Time stops. You can’t seem to remember what day it is and you don’t really care anyway. Your mind is shaken clear of deadlines, of meetings, of money and what fills the newly vacant space is an overwhelming appreciation for everything around you and a pointed attention to the detail in those things. Rays of gentle sunshine hitting and melting against the back of your neck while a cool breeze licks them off your skin. The healthy green of grass and leaves, the tired, languid blue of painted wood, the intense plum-purple of freshly-picked grapes nearby. Early afternoon white-light dancing around the edge of crystalline wine glasses, the practiced and graceful bend with which the woman fills these with crispy-fresh blonde. The cozy-warm and comforting smile of your companion, the bored glances from a very spoiled collie dog. The clean, open-air silence periodically interrupted by the happy chatter of nearby strangers which grows feint as your senses zoom in on what has just been placed before you and goes altogether mute when you take your first bite.
An all-too-rare kind of experience (at least for me) – when it is the energy of the place that grabs and shakes you and the food is just the vehicle through which that is done. That is to say – each bite helped me understand the tranquility around me and chameleon to become part of it.
This happened to me at Narbona Bodega y Granja outside of Carmelo, Uruguay. Founded in 1909, this place seems to have kind of stuck in that era; simplicity is its highest virtue. Soft pastel colors, worn black and white tiles, fresh fruit snoozing in wooden carts displayed to give one something to gaze at. Leafy vines form a living roof above the restaurant, covering it in cool shade while the sun shines in from the side. Lush vineyard a few steps away, old-school winery next to it, store selling home-made dulce de leche in plywood cartons and home-made yoghurt in glass bottles next to that.
When the bread came out and it was moist and warm and relentlessly fresh I knew what would follow would not disappoint. And the first sip of their crisp and clean, slightly-frizzy, pleasantly dry Viognier confirmed this premonition. Every time the waitress appeared through that musky yellow door, I would scan her bust shamelessly, my eyes impatiently investigating what the next bites would contain. These are what came:
Flaky and thin olive oil crisps layered with juicy-sweet, thick rounds of what was obviously a just-picked tomato and fluffy white home-made buffalo mozzarella, topped off with a vibrant green line of basil pesto (made with VERY good quality olive oil) which permeated each bite with fresh garden flavor and flirted sexily with its familiar partners. A simple and traditional flavor combo but made with happy and real individual ingredients.
Next came a showcase of Narbona’s charismatic house-made cheeses: Thin slices of velvet-soft, slightly smokey (almost pork-y) mozzarella curled up into bite-sized ribbons. Melty, flavorful but not too sharp, porous colonia served in triangular Swiss-like shape. Aged and aromatic provolone with a nice herb crust on either side. Adorable little bumps of crumbly, dry bufala with a sour twang reminiscent of a sheep milk cheese sitting in a speck of that deliciously smooth olive oil, dusted with cracked black pepper with a swirl of reduced balsamic nearby to give it a bit of extra depth. The highlight for me was the hearty, rustic, asymmetrical and un-carved chunks of aged parmesano, poignant and nutty in flavor, crumbly and very light in body. The parmesan also appeared in a feisty red smoked pepper dust coating as well as in a plain triangle, no doubt to show the versatility of this cheese.
A sampler of three styles of house-made, ultra-artisanal pasta. An eggy, flat, rough tagliatelle with a chunky, tomatoey (though slightly under-salted) Bolognese heaped on top. A pair of flat, slightly chewy spinach ravioli with a chunky, zesty herbed tomato sauce and two plump round, soft ravioli packed with soft ricotta, smothered in a calmer, smoother, creamy tomato sauce.
There were two pizzas on the menu: 1) mozzarella, and 2) whatever the chef is in the mood to make (specifying allergies and dislikes, of course). I wish the second option were available at more great restaurants more often as it allows the chef to get creative and make something in his own image while also alleviating me of the burden of selecting from the many mouth-watering menu items. I made the right choice with this. The dough was the absolute perfect thickness for me (not a la piedra but also not the undercooked overly-bready PIE that I’m used to in BsAs…), with fantastically crunchy edges (with that same awesome olive oil that appeared with the cheeses). The mozzarella melted beautifully and formed velvety smooth, gooey, salty traps for the sweaty onions on each slice, echoing a fugazetta-type harmony between the two. Salty, smokey, crisped ribbons of prosciutto blanketed the cheese and rustic patches of torn basil were sprinkled on top. The slices were moved around a bit and served with one having its edge sticking out and one its soft interior. This both made the dish visually more interesting and threw off my expectations for each bite, adding an element of surprise.
The Narbona Postre had no explanation given on the menu; it was a “trust me, it’s good” kind of thing so I had no idea what it would be or what would make it Narbona’s signature dessert until it was in front of me. An impossibly fluffy, airy and creamy mousse of their house-made dulce de leche, not too sweet or sticky (as in my opinion store-bought dulce de leche generally is), with a sweetened and thickened dark mauve Narbona Tannat reduction drizzled all over. A funky chocolate lattice fan stuck on the top. The marriage of flavors was mesmerizing, with the very slight acidity and general taste depth of the wine reduction cutting the mild, dumb-naive sweetness of the dulce de leche. What a great way to showcase the harmony between three of their products (d.d.l., cream, wine)!
I’m usually not a big yoghurt gal, but this was definitely an exception and one to appreciate. Not on the menu, you just kind of have to know that the place also happens to make its own artisanal ambrosia and ask for it. I was lucky enough to visit the place with someone who had this one product on his mind I’m pretty sure the entire time…And now I can see why. This stuff, no doubt made fresh from the teat-juice of the place’s very own cows, is so silky smooth, you barely need to swallow it, it just kind of slips through your mouth and down your throats on its own. Sweet with only a tad of tang, with a beautifully clear, glossy white color. The bits of strawberries the waitress brought out with this special request were wonderful. I can imagine this stuff goes perfectly with just about every fruit.
I was left incredibly satisfied, wanting only for a bed or hammock to nap in afterwards, partly for being full and partly as an excuse not to have to leave this wonderful bubble of serenity. It is meals like this that stay with me for life.