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Dan Perlman and the "Closed Door Restaurant"

November 29th, 2009 | Categoría: Culture

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By Brittany Darwell

Despite the ubiquity of the phrase, “puertas cerradas” (“closed doors”) doesn't fit what Dan Perlman does. Perlman and his partner welcome at least 20 people, most often strangers, into their home each weekend for dinner. Another 12 or so visit for cooking classes during the week.

“Underground restaurant” doesn’t work either. Perlman’s Casa SaltShaker is listed in several city guides and has been mentioned in the New York Times and The Guardian. Entirely legal, with certification posted in the kitchen, “speakeasy” is also far from appropriate.

That’s why Perlman calls his in-home restaurant “a salon for food and conversation.” No pretense of mystery or exclusivity. Perlman wants people to know just what a SaltShaker evening entails: a communal table and five courses with wine pairings by a professional chef/sommelier.

“We get people who’ve read about us or got the number from a friend, and they have no clue what they’re getting into,” Perlman said. (See his comprehensive FAQ page.)The dinners, usually held two nights a week, are often inspired by obscure “on this day” events, such as John Calvin’s 500th birthday or the Macedonian revolution. Perlman is the sole person in the kitchen, so he comes out when he can but mostly to describe the dishes and wine pairings. What he hopes will happen is that the guests embrace the communal setup and get to know each other.

Sharing a table with strangers and the absence of menu options can throw off some, but in three and a half years, Casa SaltShaker has become one of the best-known in-home restaurants. In Buenos Aires, they are called restaurantes a puertas cerradas, but Perlman says that is a recent term. Although many articles have talked about Casa SaltShaker as part of a growing trend, operations like Perlman’s have been around for decades. Mis Raices, for instance, started serving dinners more than 30 years ago and still does every night.

If anything, “there’s a new trend of talking to the press about it,” Perlman said.

Perlman knows of at least 20 such restaurants in Buenos Aires, and he keeps a list of others he knows of in the world. He said the g

rowth of underground restaurants elsewhere is more of a trend.

“They’re popping up in London like mushrooms after a rainstorm.”

Whether it’s the “hip” factor or the economic downturn, home restaurants are on the rise in the U.S., Europe and the U.K., but Perlman said they are a lasting tradition in South America. Perlman said that has a lot to do with local codes being easier to comply with than those in places like New York City.

“Here it’s part of the culture,” Perlman said. “Here they’re legal as long as you comply with restaurant codes.”

So what started as dinner parties for friends has turned into a full-fledged business. Shortly after starting Casa SaltShaker the restaurant, Perlman began teaching cooking classes in his home. He currently offers lessons about Italian, Peruvian, Syrian Jewish and vegetarian Asian cuisine, among others. He teaches three to four people at a time — there isn’t room for more in his narrow kitchen, but it also ensures students are cooking, not just watching.

The atmosphere is casual. The class is not about observing a master in action; it is more like having a knowledgeable friend guide you in the kitchen. Perlman introduces the day’s theme, goes over the menu, then delegates tasks. He demonstrates techniques (removing skins from fire-roasted peppers), explains processes (how salt breaks down cell membranes) and answers questions (How do you get the garlic smell off your hands? With lemon).

When the meal is done, students and teacher sit down to eat.

“With the dinners I’m in there cooking so I don’t get to know people well,” Perlman said. “But with the classes I do.”

In between classes and dinners, Perlman finds time to write. He has a food blog, does freelance travel writing and has begun the Casa SaltShaker cookbook.

But with people coming over for dinner or classes four or five times a week, when Perlman’s door is closed, he is most likely at the market.

Make reservations for dinner or cooking lessons at CasaSaltShaker.com. You can also read Perlman’s blog (http://saltshaker.net) and follow him on Twitter(http://twitter.com/casasaltshaker).

*Brittany Darwell spent three months in Buenos Aires after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism this year. She writes about food at HeCooksSheCooks.net.

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15 Comments

[...] more from my interview with Perlman at The Argentine Post. [...]

rmartinNo Gravatar says:

I am completely flabbergasted that this place is constantly getting positive reviews! It is mediocre food at best, way overpriced, no air conditioning in the summer when it is humid, simply a fan and poor service. Dan and his Peruvian partner want the money and the guests out as soon as the last course is served.

This is EVERYONE’S opinion that I know who have been there. Save your money people.

DanNo Gravatar says:

I hesitate to even respond, yet once again to “rmartin”, so let me keep it simple. R, you came to dinner, as best I can tell, over three years ago, once. You didn’t enjoy yourself, and you’ve spent the last three years seeking out mentions of Casa SaltShaker and posting virtually the same message as above, time and again. I’ve apologized to you more than once that we apparently had an off-night when you came, though I don’t know when it was, I invited you to return, gratis, in hopes of making it up to you, and your responses to that have been vitriolic to the point where your posts have been removed from more than one site as inappropriate. I don’t know what, in particular your problem is with us, other than one “mediocre” experience, but really, enough is enough. We got it. We’ve grown, we’ve changed over the last three years, in response to commentary from many customers, both positive and negative – that’s how a business improves. Anyone can make a mistake, the test is how they respond to it, and I think the 20-30 people a week who come to dinner, many of them guests who come time and again, are testimony that we’ve been successful at creating a good environment and decent quality food at a fair price. Believe me, if this was only about money, this would not be the business we’d be in.

rmartinNo Gravatar says:

Mr. Perlman—

Bad experience shared by all I know. Same now as three years ago. It IS about the money on your behalf. I am simply voicing by displeasure and advising others. If you only want positive feeback, then don’t seek the publicity. It is still a democracy (sort of) the last time I checked. For a similar price, people can thoroughly enjoy a pleasant atmosphere, GRACIOUS service and impeccable food at “Sottovoce” for example. Thanks…I decline your invitation. BTW…you never apologized. No problem. Bitten once, your fault…bitten twice, my own.

AlanNo Gravatar says:

rmartin,

If Dan was really in it just for the money, do you think he’d really have set this up in Argentina, charging in Argentine pesos? Also, 100 pesos for a 5 course tasting meal is I’m sure a lot less than you’d pay for meal at Sottovoce. Are they in it just for the money?

I have to say, I have never been to Casa Saltshaker (it’s on my long list of things to do in Buenos Aires), but I know that if I do go and don’t like it (although I think that is unlikely from the good feedback I hear from most people) then I certainly wouldn’t be complaining about the place on line for years after I go. That stinks of a personal vendetta, and is entirely uncalled for.

Alan

rmartinNo Gravatar says:

Funny you don’t know me OR the “restaurant” implied so it is quite odd for someone to give their input who knows nothing about either. Go. Enjoy. I could care less. I love the expats here who are making money of other expats. It speaks for itself.

AlanNo Gravatar says:

rmartin,

I don’t have to have been to Casa Saltshaker to know that what you are doing is uncalled for. I don’t need to know you to say that either – I am just making an observation in a blog comment based on what I have read here – and have come to a very simple and obvious conclusion.

Good day to you sir, and please consider you actions before trying to blacken the name of someone’s business all over the internet.

Alan

I went a while back with an Argentine couple. We actually live here and the rest of the people we dined with that night were tourist. I still remember the meal and on paper I was not looking forward to it, but once I tried it I was pleasantly surprised.

I remember having a salmon empanada. The Argentine couple I was with did not like the empanada dough, but we all really liked the stuffing (I didn’t mind the dough). I am normally not a big salmon fan so I was really glad this turned out yummy.

Next up was a stuffed cabbage. Again, it’s not something that I would look forward to, but it was fantastic. We also had fun talking to the people that we shared the table with.

Just like the article states above, Dan was in the Kitchen for the most part and Henry serves the food. Henry does not know English so you are not going to get a conversation from him unless you speak Spanish. But then again, it’s these two guys working in the Kitchen and the conversation should really be taking place amongst the people at the table.

I for one had a great time and would still recommend it. The menu always changes and you don’t know who you are going to be sitting next to, but then again, that’s not such a bad thing to look forward to.

Faith Kr says:

My friend and I attended Casa Saltshaker this past March. The theme of the night was Vietnamese, and I remember being disappointed since we were in Argentina we were not going to get a more regional menu. That was the last disappointment of the evening.

Calling Casa Saltshaker a salon is really accurate. The night we ate there the guests were from Scandinavia, Canada (a couple that lived part time in Buenos Aires, and the man was originally a Porteno), several European countries and from the states.
I think I gobbled up the conversation more than the food. The guests seemed to take turns forming little discussion groups and sharing their adventures in B.A. and the world at large. It was a heady experience. The food was good with some dishes more successful than others but truly the evening was about meeting and sharing with new people.

Dan and Henry were gracious and Dan made himself available to mingle and talk whenever he could.

It was a very personal and personnable experience and one I would not hesitate to recommend to others. I am looking forward to looking for similar dining experiences whenever I travel now. And I hope to travel back to BA sometime again and drop by Casa Saltshaker for another memorable experience.

I should mention that we found the price (with wine) very, very reasonable for the quality and quantity of the food and for the fact that being at Casa Saltshaker was truly an evening’s entertainment.

Faith KramerNo Gravatar says:

fyi — the post labeled from Faith Kr is mine — it posted before I had finished entering the required info

Brian EllisNo Gravatar says:

I went to Casa SaltShaker in September 2008 – It was my #1 thing to do while there (Evita came in second – Sorry!), and a major reason I chose BA specifically to take a trip to.

The atmosphere was wonderful, and although a sociable person, I was a little worried that the other guests might not join in the conversation, but by the time the first course came, everyone was chatting merrily with one another, even despite language barriers.

The food was gorgeous and I ate every bit (member of the clean plate club here!), and the wines went wonderfully with each course. I was nicely stuffed by the end.

I would recommend Dan’s place to anyone in BA – he’s a gracious host, a wonderful fount of culinary and wine knowledge, and a great personality too.

Having a bunch of strangers come together over a good meal is a wonderful thing to see. It’s true how eating together lowers social barriers and the fronts we put up against the world. If we were all sat at separate tables as in most restaurants, it would not be the same. All sitting together creates a kind of community feel and hearkens back to something I feel we as a society have lost over the years.

The next time I’m down in Argentina, I will definitely be stopping by again!

Anonymous says:

My name is Andres Rosberg, I have worked in the restaurant and wine businesses for many years and I am the head of the Argentine Sommelier Association.

I have been to Casa Saltshaker and know Dan and Henry. Food and service have been consistently good, with ambiance depending a little bit on who goes there that night, and whether you can speak both Spanish and English. The wine list is not very long, yet you are welcome to bring your own or to take Dan’s recommendation of different wines by the glass impeccably paired with each course. I actually believe you get a pretty good value when you go.

Lastly, it is widely accepted in the restaurant business that no serious restaurant reviewer can criticize an establishment -particularly if it is going to be such a mean comment- without trying the restaurant at least two or three times. Plus, with a magazine or a newspaper at least you know who is doing it. It is easy to be cynical when you are anonimous, too… rmartin, would you please tell us who you are and what your credentials are?

SheilaNo Gravatar says:

I had one of the best dining experiences I have ever had last August at Casa Saltshaker, not just because the five-course meal was outstanding, but the people around the table created great conversation chemistry. No one wanted to leave, and we were blissfully allowed to carry on chattering and sipping lovely wines well into the wee hours of the morning. “Dan and his Peruvian partner” were excellent and gracious hosts, who did an amazing job of taking care of all of us and making us feel welcome until the last. Wanting more, I signed up for a cooking class with Dan a few days later. No regrets here! I will definitely return on my next trip to Buenos Aires. My compliments to the chef!

RitaNo Gravatar says:

My husband and I had the great pleasure of enjoying a meal at Casa Saltshaker a few weeks ago. It was a Brazilian themed evening, and one of the best meals we had during our visit to Argentina.
Each course was well prepared and presented, and paired with an appropriate (and tasty) wine.
The guests were a varied group, with Canada, Finland, Scotland, New Zealand, Argentina, and the U.S. represented.

I highly recommend a visit to Casa Saltshaker!

I am so happy I came across this, I am planning a trip in May and was looking for some good places to eat. The first few comments seemed sketchy, but the later ones really changed my mind, I will be trying it for myself soon!

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