Bariloche Speakeasy

Southern Argentina is simmering with local flavors and talents quietly emerging in a city of creative, warm and unpretentious people. We look past the obvious attractions to give you the inside scoop on what makes Bariloche truly unique.

Text: Roberto Schiattino    photos: Marta Tucci
       

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“Cooking is an act of love,” says chef Andrés López, glancing at his wife Carolina Guasco. She sits at one of (just) eight tables at Butterfly, in the light of the setting sun. Their beachside restaurant on Lago Nahuel Huapi serves the best food in Bariloche – according to countless tourists and your own humble scribe – but the chef and his wife eschew superlatives and focus on the love they share for what they’ve built together.

This is Bariloche, a friendly city of nearly 120,000 inhabitants in the expanses of Argentinean Patagonia. Behind every restaurant, bar, hotel, or shop that catches your eye, there’s a family business or a story to nourish your stomach and your spirits. To find them, you have to do a bit of searching – either by car or in a remi (the Argentinean term for radio-taxis) – or ask around and venture a little further from the downtown area and its enticing chocolate shops. The best of Bariloche, you’ll find, is discovered by word of mouth.

 

Travel: Bariloche

 

It would be hard to be more precise than the tiny sign explaining that 1920 was the region’s first speakeasy. When we arrive, a gentleman (who we might describe as indifferent to marketing) angrily tells the bartender to get a bigger sign and to put speakers out on the street to announce the place at full volume. Nothing could be further from the spirit of 1920, which is located in the heart of downtown, but still manages to retain a sense of anonymity. Soft lighting, music at a reasonable volume, a pair of quilted armchairs, a pool table, and a menu loaded with gin and tonics invite visitors to unwind from their day in this thoroughly pleasant bar as the Patagonian evening falls (especially after enjoying an obligatory portion of trout or beef in a local restaurant). Santiago Villalba, the bar’s owner, pauses – gin in hand – admiring the mid-season bustle while Nacional, his restaurant located a few doors down, fills with families, barbecue fanatics, and hipsters.

  • Andrés López from Butterfly, pictured with a piece from Designo Patagonia.

Bariloche’s most original kitchens defy the restrictions of traditional menus. The culinary offerings often consist of seven to nine courses, with different dishes that draw on the freshest seasonal ingredients and the chef’s creativity. Our favorite dishes at Butterfly were the tenderloin, the salmon, and the mushrooms, as well as the original raspberry gazpacho appetizer. “We don’t do anything super-modern or molecular. I cook what I like to eat, and I combine my Spanish heritage with local ingredients. It’s Patagonian cuisine with a grandmother’s technique,” says the always-smiling López as his wife explains each dish and its matching wine. We leave with happy tummies.

We also notice that Butterfly, located in a small house, boasts some phenomenal lamps made from branches and ornamented with wood and stone. They are original, elegant, and thoroughly Patagonian. The design comes courtesy of Designo Patagonia, which currently exports creations to Europe, the United States, and other parts of the Americas.

We pay a visit to their workshop, where we find designs actually produced in Argentina, rather than sketches outsourced to China for manufacturing. Young laborers absorb the knowledge of the designers and perfect their products by hand.

Travel: Bariloche
Family businesses are a local trademark, but so is the desire of the Bariloche makers to teach what they know and imbue everything they produce with a regional identity. That’s what happens at El Obrador, the Bariloche cooking school overseen by Emiliano Schobert. His interest in making the most out of local flavors has earned Schobert special renown. Even Brazilian star chef Alex Atala – chef and owner of São Paulo’s DOM – was impressed that this Patagonian cuisine wasn’t dominated by lamb and wood fires like he had expected. Schobert fetches a basket full of peas and edible flowers from his personal garden. He’s making trout, fresh from the market. He proudly shows us the 20-pound fish he just bought.

Schobert didn’t go to culinary school; he was inspired by his family’s culinary heritage, becoming a chef out of necessity and talent. He was so driven that he tried his hand at competing internationally, eventually representing Argentina in the international Bocuse D’Or cooking competition.

Now a famous chef with a thriving school, Schobert retains the same humility evident in all the people of Bariloche. “The truly privileged in this life are those who do what they love,” he says. “Cooking is everything to me.”

 

Word of Mouth

“Ah, you’re going to visit ‘La China,’” exclaims Schobert when we tell him that we’ll be dining at Cassis, another of the top five local establishments, nine miles from the city’s downtown area on the shores of the lovely Lago Gutiérrez. He is affectionately referring to the almond-shaped eyes of Mariana Müller, who runs the kitchen at Cassis with the help of husband Ernesto Wolff and a several of their five children. “We’re a family that feeds people,” says Müller.

 

Travel: Bariloche

“We are a family that feeds people” says Mariana Müller of Cassis.

With a location on an exclusive marina, this pricey restaurant isn’t for everyone, but the dishes, the view, the quality of the ingredients, and – above all – the warmth of its hosts make this experience well worth it. “The people who come here know what they want – simple, well-made food,” says the chef. Two shooting stars pass in the night as we dine at Cassis, where the main attraction, in my humble opinion, is the lamb strudel. It’s delicious, original, and made with love.

The raw materials come from the Wolff-Müller family garden, close to the restaurant. The couple also opens their home to foreign guests who want a more personalized, one-of-a-kind experience. That’s an insider’s word-of-mouth tip (just like a speakeasy). Autumn afternoons are perfect for lunch on their patio, and the couple does the cooking themselves. Guests can also explore the garden and the cellars where artisanal fruit vinegars age in barrels. These unusual vinegars are the product of Müller’s inquisitive mind, as well as necessity. The 2011 eruption of the Puyehue Volcano in Chile caused a rain of ash that the wind carried to Bariloche, turning the sky dark, the city gray, and reducing tourism to near zero. As with any crisis, local creativity adapted.

 

An Organic Paradise

Travel: Bariloche
Back in the city, we spot a small shop that draws plenty of attention thanks to its innovative design. Ciervo is located directly across the street from the old Hotel Panamericano, a true local classic. The store focuses on mountain wear for the winter ski season – sweaters, jackets, leather coats – although its animal logo also adorns bikinis and underwear. The playful designs are the work of Vicky Sires, who was employed by important labels in Buenos Aires before creating her own brand. The store’s cool image comes courtesy of her partner, local architect Otto Frei, an inveterate ski enthusiast. Everything here is organic and stylish, including the (surprisingly comfortable) furniture made from corrugated cardboard.

After our fashion fix, we take a remi driven by an amiable local to check out the Hotel El Casco, about four miles away. While this place isn’t entirely new – it opened its doors in 2006 – few hotels show such a genuine interest in the arts. 

Each room at El Casco is decorated with oil paintings, each by a different artist. The art alone isn’t reason enough to make the trip, but the spectacular view of Nahuel Huapi is sure to dazzle any visitor. The service is warm and pleasant, and the cooking of Ana Lucía Arias is fabulous, with local grouper, salmon, lamb, suckling pig, and tenderloin among the highlights.

A few pounds heavier and blessed with inspiration, we depart Bariloche with the sensation of leaving a city rich in attractions and a rhythm all its own. It’s all about the leisurely pace, the stirring wind, and the unique personality of Argentinean Patagonia.in

 

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