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Source: La Nacion
By: Silvina Beccar Varela

The cuisine in this region offers a surprisingly high level of enterprise and local identity.

SAN RAFAEL - In Southern Mendoza; 230 kilometers from the province's capital, San Rafael (with its provincial ambience and vibrant cuisine) is quickly becoming a tourist hot-spot.

In the last two years, the culinary offerings have grown considerably; several new restaurants have opened, all with interesting and innovative menus. Some are closely related to wine and the vineyards, and others are an update on the classics. It is a phenomenon no doubt related to the growth of tourism.

The best spots are the small epicurean centers in the heart of the San Rafael region. While there are still a wide range of traditional main-street restaurants in downtown San Rafael (where families come to eat together on Sundays), a number of smaller restaurants have appeared closer to the outskirts of town, which also offer novel propositions.

San Rafael's three culinary schools provide the epicurean sector with its skilled labor. "My slogan is simple: We need to forget about our fascination with foreign styles and ingredients. Nobody comes to Mendoza to eat sushi. I think it is great that choice exists here, because you always find quality in variety, but it is important that we be clear about where our own tradition lies, and that it is not only asado and barbequed goat"; says Diego Coll Benegas, manager of the Algodon Wine Estate's Viñas del Golf, which will soon be opening a rustic-style restaurant specializing in brick oven cuisine, complete with five new rooms in the lodge, a bodega, and a golf course, located along Route 144.

To the west, five kilometers from the city of San Rafael in an area called Las Paredes, the country house L'Obrador opened its doors under the direction of Daniel Ancina.

It is a family residence that smells of plums, apricots, and nectarines. These preserves-makers craft their jams and jellies using local Mendocino fruits. Their delicate, handcrafted offerings include grape, strawberry, fig, tomato, pear, melon, and squash jams, all ranging in price from $8 to 10 pesos.

In the afternoon, the aroma of firewood blends with that of the empanadas, chivitos, and carne a la masa that are being cooked in their brick oven.

You can reserve a spot at the house's dining room table to sample a fixed menu made up of cheese-filled olives, olive paste, select cold-cut, fresh-baked bread, and empanadas for starters, and with a choices of main courses that include carne a la masa, chivito, pollo al disco (a fascinating local dish cooked on a part of a tractor) or oven-baked ribs, all accompanied with a side plate of your choice. The menu costs $60 pesos, and includes dessert, coffee, and wine.

Tradition and creation

The menus offered by Diego Coll Benegas at Viñas del Golf's restaurant, and at Ana Paula Gutiérrez's Restauro can both be defined as signature cuisine. The former was distinguished with a Gold Medal at the 2007 Great Wine Capitals contest, as the best wine-related restaurant.

According to Ana Paula: "My proposal is to offer a space for enjoying wines from San Rafael's vineyards, accompanied by dishes made with local products, using regional techniques: recipes such as tomaticán, fried quinoa cheese cutlets, smoked Secretos del Monte, chivito, Malargüe trout, with a jarilla cream sauce, and olive raviolis stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and cheese.

Restauro also offers free tastings of local, gourmet products, with a description of the regional cuisine.

Until tonight

Now that winter is coming, the offerings for tea time or after hours (yes, in San Rafael!), are a little more interesting, especially after a trek, or horse-back ride through some hidden corner of this transparent valley, fed by the Diamond and Atuel rivers.

Patricia and Miriam welcome tourists at the rural tea-house Las Tardecitas del Atuel, after 5:30pm. They offer two types of tea-time meals: the first consist of all-you-can-eat homemade baked goods, cakes, and sweets with tea, for $46 pesos for two people. The second option is a tea-supper, with a basket of fresh-baked breads with jam, flavored toast, savory spreads, cheeses, and marinated sun-dries tomatoes, together with tea for $62 pesos (for three people). At night they serve cheese fondue (or bourguignone) with San Rafael wines (Alfredo Roca, Bianchi, Jean Rivier, Goyenechea, Viñas del Golf) or micro-brewed beer.

Since San Rafael is an increasingly cosmopolitan provincial city, a sophisticated, young night-life is beginning to emerge at places like the wine bar Vinomio. Amalia and Celina Lanotti refurbished an old house to serve fresh dishes with a decidedly Italian influence, such as bruschettas, pizzas, and local cold-cuts, all with soft lighting and chilled out music. The Ahijuna bruschete consists of fresh-baked country bread, olive oil, cream cheese, fresh tomatoes, and basil for $15: the wines from their small cellar run from $14 to $120 pesos.

Finally, the Pueblo Viejo country lodge, a complex of precious cabins, has a new Italian chef, recently arrived from the island of Sardinia to run the Ristorante La Posta Pueblo Viejo. He prepares home-made Italian cuisine, with antipasti, pastas, and a long etc.

If the reader is a gourmet traveler that doesn't just want to enjoy meals at restaurants, but rather wants to savor delicious treasures back at the hotel, or keep some for the suitcase, look for the cured ham (prosciutto) from El Sosneado, the cured goat and pork from Cuadro Benegas, or the home-made cold-cuts from the Villa 25 de Mayo. "The thing is; we have tradition, immigrants, herbs, wine, firewood, brick ovens, rivers, gardens: any combination that arises from these variables can be considered Cuyana, concludes Diego Coll Benegas, one of the chief promoters of this new Cuyana cuisine. Sanrafaelina, to be more precise.

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