Last November, my husband and I knocked on the door of a stranger's house tucked away on a quiet, tree-lined street in Chacharita, a middle-class residential neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Sanra Ritten, a tall, graceful woman with long, brown hair and dark eyes, answered the door with a warm smile. "Hey guys," she said, "Come on in."
Three nights a week during Argentina's warm summers, Diego Felix, an Argentinian chef, and Ritten, his American photojournalist girlfriend, serve dinner in their home to a group of strangers. Adventurous diners, who pay for a multi-course, mostly vegetarian meal, learn about Casa Felix on trendy travel blogs or, more recently, in mainstream media outlets. Diners are given an address and a reservation only after emailing Casa Felix and passing muster. He doesn't hesitate to weed out particularly demanding diners, or those who just don't seem to fit. "It's not for secrecy or security," he says.
The menu, which changes nightly, reflected the breadth of Felix's ambitions. He's not just trying to give you a good meal; he's trying to teach you about the very essence of Argentinian culture.
Ritten and Felix usually serve dinner on their back patio, next to their small garden, but it was chilly that evening so we ate in their living room instead. Like Buenos Aires itself, the room felt old and elegant—high ceilings, white walls, and wood floors. An ancient, heavy set of wooden shelves held wine and water glasses of all sizes and colors. A motley assortment of benches and bronzed lawn chairs clustered around tables provided seating for the four or five groups of people dining at Casa Felix that night.
The menu, which changes nightly, reflected the breadth of Felix's ambitions. He's not just trying to give you a good meal; he's trying to teach you about the very essence of Argentinian culture. His interest in cooking originally grew out of a desire to understand his roots, and the roots of an immigrant culture. "The culinary culture in Argentina exists in the context of a country which has been a huge agro-exporter for years, colonized by Europeans, mostly from Spain and Italy, with very little space for local, indigenous cultures to thrive," he told me in a recent email.
To broaden their understanding of Argentina's culinary traditions, Felix and Ritten spend half their days exploring rural Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. "What I have learned in my travels," he wrote, "is that we have an immense gastronomic cultural patrimony and it would be good to share this with the rest of the world. The only country that is really doing this right now is Peru, and that is why there are many excellent Peruvian restaurants in major cities."
Like many chefs today, Felix relies on fresh, local fare and often uses ingredients from his own garden. He served a humita "raw-violi" to start, with linden flowers he grew out back and cancha corn (a Peruvian dish of lightly salted, toasted corn—basically Andean popcorn). The second course, my favorite of the night, was inspired by his travels: mbeyu, a Paraguayan dish made of cassava and cheese. Felix modified the dish slightly, grilling it rather than frying it for a lighter effect, but the warm, slightly crisp final result was still cozily filling and reminded me of the vaguely guilty pleasures of hot hash browns on a Sunday morning. He often modifies the dishes he finds on his travels, but tries to maintain the essence of the flavor. When constructing the mbeyu, for example, he asked himself, "For me, how was the flavor of Paraguay?"
Felix doesn't serve meat, a bold stance to take in steak-heavy Buenos Aires. Instead, we dined on Patagonian sand perch in a light, flavorful broth. Dessert was another sampling from his garden: lemon verbena ice cream. He brought a sprig of the herb to the table, crushing it between his fingers and instructing us to smell it, then taste the ice cream.
Six months later, in June, my husband and I once again found ourselves on an unfamiliar street, knocking on an unfamiliar apartment door. Earlier that week, an email had popped up in my inbox. When Argentina's winter arrives, Felix and Ritten embark on an international cooking tour, relying on former Casa Felix visitors and friends to host their dinners in cities around the world. As part of its tour, they would be cooking dinner at Brooklyn's Whisk and Ladle Supper Club.