It's not frequent that someone runs a restaurant out of his apartment. But Dan Pearlman, former chef and food writer from New York, has opened a "puertas cerradas," a closed-door restaurant with no public listing or phone number, out of his apartment in Buenos Aires. Guests sign up for one of twelve spots every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each week, Dan chooses a different quirky theme inspired usually, but not always, by dates loosely related to the weekend. Of the several times I've eaten at Casa Saltshaker, I'll be discussing the two most recent: Transnistrian Independence Day and Mexican Independence day. The address of Casa Saltshaker is only revealed via e-mail once a guest's spot is confirmed. Guests are asked to arrive at 9pm so that dinner service can begin around 9:15pm. The guests tend to be a mix of expatriates, tourists, and even some Argentine locals. The crowd seems split between those who come with another guest, and those who come alone. Depending on the crowd of people for the night, mingling usually occurs in a mix of both Spanish and English.
The first time I arrived I came alone, and I wasn't sure what the sentiment would feel like: would this be like a restaurant, or more like eating in someone's apartment for dinner? Once I was brought into the apartment after ringing the doorbell, the latter seemed more accurate. And this was very positive; because the atmosphere was very relaxed and comfortable. I had arrived a little early, so I spent time talking with the spanish-speaking guests until everyone arrived and we were seated.
The group naturally segmented itself in two -- spanish speakers, and english speakers. I opted for the spanish table, since it would be good to practice and since all the other seats at the english table were quickly taken. The mood was very calm, and I began to feel like an old friend had invited me to his apartment for dinner.
On Transnistrian independence day, we started with a small tart of 5 peppers served at room temperature. I would have preferred the tart to be served hot but; despite my distaste for cooked red peppers, the flavor was very nice. Next came the highlight of the savory courses, a mushroom strudel. The shell's texture was beautifully thin and crispy and had a flavor that really enhanced the delicate earthy taste of the mushrooms. I probably could have eaten forty to fifty of these. Following the delicious strudel was a soup of white kidney beans. This meal, so far, was having a very nice progression in terms of weight -- each dish gradually building up to the meat course. The soup was a little bland; but, a little salt did wonders. This was my least favorite course of the evening.
Next up was the pork chop with a garlic sauce. The pork chop was very good; but for me the best part of this course was the harina de maíz, a type of cornmeal with a grain size a bit smaller than polenta, making it extremely light and fluffy. the harina de maíz had quite a bit of butter, making the flavor very rich. Finishing off the meal was, quite frankly, some of the best chocolate cheesecake I'd ever had. The cheesecake consisted of bittersweet chocolate with a sifting of confectioner's sugar for added sweetness and decoration. I'd never been so fond of Transnistrian before!
On my most recent visit to Casa Saltshaker, we celebrated Mexican Independence day. We started off with a summer squash pastry and roasted tomato sauce. The pastry shell was thin and light, and very nicely made. But, I found the summer squash filling to be somewhat flavorless. Most of the flavor, for me, came from the roasted tomato sauce which had a nice smoky essence to it. Next up was the persian onion soup with lemon and mint. This was no good. Way too strong on the lemon, it was the only thing I could taste. The texture was also very thin. Granted, these qualities are native for the type of soup it is; I just didn't like it. And, to be fair, it was the only course at Casa Saltshaker that I ever disliked entirely. Things picked up, and the next course was white tuna wrapped in oak lettuce with an almond caper sauce, fresh tomatoes, and green olives. While a little bit of the lettuce leaf's beauty was lost to the steaming in the oven, the flavor didn't go anywhere. I generally find capers to be too strong, let alone when served with diced olives; but, the oven steaming seemed to ease the strength of these ingredients which, ultimately, complimented the fish very nicely. This was the highlight dish of the night.
Last of the savories was a chicken breast cooked with dried fruit. I really liked the concept of balancing sweet with savory; but, I felt like the saltiness of the chicken really made it difficult to taste the sweetness of the fruit. I would have liked this balance to be shifted more in the sweet direction. I also found the chicken to be a little firm. Something seemed missing from this plate, perhaps a starch like rice would have went nicely. Last up I was, once again, blown away with the cheesecake. This time, it was of sweet potato with freshly whipped cream. Why can't all cheesecakes taste like this?
When factoring in uniqueness, comfort, atmosphere, and overall experience, Casa Saltshaker has the honor of being my favorite place for dinner in Buenos Aires. It's difficult to compare this place to other restaurants in Buenos Aires because, quite simply, it's not a restaurant. I would place Casa Saltshaker somewhere inbetween a restaurant and a chef friend's personal dinner party. And with that in mind, I highly recommend visiting this place at least once during a trip to Buenos Aires. And, if you can, try to go during a night with Cheesecake!