Adhering to the mantra “if you build it they will come”, renowned Argentine chef Francis Mallmann opened Garzon, a restaurant with 5 hotel rooms in the inland pueblo of Garzon, Uruguay--truly in the middle of nowhere! To say Garzon resembles a ghost town out of a John Wayne movie would not be an exaggeration: you can almost see the tumbleweeds rolling down the streets. Most come for a long leisurely lunch, others for dinner, to experience the food cooked over an open fire that Mallmann, Argentina’s biggest celebrity chef, is known for. In the simplest terms: he did build it, and they do come.
If you’re looking for an activity head to Bodega Garzon. This beautifully landscaped winery is just three miles outside town. From well-respected winemaker Alberto Antonini, it’s part of a 10,000-acre ranch. Taste the delicious reserve form tannat, the local grape.
I was so disappointed that Lucifer was closed for lunch on the day we were there. Opened by Lucía Soria, a young chef from Buenos Aires, this casual spot set in the shady garden of her home garners rave reviews. We were even willing to forgo our included lunch for an opportunity to dine there. A reason to go back!
Location: From Jose Ignacio the drive is approximately 60 minutes through beautiful countryside. Housed in an old brick hacienda on one corner of the small town square, the restaurant is half indoors and half outdoors in a lovely garden around a pool. The style: half gaucho, half fine dining.
Stay: On our previous visit we had a lovely lunch at Garzon, and this time we decided to spend the night. As we were two families, we took up 4 of the 5 rooms; it was like having our own house. I don’t know why I was so surprised by my room and stay at Garzon; I hadn’t been expecting much, but knowing that Mallman restaurants all have incredible style, that he lives life with such dash, and that his own personal style is quite fashionable, it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. The rooms are simple and rustic, yet chic, with very comfortable beds. The staff couldn’t be nicer, and we immediately felt right at home. A couple from Brazil occupied the fifth room and by the end of dinner in the garden, lots of laughs, and Garzon wine, we were all fast friends.
All Included: Eating at the restaurant is expensive; it’s actually a good deal to stay overnight. The rate includes your lodging, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Plus all your drinks—beer, wine and cocktails! Uruguay has very strict drunk driving laws, we saw the police out stopping cars every night, another good reason to check in. (Arrange a driver if you’re coming just for a meal.)
Fire: To my husband and his BBQ buddies Mallmann’s Seven Fires cookbook is their bible. They’ve patiently cooked his whole lamb for an entire day, splayed out on an iron cross over a handmade wood fired pit. They’ve staked salmons on sticks around a fire in what looked like some religious ceremony. So, it was a thrill for my husband to eat at Garzon and to stay the night. When I couldn’t find him, he was hanging with the cooks in the kitchen watching.
Eat: Everyone comes to eat, and you eat well. A breakfast of slowly cooked scrambled eggs, more like a polenta, with grilled tomatoes. Lunch and dinner of grilled octopus, gazpacho, langoustines on the plancha with grapefruit and arugula, a salad of raw zucchini with almonds and mint, delicious squash raviolis light as air, and steak with the best chimichurri. Mallmann’s chimichurri, which is basically on every table in Uruguay, was the best I had; you’ll want the recipe for your summer barbeques! I loved all the vegetables, cooked in the fire till they are almost burnt, and the smashed potatoes with tapenade. I found the food at lunch was better than dinner, and the meat a little tough. Though it’s the same menu, at lunch the house is packed, it’s much quieter at dinner so perhaps the kitchen works better at full steam.
Relax: Sit by the pool or on the loungers in the shade. The bartender makes amazing cocktails, non-alcoholic as well using fresh juices. Ask him for his specialties. Read your book or borrow a book from the library if you forgot own of your own.
Wander: Get out there and walk around Garzon, it’s surreal. We passed a horse just out for a walk by itself down the main street. Around one corner there were sheep’s in the yard, wild turkeys and pigs, cows in the fields. Another yard had tons of old cars, and across from it a house with the most beautiful flowers. We didn’t know what to expect at each turn. Others have followed Mallmann and set up shop. Alium sells chic made in Uruguay clothes, blankets and ponchos. There’s a cute Italian restaurant and 3 Mundos, an eclectic design shop, newly opened this season.
Not for Everyone: Friends who we were with in Jose Ignacio had gone for lunch the previous day to Garzon, returning and incredulously asking us if we were really going to sleep in “the ghost town.” And it’s definitely not for everyone. I think you need to relish food experiences, rustic charm rather than perfection, and a chance to experience the quieter countryside compared to the beach towns of Punta del Este. It was an experience! While some of the food was uneven, Garzon was charming, unique, hip, yet old world and we loved it for a short stay.