Truly innovative cooking is hard to find in Mendoza. But here in the wild west of Argentina, the steak is so good and the wine so juicy that it scarcely matters that Michelin is still only a rubber tyre in these parts. Argentina made history this year by winning the most international trophies at the Decanter World Wine Awards of any single country since the competition began.
What's more, the restaurant scene in Mendoza has improved beyond recognition since my first visit in 1998 – which happened to be shortly after La Marchigiana was burnt down for displaying a "no politicians" sign in its window.
Inspired by The River Café's Rose Gray, Francis Mallmann Restaurante 1884 was, and remains, Mendoza's foremost restaurant. It has an impressive setting in Bodega Escorihuela, pisco sours as dangerously good as those in Chile, and steaks on the parilla to match. Alternatively, Azafrá* in central Mendoza is more casual, with indoor and pavement eating and a showcase wine cellar offering a wide range. The set lunch consisted of a selection of warm breads and chimichurri butter and an amuse-bouche seafood bisque, before a first course of two richly gooey and crunchy empanadas, one filled with black pudding, the other chorizo. The special was a rich gnocchi stew with mushroom, caramelised onion and grated courgette, washed down by a refreshing 2009 Ruca Malen Yauqué* Malbec. With coffee and water, the bill came to a modest 95 pesos (£15.75).
I am a fan of the traditional Italian style of Don Mario and Montecatini restaurants, but my softest spot is reserved for La Marchigiana, now restored as a larger but equally popular local establishment that still betrays its Italian origins. Fine dining it ain't. Instead, it's the place to observe Mendocinos on a night out: families, husbands and wives, girls-nights-outs, lads-nights-outs, company get-togethers and couples barely trying to conceal illicit relationships.
With the bife de filet, my favourite side order was a palm heart salad and an unassuming and very reasonable half-litre (45 pesos/ £7.50) of Trapiche's 2010 Fond de Cave Malbec. It's best to avoid the Marchigiana trimmings, which tend to mean rich sauces slopped otiosely over what's otherwise some of the best meat in town.
In Chacras de Coria, a smart-set town in Mendoza province, I was tempted at Las Negras Deck by the "concrete goat's cheese", an almost aptly described solid lump of goat's cheese with salad. The rib-eye steak was cooked to perfection, but you need to ask for it to be jugoso, quasi-crud, or just make mooing noises. It was so good, in fact, (and cheap at the current rate of around six pesos to the pound) that I repeated the experience the following evening, washing it down with a mouth-watering quintessence-of-malbec 2009 Pulenta Estate. On a balmy summer's evening in Chacras de Coria, Nadia O.F. is the place to enjoy Nadia's inventive local cuisine, sitting in the inner garden al fresco in the dry warmth under the stars.
In the vineyards, La Bourgogne at the Carlos Pulenta Winery, Club Tapiz at Tapiz and the Norton winery restaurant (the latter two do lunch only) are normally regarded as the best restaurants. I've enjoyed La Bourgogne and Club Tapiz in the past, so this time round I opted for Norton's place, La Vid, and it was good, if rather sombre on a sunny day – and not helped by a loop of Argentinian cover versions of irritating songs such as "Can't Get You Out of My Head". Starters included three different empanadas, one deep fried. My companion put me to shame with a relatively healthy prosciutto salad, while I followed with the sirloin, cooked rare of course.
There are a growing number of restaurants in the trendy new wine region of Uco Valley south of Mendoza city, and this once remote valley is becoming an increasingly popular destination for travellers. Ilo in downtown Tupungato is an unpretentious high street restaurant that brings fresh fish in daily from Chile, while Almacé* de Uco, in the foothills of the Andes, is another popular venue. Salentein has a large tourist restaurant, but more intimate places are springing up. TupungatoDivino is a small operation in the vineyards with its own cabins and a cosy restaurant, a log fire, fabulous views of the Andes and a fine selection of wines. The meat is as good here as you'd expect but there's plump Chilean salmon, too, and the home-made pasta – the asparagus and the pumpkin-stuffed ravioli, in particular – makes a welcome change from wall-to-wall steak. Rutini, just down the road, plans a new restaurant, and if chief winemaker, Mariano de Paola's girth is anything to go by, it should be a bit special.
For the best grill in town, or rather out of town, you need to head for El Cielo, a small corner restaurant in the little town of La Consulta in San Carlos frequented mainly by local vineyard managers and winemakers. Showing just how good the fresh vegetables are in Mendoza, a green salad is actually a plentiful jumble of mixed leaves, avocado, palm hearts and gherkins. The centrepiece is the steak, of course: bespoke in cut, size and cooking time.
Three of us there for lunch all chose the 500g bife de chorizo (sirloin), executed with considerable skill on the parilla by the aptly named Gerardo Mercado. The 4cm-thick slab arrived somewhere between rare and medium rare, pink all the way through, tender and juicy with a thick charred crust adding texture, but that's as pink as you want it in a steak of this size. As it was, we ended up in El Cielo – heaven.
Anthony Rose is the wine critic for the 'Independent Magazine'
Travel essentials Mendoza
* Aerolineas Argentinas (0800 096 9747; aerolineasargentinas.com) flies to Mendoza from Madrid via Buenos Aires.
* TAM (020-8897 0005; tam.com.br) flies from Heathrow via Sao Paulo in Brazil and Buenos Aires, while BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Buenos Aires.
Eating and drinking there
* Francis Mallmann Restaurante 1884 (00 54 261 424 2698; 1884restaurante.com.ar).
* Azafrán (00 54 261 429 4200; bve.com.ar).
* La Marchigiana
(00 54 261 429 1590; marchigiana.com.ar).
* La Vid restaurant at Bodega Norton (00 54 261 490 9790; norton.com.ar).
* Las Negras Deck (00 54 261 496 2267).
* Nadia O.F. (00 54 261 496 1731; nadiaof.com).
* Restaurante Ilo (00 54 262 248 8323).
* Almacé* de Uco (00 54 262 242 2134; almacendeuco.com).
* El Cielo
(00 54 262 247 0814).
* Tupungato Divino (00 54 9 262 244 8948; tupungatodivino.com.ar). B&B from US$190 (£127).
More information www.turismo.gov.ar
South America Season Part 5: Argentina
Capital Buenos Aires
Area: 133.9 times the size of Wales
Year of independence: 1816
National animal: Puma
Opening lines of national anthem:
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