It’s a delightfully arid drive from Ruta 9 (Rt.9) in to the Little Uruguayan village of Garzon. The gravel road winds about for 5 miles through grazing fields surrounded by wooden fence posts topped with sparrows and hawks, bird nests and a hairy mess of wind blown moss. Cows and sheep graze the vast range, flowers bloom on some parcels suggesting the rotation of live stock provides ample time for regeneration and return of fragile forage.
That said, I understand why a world renowned chef like Francis Mallmann would seek a dusty, out of the way deserted village for his 10th restaurant location.
The only reason I know of Mallmann’s enterprise is because he visited our table to say hello. He was dressed in chef whites and a blue beret, red glasses and a generous smile. He described his restaurants as an expression of himself: “Each like a child, born from fire, free willed and exciting in its own way. I can’t say which one is a favorite as I love them all”. His face lit as he spoke, eyes focused on his guests—my daughters, the A.Sisters. The chefs hands were calm, shoulders broad, I could see his pride in the place and quiet confidence in his team as the rest of the room was full and of little concern to the man in red glasses for that brief moment.
From my perspective chef Mallmann has more than an idle investment in a fire driven kitchen on the village square of Garzon. It appears his hand may well touch every corner of this formerly abandoned back road occupation. The balance of old and new is astounding. Even the oldest, most run down dwellings appear to be crafted to inspire an adventurous explorer compelled to write a check, invest with a plan and carve a spot for lifetime returns. Free time in Garzon might well seem endless.
On balance the new buildings clearly feature what I perceive to be Mallmann signature branding, on opposite corners of the village square, a 4 star restaurant and a new age coffee shop complete with lemon tarts, cafe con leche, and delicious hand spun wool ponchos, hats and scarves. A reading room near the coffee shops backdoor features local art, a wine bar and couches for sharing a beverage while slipping away from the hard afternoon sun in Garzon.
To be clear, a visit to Garzon will be best when it includes at least a spoonful of Mallmann flavor. Once seated inside his well appointed dining room or in the poolside courtyard, guests should allow the pace and clutter of life beyond this spots authentic old world porch to drift away. It’s where my daughters, my wife and I retrieved needed connection with each other through comfortable surroundings, attentive service and fire-tinged flavors. The A.Sisters laughed a little longer, smiled softly and made their father proud as we discussed the colorful presentations on each plate. Our children took time to identify the range of perfectly crafted ingredients like the saffron hue in a starter spread of pumpkin hummus. The smoky aftertaste of almonds served with the hummus alongside a trio of house baked breads and the surprising density of a locally crafted burrata served buried in a toss of spicy greens with roasted Anjou pear.
Once settled in at the table we enjoyed cold, mint tinged iced tea, simple, crisp and unsweetened. Garzons’ local Sauvignon Blanc shared a similar profile, cold with just enough acidity to shine alongside a salad of arugula tossed with burnt beets and crispy garlic chips. Our third salad featured grilled peaches, purple mizuna, pistachios and soft white cheese.
For pasta we chose a special of spinach stuffed cannelloni finished with bechamel and a simple pink tomato purée. Sliced like a long thin loaf the main course was shared by our family of 5 as if it was intended to be portioned in this style. We continued with a salty dream of fire kissed skirt steak with tomato, pickled red onions and avocado. Finally a generous bowl full of pumpkin ravioli finished in sage butter and dusted with roasted pumpkin seeds rounded out our entree.
In Mallmann’s hands we lost track of the day and relaxed at the table as I think he intends for all of his guests to do. Our dessert was supported by a legendary cafe con leche presented with a dreamy dish of lemon sugar dusted shortbread cookies. For balance a final stroke of genius called “Nemesis” was served—a generous portion of what this mid western traveler would call ‘soft fudge’ alongside a perfect ball of basil ice cream over a fine dusting of roasted nuts and a wedge of coal fired orange.
Is Garzon right for everyone? Maybe not, it’s out of balance with the rest of the world. Is it worth the time and effort to find and unwind? You’ll have to drive the dusty road and see for yourself.