new spot for weeks to my complete lack of enthusiasm. Somehow a place in Palermo that had a refrigerator full of pre-made food in vacuum sealed bags that are boiled for 5 minutes before being served didn’t exactly rustle my feathers.
So on Monday I reluctantly met him at this teeny spot on the corner of El Salvador and Julian Alvarez in pleno Palmagro. We were immediately greeted with a big smile and loud handshake from owner Moises Dagüi. The space is small. There is just enough room for 8 people to sit at two bars, and a counter with the day’s sides and staple tortilla and tarta options. A big humming bird, the restaurant’s spirit animal of sorts, is painted prominently on the wall. I took a look into the refrigerator full of vacuum sealed bags with things like beef bourguignon and pork chops with pear chutney, and made a mental apology to Fred while I told him what a bad salesman he was. It was the daily special that grabbed my attention: a giant pork kebab served with tzatziki sauce and a fresh salad. Done.
Dagüi opened Vinotinto last May with a partner and small team of three other cooks. The plan was never to open to the general public but instead cater events and organize private tastings. Renting in Palermo wasn’t a strategic business move, it just happened to be the right kitchen space in a popular food neighborhood. Years of working in restaurants around the world (like his native Venezuela as well as the United States, Italy, and alongside local celebrity chef Hernan Gipponi at the Fierro Hotel) have allowed him to create a unique a fresh repertoire of globally inspired dishes.
“When I first started out, I dreamed of opening a three star Michelin restaurant. But what I learned is that it is an enormous amount of hours and stress and very little contact with the people you are actually cooking for. I wanted a place where I could cook gourmet food with few pretensions, and be able to interact with my customers.”
The project didn’t remain a simple catering business for long. Neighbors took notice and began asking when he’d open up for regular lunch or dinner service. Dagüi and his team decided to take the already prolific rotiseria concept – simple lunch and dinner foods to go – and give it a face lift. The menu changes every three months depending on the season. A handful of dishes are prepared and vacuum sealed and can be prepared to eat there or taken home and reheated easily. A daily special made fresh is also available, with a varied palate that switches between fish, chicken, pork and beef.
“It would have been really easy to just open a place that offers milanesa and puree, but cooking that food doesn’t interest me and this city needs more options anyway,” Dagüi begins to explain. “I think that the local palate can be a little infantile. There are certainly some adventurous locals, but I think the difference is that locals don’t demand adventurous food. If it’s there they’ll try it, and then they’ll go back home and eat the same thing as before. People are really happy with that routine, and even the slightest change really shocks some people. I want to make good food that is simple and accessible, I want people to do more than just accept different food. I want people to want it.”
Wanting people to demand this kind of food bleeds over into the rest of the business model. For an insanely reasonable $70 price tag, you can have the plate of the day or take away. Dagüi acknowledges my shock as legitimate, but explains that with meticulous planning and the lack of waiting staff, they are able to deliver quality dishes for good prices.
“There are a lot of great restaurants doing things that are very new,” Dagüi explains, “We are certainly doing something that is de moda, but I want it to be accessible. I would rather someone come to eat three times a week rather than just one time. The people who come are like friends.”
This mixture of good food and good prices is working. The entire week it seemed like everyone who walked in the door was Dagüi’s best friend, shaking hands and loudly saludar-ing. Everyone that walks by seems to smile and wave. Clients regularly hire Dagüi to cook in their homes. There is no fixed menu or prices for these private meals; every single one is planned based on each customer’s food desires. As I dug into a slow roasted tapa de asado and couscous, he described to me the turkey he was roasting for a private Thanksgiving celebration.
Dagüi would like to open up in another location in a neighborhood “that needs it, somewhere like Caballito maybe”, to continue doing his small part to expand local flavors. Considering that I live near Parque Rivadavia where good meals in close proximity can be counted on a single hand, I wildly encourage him – slightly high on the squid risotto he had just placed in front of me.
Vinotinto serves lunch and dinner and is open from noon-3pm and 5-9pm. Although the space is tight, there always seems to be a seat. No need to show up five days in a row to feel like a part of the family, although there is no shame if you do.