I am at the end of what can only be described as one of those spectacular meals. You know … where you stop to take copious notes and numerous pictures (some call it food porn, I call it memories). The flavors, textures, sensations, all meld together into one warm, fuzzy, wine-induced meal full of love. I am quietly sitting here sipping on the last drops of a velvety, feminine Merlot from the boutique winery Casa Filgueira. I am not in Buenos Aires, nor Santiago, nor Lima, not even Sao Paulo. Nope, I am in the most unexpected, and perhaps most under-the-radar, up-and-coming foodie destination in South America: Montevideo, Uruguay.
My day didn’t start out this good. After a meeting with fellow food writer Clara OCampo from El Gastronauta the night before, she raved about this stylish new spot breaking all the clichés with what Montevideanos love to eat: grilled meat, salad, a lot of potatoes, and most definitely nothing too spicy.
Enter Gardenia. In this newish restaurant, two foreign chefs both in their early 30s, armed with international culinary experience and a lot of ganas and passion, had come to Uruguay to innovate, educate, open, and dazzle the local palates.
I decided I would go at lunch. It was a beautiful, warm fall day so I took my time walking along the Rambla as the sun reflected off the bluish waters of the Rio de la Plata. From Pocitos, I trekked up a hill to an area coined as “World Trade Center” (why is there a World Trade Center in every Latin capital?). Clustered around a central plaza of tall office buildings, the upscale restaurants obviously catered to the lunch and dinner crowd. I entered following the sign towards what I thought was Gardenia. I surveyed the ambience. Not exactly what I would define as stylish, a bit ornate (dragons everywhere), but maybe that’s my taste.
Lunch was a mediocre glass of Tannat, an ok piece of lenguado (sole), a soggy salad, and when they served me macedonia as dessert, I just about lost it. Seriously, what a bad rec?! Well, it all became crystal clear when I got the bill. In fact, I nearly died. I was in Gardenia’s neighbors. I could hardly believe my stupidity in having wasted a meal on that place. Annoyed at myself, I stormed into Gardenia, next door, and immediately recognized my error. The space was luminous, spacious with high ceilings, jazz playing in the background and an instantly refined, warm vibe. S-h-i-t Liz.
Marina is certainly not alone in this project. Her husband, also the chef, Raúl Florenza, decided to expand the Gardenia brand, already successful in Marina’s hometown of Sao Paulo with three restaurants in Gabriel, Pinheiros, and Alphaville. Why Montevideo? Why Uruguay? When asked, they cited being tired of the big city Paulista life, a city of 18+ million people. They were looking for someplace close yet different, tranquilo, maybe have a family, a place to innovate. Ballsy? Making any international (business) move is, but I would say Uruguay was particularly daring. Uruguayans are particularly traditional when it comes to their food and opening their social circles to foreigners. After all, it’s a small country. All of Uruguay’s populations wouldn’t even make up 1/6 of Sao Paulo, to put it in numbers.
Marina and Raúl bring together a fascinating mix of cuisines: Mediterranean, Spanish, Brazilian, and make the most of the local, seasonal ingredients. Is it eclectic and adventuresome? Yes, enough to be constantly interesting, but not to provoke fear of the unknown in the diner. What most caught my attention were the details. There was a constant focus on contrasting, bright flavors, textures, temperatures and colors. A constant pushing and pulling so that with every forkful, spoonful, or sip (the wine, of course), there was a new layer to be discovered. Savory, thoughtful creations that provoked umami in my mouth. That’s right, my first intuitive impression I had of Marina and her caring, embracing nature showed up the food. And tack on near perfect service and great wines like Pizzorno or Casa Filgueira.
So where did I travel on this odyssey? Given I am wheat-free, we had to work around that but I started with crunchy, homemade sweet potato chips tossed with celery salt and the most perfect roasted garlic, paired with the Casa Filgueira Sauvignon Gris. Next, a bite of a sublime carpaccio with merluza negra, black hake, pounded paper thin and laced with minced green apple, chopped pistachios and parsley with a drizzle of peppery olive oil. OMG. Next was Raúl’s delicious, refined rendition of gazpacho. The soup was creamy, balanced, with perfect acidity and an addictive mouth feel as it was passed through a fine sieve. I uncovered a skinned cherry tomato cleverly nestled at the bottom of the bowl, a little mouth burst of the finest of fine brunoise veggies, which some cook had patiently stuffed into that tomato.
After, I savored one of my favorite Brazilian dishes ever, moqueca, a rich coconut sauce made with a touch of nutty dende (palm) oil with fish, shrimp, and seafood floating in the pinkish broth. Marina and Raúl insisted on bringing more “mini” courses. Sure, why not? The wine is flowing and company is good. How about oxtail braised in Tannat sauce with a sublime mashed potato purée? Gamey, meaty, tender, delicious. I was toast. I passed on the crème brulee made with mate. There are limitations to my stomach space. I decided my Merlot would be “dessert”.
Since my escapade in Gardenia in Montevideo, we caught up with Marina and Raúl in Santiago on a chilly, rainy Good Friday. We went to the markets and then came back to our apartment to cook together. Well cooking “together” really didn’t happen. With two totally creative restaurant chefs in the kitchen wanting to convert Chile’s bounty of produce and seafood, I stepped back and let them cook for me—again. A guest in my own kitchen, what a novelty. I even got to sit on the other side of our island to be entertained as Raúl seared, sauteed, fried, chopped, and delighted us. We ate and drank by course, for hours, and went on a different yet similar trip to the first one in Montevideo.
Passion, originality and details. Marina and Raúl get food and what makes a restaurant experience work. If you want to do something totally different your next time in Uruguay (or Sao Paulo), go to Gardenia and let them woo you. It’s worth the detour from Punta del Este, Carmelo, to see their way of conceiving food. Just be listos to go for a ride.
Gardenia is open from Mon-Fri 12-3:30pm; 8pm-midnight and Sat 1-4pm; 9pm-1am. Reservations highly recommended. Be sure to follow their wine recs too. (598 2 628 8838)