BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Let's start at the end, with dessert at The Argentine Experience.
The Buenos Aires restaurant that immerses diners in culture offers an abundance of tastes and the stories behind them. On the night my family shared a communal table with another group of U.S. visitors, dessert included a delicacy prepared with sponge-like yacaratia wood.
Alex Pels, one of the founding co-owners of The Argentine Experience, said in an interview that the earliest inhabitants of what is now northern Argentina chewed yacaratia wood because it stored water. Pels' pastry chef sweetens the wood and serves it atop local cheese in precise cubes that wouldn't look out of place in a three-star restaurant anywhere in the world. The architectural treats seemed particularly modernist alongside another dessert we sampled, alfajores cookies, accompanied by the national drink of warm mate (pronounced mah TAY). The herbal infusion is a perfect, bitter complement to the rich pastries.
We also learned a decadent technique for enjoying the alfajores: Slather one buttery cookie with dulce de leche, a caramelized milk concoction popular across Latin America. Layer on another cookie. Roll the cookie sandwich in shredded coconut. Dip in melted chocolate for decadent good measure.
The main course was, of course, tender Argentine beef served with grilled vegetables and several versions of the traditional chimichurri sauce of oil, vinegar and herbs. But we also ate slivers of flavorful pork in a land famed for its beef. Pels told me that his partner Leon Lightman, who is from England, had been in Argentina several years before he encountered the pork cut Argentines call matambre.
"It's definitely something that Argentines would order and something that foreigners don't," Pels said.
In creating The Argentine Experience, Pels and Lightman wanted to showcase food visitors might be missing. One inspiration was chef, restaurateur and author Francis Mallmann. Mallmann was trained in France but gained fame with grilling and other cooking techniques of his native Argentina.
Pels and Lightman started out in 2011 serving dinners in an apartment in Recoleta, a neighborhood known for its historic cemetery. The next year they moved to airy, two-story quarters in the trendy Palermo Hollywood neighborhood.
Early on, customers said they were getting too much information from staff who guide diners through prix fixe meals. That's been relaxed, "so that people don't think it's a class," Pels said.
Facts about the food shared in English were leavened by family stories and jokes during our visit. We also learned a few Spanish terms, such as how to order a medium rare steak (jugoso, or juicy).
The light tone didn't mask a deep understanding and appreciation of the food and its role in the broader culture. The relaxed approach and free-flowing local wine, though, did make it easy for guests to get to know one another, also a goal of The Argentine Experience.
Upon arrival, we donned aprons and chef hats. We assembled the cookie sandwiches as well as empanadas, folding mixtures of meat or cheese into pastry circles. The activities and uniforms created camaraderie among my family, the Israeli-Americans at our table and the Germans and South Africans at the next.
"People don't know how to meet other people when they travel. But that's how stories are created: You meet other people," said Pels, who has managed hotels and hostels and travels frequently himself.
Evenings at The Argentine Experience are conducted in English or Portuguese, but not Spanish. The program doesn't cater to locals because Pels fears they'd be unimpressed by the homestyle cooking. That left me wondering just how authentic my evening was. So I asked around, turning among others to Mariano Bruno, a friend of a friend who is a political scientist and self-described "foodie" and wine enthusiast.
Bruno told me he has watched a revolution in Buenos Aires restaurants in the last decade, with many establishments sharing The Argentine Experience's awareness of the importance of ingredients. While I had enjoyed beef, pork and local vegetables at The Argentine Experience, Bruno said there was even more to explore.
"Not everything is beef," he said. "In this country we have great lamb. The best comes from Patagonia."
Argentine-American Lucila Giagrande Lucila's Homemade Alfajores supplies cookies to shops and cafes in the Chicago area. Giagrande was surprised and pleased to hear that a fancy restaurant had served us the pastries and shared the ritual of heaping dried mate leaves into traditional clay mugs, pouring in not-too-hot water and sipping in turn from communal mugs.
"When the tourist or the traveler gets to hang out with Argentines (at their homes), one of the first things they'll do is get to share alfajores with mate," said Giagrande, who like Bruno is not associated with The Argentine Experience.
A night out that requires costumes and playing with your food could have been hokey. Instead, our Argentine experience was a friendly and relaxed way to learn about the locals and what and why they eat.
If You Go...
THE ARGENTINE EXPERIENCE: https://www.theargentineexperience.com/ , U.S. $99 per person.