How do you fit the whole world into a single room? Ask chef Gabriel Coquel and he’ll tell you, easy, that room just needs to be a kitchen. This is a man who divides the globe up by regional cuisines and local specialties and through his restaurant Tandory, quietly tucked away in suburban Montevideo, he is fulfilling his self-imposed task of bringing his world of flavors and textures home to Uruguay.
“If you want to get to know me and my restaurant, there’s only one way. We sit, and we eat.” And so we did. We ate, smacked lips, licked fingers and most of all, talked food. We talked our way around the world, re-tracing his steps over the years as he traveled, learned and ate his way through all the major cuisines, firm in his belief that you can’t cook something until you’ve tasted it at the source, made by people who have been doing it all their lives.
Growing up the son of an immigrant Frenchman, baguettes were never absent from the table, pain au chocolat was his school lunch and flavors and herbs foreign to most Uruguayans were commonplace on his dinner table; he had gotten off to a good start. Later he would discover spices from Malaysia working on a cruise ship and then moved on to explore the cuisines and more importantly, the deeply embedded cultures of food in France, Italy and Spain. There he built a crucial foundation under his passion for food and eating, a mantra of sorts, education, dedication, discipline. “Passion is not enough, just because I am the greatest football fan, it doesn’t make me a great player. You need to practice, train and train some more.” (You can’t expect to get through an interview of any decent length in this part of the world without at least one football analogy.)
In 2002 when he had the chance to open up his restaurant he asked himself, what am I going to cook? I’ll cook what I love. What is it that you love? Well… everything.
It was a gamble. Most Uruguayans are spoiled by an abundance of excellent meat, and the best way to cook a great cut of beef is on the fire, with salt, nothing more. Pizza, pizza is good too, and sure there are sauces, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise. Spices? Of course, if really necessary there is pepper. Uruguay is also the proud home of the chivito, easily one of the world’s greatest sandwiches, but its beauty is in its simplicity and quality. The Uruguayan palate even ten years ago was generally quite lacking in imagination and truly creative and interesting fine dining options were limited to a few top hotels, most of them in Punta del Este, the summer playground of the region’s wealthy. Selling the idea of small chunks of raw fish cooked only in lime, chili and coriander was ballsy to say the least.
For two months Gabriel called friends, family, seated them in the windows of his new restaurant and fed them his creations. Then one evening 40 people arrived, filling the place up far beyond capacity, “It was chaos that night, everything delayed by an hour, but we’ve never looked back.”
Ten years on he is still on top, tourists and locals alike pack in every evening, led there by a simple recommendation: Do you want to eat great food? Go to Tandory. Many of his regulars don’t even bother with the menu anymore. While we were tucking into his homemade duck ham (cured and hung for 15 days, sublime), two men walked in, Gabriel leaned back, bellowed a greeting and proceeded to tell them what they were going to enjoy today. They didn’t even flinch, their faith in his choices absolute.
The menu wanders from east to west, north to south across continents; a culinary vagrant of sorts held together by Gabriel’s flawless taste and absolute fidelity to another of his mantras, freshness, freshness, freshness. Other than a few staples his menu changes continually, a slave of the market – whatever looked good on that day and caught his imagination. (“You should see the swordfish I’ve got in the back, it’s going to blow people away for the next few days.”)
But the people don’t just come here for the food; alongside a subtle but impeccable table-service Gabriel wades through the room, expansive and convivial and on a mission to educate his diners. He’ll talk each table through the menu, guiding diners through unfamiliar dishes and when the plate arrives he’ll be right alongside with a tip on how to best enjoy it. The Shepherd’s pie for example, which arrived slow-cooked and golden on our table as our main course, was promptly slashed open at the midriff. The trick, apparently, is good quality Worcestershire Sauce liberally applied to the pie’s steaming innards just before eating. It was perfect.
My tasting menu consisted of:
– Home-made duck ham with rocket and Parmesan
– Sea-scallops gratiné in a tandoori paste with sesame and coriander
– Eight hour slow roasted pork knuckle in a bbq sauce
– Beef and kidney shepherd’s pie with a pastry crust
– A dessert trio of pineapple carpaccio, a pear slow roasted in red wine and the chef’s coconut ice-cream.
– Don Pascual, Selección del Enólogo, an excellent blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tannat. (The wine list at Tandory is expansive and presents a good selection of local wines as well as a smattering of Argentine Malbecs. At the time of my visit, Gabriel mentioned that he was planning on developing a list more closely tied to the food, with suggested pairings for each dish.)
The restaurant is small, intimately lit and tastefully decorated with curios, mostly masks, from Gabriel’s travels. Space is limited so it is advisable to make a reservation. Tandory is open daily for lunch and dinner except for lunches on Saturday and Monday and Sunday night. Look out for midday lunch specials on their website. Prices range between US$10 and US$40. It is easily one of the best and most interesting dining options in Montevideo and well worth spending a little more than the average.
Greg de Villiers, a South African food photographer and travel writer, lives – for now – in Buenos Aires. To see more of his work, visit: gregdevilliers.com. To find out more about his life philosophy, sit yourself down in the most beautiful place you can imagine, with the best bottle of wine you can find, and drink it all; slowly, lovingly but all of it, down to the very. last. drop.