It’s hard flipping through any food magazine in Argentina and not come across the much buzzed about name: i Latina.
Buenos Aires’ immensely popular restaurant has sustained its #1 title on TripAdvisor and five gold stars on Yelp. There’s a reason why locals and travelers leave i Latina – Buenos Aires’ best closed-door restaurant with happily satiated stomaches and glowing smiles.
It’s all in the family.
Before diving into the story of a charming Macias clan, let’s set the tone by explaining that closed-door restaurants, or puertas cerradas, is an undeniably sizzling trend in Buenos Aires’ current food scene. It’s seductively secretive, typically hosted in a small-sized private villa, reservations must be made ahead of time. Some may argue that it’s illegal, but who really cares when the food is served with meticulous perspectives and a whole lot of serious talent.
If you’re traveling to Argentina, friends will recommend restaurants serving fantastic Italian food. Some may suggest, “You can find great French cuisine in Argentina.” It’s all true since Argentina is a relatively young country with a declaration of independence from Spain merely back in 1810. In the last 200 years, Argentinian cuisine has been mostly defined by the quality of its beef. And, that’s pretty much it. Other flavors incorporated into the rising success of restaurants in Buenos Aires were largely due to highly-populated immigrants: French, Spanish, Italians, Germans, Chinese, Arabs, Koreans, Norwegians…the list goes on.
Hence, defining exactly what makes Argentinian cuisine is, nonetheless, a difficult task. That is why, the concept of puertas cerradas has been organically popular. Guests are literally eating at the chef’s private space (typically in his home), it’s mostly an open kitchen oozing of intimacy between the food, the chef and the guests The menu usually infuses gastronomy and fresh local ingredients. For today’s travelers, it’s “a thing” to do after landing in Buenos Aires. Instead of flipping through guidebooks, just book a table at restaurante a puertas cerradas.
While you’re doing that, here’s why i Latina needs to be the first restaurant on your list.
i Latina’s heart and soul are exuded by the lovely Macias family: Santiago (head chef), Camilo (wine connoisseur) and Laura (hostess). Two years ago, they opened this alluring restaurant in a gorgeous French-style home in the neighborhood of Villa Crespo.
As the first of his family to arrive in Buenos Aires from Colombia, Santiago was seventeen years old and grew to love the study of culinary arts. After his degree and a line of hardwork that eventually led him to Intercontinental Hotel, he decided to open i Latina which was always going to be a different restaurant based on a new concept.
“Basically, we wanted a place that seems like a chef’s house, or a family house, that welcomes people.” Santiago explained, “We have a fixed menu that we change three or four times a year. And that concept works really well, especially with tourists. People who would like to have an idea of what Latin American cuisine is in one dinner, one experience.”
From start to finish, Santiago’s seven-course menu is full of flavors that push the boundaries of seasoned taste buds. Santiago understands his audience is made of the sophisticated, the worldly and the utterly inquisitive. His Colombian roots shine through every bite of a delectable arc. From an appetizer of white corn arepas with anise and Colombian hogao, to a sordid homemade bread basket (filled with heartfelt banana bread, coconut bread, focaccia with olives and mixed seeds bread with a side of to-die-for lime and pepper flavored butter spread), all the way to the final course of avocado and aguardiente ice cream; every dish is a wondrous surprise, especially for travelers who have yet to visit Colombia.
“It’s really difficult to talk about Colombian food. From the Caribbean coast, to the mountains, to the Amazon or the Pacific coast, Colombia has a lot of diversity.” Santiago explicits,
“For example, the one that most influences our menu is Colombian Caribbean food, which is based on seafood and flavors where we use sweetness or fruits. The sweetness in the coffee sauce, or the sweetness that you can find in the ceviche with the coconut milk. Or the spicy pineapple. Those flavors can be spicy but also a little bit sweet.”
i Latina certainly lives up to its gleaming reputation with produce and ingredients highlighting various countries in Latin America. Just pay attention to a fan favorite course: the Ecuadorian cacao truffle with sea salt and olive oil.
Santiago gives us an inside scoop on the cacao, “I have never been to Ecuador, but in that case [the dish] we were looking for the best cacaos of America. We received cacaos from many places and we found that the Ecuadorian cacao was extremely aromatic, dark; it works really well in the formula we make, with the olive oil and the salt.” And it must be said that the chef uses olives from Mendoza, a region in Central Argentina known for extraordinary wines and olives.
Speaking of wines, the lustrous seven-course meal would be too lonely without the accompaniment of a florid wine pairing performance. One must not speak of the wine selection at i Latina without mentioning Macias clan’s oldest brother: Camilo, aka: the gentle and insightful wine connoisseur. Every course on the menu is paired with the best of Argentine wine, mostly from Mendoza and Patagonia. The restaurant now features a cocktail menu including the classic gin and tonic and a house special smoked negroni.
Entering the restaurant is comprised of sweet greetings by Laura – Camilo and Santiago’s delightful younger sister. The interior space of the restaurant radiates a certain female touch. Fresh flowers galore, candles demurely lit, one particular wall proudly displays a powerful painting from the sibling’s mother. Such exquisite taste in decor is credited to Laura’s contribution. She remains humble and gentle throughout each shift in addition to a smile that never seems to fade.
As I sipped on the final course which was a Colombian coffee infused with cinnamon and cardamome, I couldn’t help but sink in a sense of deep regret that my flight departing Buenos Aires would be a few hours away. Santiago couldn’t resist his undying passion and clearly had something else to say.
“Let me explain to you how we make the coffee.” He pointed at the cup I was slowly indulging, “So this is a coffee that we actually make here in-house. We heat up water to 80°c, which is a lot lower than the average temperature you drink coffee in the States. Usually they boil water which burns the coffee a little bit. We infuse the water with cardamom and cinnamon, and then when it reaches 80° we throw in the coffee, let it sit for a while and then filter it.”
There’s serious science even to his coffee. Precisely, Santiago is going to places. You will see his name plastered all over Latin America someday. Soon.
The success of i Latina centers around its lush menu which delivers enticing bite after bite. But the true compelling force that encircles the food is a marked family spirit – one that locals and travelers can relate to as soon as they walk in the door.
I left Argentina a few hours after my visit to i Latina. To this day, it’s still the meal I reminisce about a city that I could see myself living in.