Driving north from Estancia Vik Jose Ignacio, it was a pleasure to putter through the Uruguayan countryside, where rolling pastures are dotted with lean horses and piebald cows and punctuated by stands of oak and eucalyptus trees.
Our destination was Garzón, a tiny town 20 miles north of José Ignacio, which has recently undergone a renaissance at the hands of urbanites from England and the United States, as well as from Buenos Aires. Having succumbed to its charm, these outsiders are busy restoring the old brick houses that line the streets around its tidy main square. Among them is Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, proprietor of El Garzon, a pleasant five-room property with a superb restaurant.
Although not a luxury destination, this distinctive hotel is very comfortable — the air-conditioning works perfectly and there’s plenty of hot water — and also has an irresistible “The Last Picture Show” charm. On our arrival at noon, Guido, a friendly Argentinean, helped us with our bags and settled us into a small but pretty room with a beamed ceiling, a wood-plank floor and faded chintz curtains. To be sure, these lodgings are primarily for people coming to dine in the restaurant who don’t want to worry about Uruguay’s strict drunken driving laws.
Having freshened up, we descended for lunch. This proved to be a superb meal of prawns wrapped in bacon on a bed of tomatoes with red onions in a lemon vinaigrette, and a lamb T-bone with oven-blasted potatoes seasoned with tapenade. The Argentinean wines — a dry Chardonnay-Viognier and a Petit Verdot — were first-rate.
In the afternoon, we took a stroll through the village. As we stopped to admire the flower and vegetable garden behind a nearby house, a child stared at us and shouted. Immediately, his mother and grandmother appeared and invited us inside for a visit. Despite our very limited Spanish, their hospitality had already delighted us when the mother presented us with a jar of homemade plum jam. Beyond the global renown of chef Mallmann, this is the reason to travel to Garzón — it must be one of the sweetest little towns in the Western Hemisphere.
Back at the inn, dinner comprised grilled beets with goat cheese and garlic chips, followed by an excellent steak cooked over a eucalyptus wood fire. It is a testament to the quality of the food that, although we weren’t at all hungry, we thoroughly enjoyed every morsel.
El Garzon Double Room, $480, breakfast included. Camino a la Capilla y Costas de José Ignacio, Pueblo Garzón. Tel. (598) 410-2811.
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