At the restaurant he runs in his home, Diego Felix plates stuffed mushrooms.
At the restaurant he runs in his home, Diego Felix plates stuffed mushrooms. (By Sanra Ritten)
Sunday, May 18, 2008

On a warm Thursday evening, Diego Felix proudly showed his guests the aromatic herbs sprouting in a small garden behind his restaurant. Peperina, he explained, is a type of mint that grows in the mountains of central Argentina; cedron, a lemon-scented shrub, is abundant in the Pampas.

The 33-year-old chef, who returned to his native Buenos Aires after working at San Francisco's vegan temple Millennium, has a passion for organic farming and vegetarian haute cuisine. Last year he opened Casa Felix , a restaurant inside his home in Chacarita, a middle-class residential neighborhood. Dinner there feels like a get-together at a friend's house. In warm weather, guests share one long table on the patio and chat as Felix serves five courses made with indigenous South American ingredients. A recent entree: portobello, huacatay (Andean black mint) and wild rice ravioli in a fresh tomato sauce.

Casa Felix is part of a small but growing group of restaurants in Buenos Aires emphasizing vegetarian cuisine. That they are quickly garnering a following among locals and visitors seems strange in a city obsessed with steak.

"The per-capita consumption of beef in Argentina is the highest in the world, yet there's been a notorious growth in vegetarian restaurants and natural foods stores," says Manuel Marti, president of the Argentina Vegetarian Union. "It's quite paradoxical."

On Guia Oleo, a popular online restaurant guide, users consistently vote Casa Felix one of the best mid-price restaurants in the city. "People are starting to pay attention to the way they eat," Felix says. "I think it's a global thing."

He's not keen on calling Casa Felix vegetarian, he says, because it caters to a broader audience. The entree menu often includes fish. "It's a place to eat creative food that's also healthy," he says.

Creative vegetarian cuisine is the latest addition to the city's vibrant restaurant scene, which just a decade ago consisted mostly of steakhouses (parrilladas) and Italian restaurants. As Argentina emerged from the financial crisis of 2001, Buenos Aires grew increasingly cosmopolitan. The favorable exchange rate attracted foreigners from around the world. At the same time, many Argentines who had emigrated returned with new ideas and fresh flavors. Today, Japanese, Peruvian, Thai, Indian and other restaurants compete with the famed parrilladas.

Kensho , in the artsy Boedo neighborhood, is run by vegetarian chef Máximo Cabrera. Every Saturday, Cabrera opens his home to serve elaborate four-course dinners. His customers are not necessarily vegetarian and often show up out of curiosity. "There's still a certain prejudice toward vegetarian cuisine here," he says. "Many people are surprised by the variety of textures and flavors I serve."

Before opening Kensho in late 2006, Cabrera was the chef at Bio, which calls itself the city's first "organic restaurant." He continues to use only organic ingredients and updates the menu seasonally. Recently, a mushroom seviche appetizer was followed by tofu steeped in a mandarin and sage reduction with a side of basmati rice and coconut curry. The dessert, called Nirvana Banana, was served warm on crisp philo dough with cacao bean ice cream, marinated red fruits and salty chocolate.

"I wanted to offer gourmet vegetarian food in a relaxing, intimate setting," Cabrera says. To end the evening, he and his wife, Guillermina Diaz, play live bossa nova music.

Newly opened Arevalito, in the hip Palermo Hollywood area, offers a multiethnic vegetarian menu. With mismatched chairs and tables painted in bright colors, the small space is as unpretentious as it is trendy. The day's offerings, displayed on a blackboard, might include Spanish tortilla and gazpacho, Indian curries or Greek salad. Each dish is accompanied by fresh breads -- seven-grain, olive oil, country style -- from the restaurant's bakery, Siete Panes. "People never know what they're going to eat," says chef Carmen Paz, who owned a macrobiotic restaurant in Holland in the 1970s. "I cook with whatever fruits and vegetables are in season and use a lot of grains." She says that she doesn't follow any rules of cuisine and that the only label she feels comfortable with is "meatless."

At VerdeLlama, owner Diego Castro is not opposed to classifications. He calls his place the first "lifefood" restaurant in Argentina. Lifefood, a style of raw food, is a term coined by Manhattan-based health-food guru David Jubb. Castro, who learned from Jubb while living in New York, opened VerdeLlama in 2006. The organic vegetarian raw menu includes "spaghetti" made from strings of zucchini in a tomato, basil and walnut sauce. Drinks include chicory and honey lemonade, ginger tea and almond milkshakes.

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