September 8, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Balvanera: An Argentine Dance on Stanton Street

Fatty, of course, it’s a rib-eye, but maybe too salty, never mind what Robert Duvall said.
Fatty, of course, it’s a rib-eye, but maybe too salty, never mind what Robert Duvall said.

          Vegetarian friends called to say they loved Balvanera. From that I knew I’d find enough options to feed a hungry vegan. Also it was Argentine, named for a neighborhood in Buenos Aires, suggesting options for carnivores too. We pulled up outside the tall front windows in a monsoon, struggled to open an umbrella and ducked inside…in just those few seconds, I’d been soaked through my raincoat. The place was empty. Had I lured my fussy uptown pals all the way to this Lower East Side unknown on a flighty whim?

Looking good from the street but empty when we arrive. Some scattered tables fill.

          Adding yet another blow, the promised craft cocktails did not exist. The liquor license had yet to materialize. Were we desperate enough to set out swimming through the swollen rivers outside in search of a liquor store?

Grilled peaches, almonds and a hustle of greens enhance the burrata on a summer night.

          “Can’t we call Uber?” I ask. Could we send Uber for a bottle of vodka? I don’t carry a smartphone. I’m not smart enough. But everyone else does. We gave in to the elements and ordered papas rotas -- crispy potatoes -- to nibble while deciding if we should move out once the hail let up. They were wonderful. We spooned up the greens -- arugula and basil -- and grilled peaches atop Maplebrook burrata, finding nuggets of chopped almond, a perfect balance of sweet and fat and foliage. Thick slices of ciabatta came, lightly oiled, toasted on the grill.

After the fine pickle amuse, a side of crispy and spicy patatas fritas fuels the decision to stay.

          A carafe of a decent red, and another of a shivering white appeared. And two corn empanadas, the inevitable savory snack of Argentina -- the pastry wrap impressively crumbly, the corn filling fresh and crunchy. We’d asked for two orders, but perhaps the server had not understood. We cut each in half for our foursome.

Orange and a reduced grape potion add nuance to sweetbreads cooked the way sweetbreads should be.

          The sweetbreads tasted like sweetbreads. I have to say that since the innard truth of sweetbreads is so often lost in batter and grease these days. Balvanera’s mollejas were wondrously soft and crispy too, a flavorful tossup with arugula and sectioned orange. The rain had let up -- a few warriors of the storm arrived to claim tables -- but we weren’t going anywhere. This food was too good.

Argentina is about beef and sausages but have the pescada of the day if you must.

           The “Pescado del Dia” with “market whim” looked rather prim after fileting, but the salad alongside  of shaved fennel, orange, black radish and bright green Castelvetrano olives was vibrant and compelling. I already felt that I’d eaten enough with my share of the bucatini -- long, fat noodles with favas and English peas in a rich Parmesan cream. 

Skirt steak comes with half a bulb of garlic, excellent papas fritas, and two sauces, chimi and creole.

          But I took just one slice of the skirt steak, dragged a cut of it through the chimichurri sauce and a spoonful of mixed peppers creole style I dropped on my plate. It was marvelous, chewy and tasty, but I knew very well, the next bite might be the one-too-many.

          Not that I would resist the intense freshness of a perfectly ripe strawberry layered atop the passion fruit flan that arrived after a few minutes. It had that custardy substance I recall from Spanish flans, unlike many bland and wimpy panna cottas that are the fashion now.

Warriors having fled the storm settle in at Balvanera, where doors are flung open in the lull.

          I was a little annoyed to discover that the eager young woman -- an excellent and tireless server -- who had taken my sodden raincoat had apparently rolled it into a ball somewhere instead of hanging it up to dry. But that is not the reason I hesitated to write about dinner. The fact is, it seemed risky. One meal -- a half-dozen good dishes -- was not enough to send fervent food fans creeping downtown in tunnel traffic to Stanton Street.

You don’t need a tango turn to feel the heat radiating from chef Fernando Navas. Or was that me?

          Granted, the chef -- solid and stunning (I can’t help but notice) -- certainly has credentials -- Nobu in Miami and chef de cuisine at Sushi Samba. He was one of 50 out of 6000 applicants chosen for a four-month stage at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. And the good news is that the Adrià exposure does not seem to have led to noticeable tricks at Balvanera. At least, not so far. Anyway, I thought it best to wait till the wine license kicked in to return and taste more.

The house’s chorizo with Parmesan will give you a new plateau to judge chorizo. And just $6.

          I was sad to see the place empty when we arrived last Thursday. Is Balvanera too serious for Orchard Street regulars? I wonder. A shade too expensive? Starters $5 to $16 (for King Salmon crudo), pastas at $17 and $18, steaks $26 to $39 seem reasonable to me given the aggressiveness of most pricing uptown.

Empanada, ubiquitous in Argentina, gets a master’s hand with the pastry, and the roast beef is moist.

          The advertised cocktail program -- showcasing wine and sherry -- was still in limbo, so we ordered a carafe of Tempranillo and a glass of white wine. We’d been given small timbales of wonderful pickles as an amuse last time. Now, nothing. The skimpy $5 saucer of olives would have been a perfect giveaway. The kitchen was out of the quinoa salad. The same smiling waitress pointed out what was new on the menu.

I loved the roasted carrots with orange and these mushrooms too – with a poached egg on top to smash.

          And then the seduction began, with excellent classic country pâté studded with pistachios, handsomely served on a board with grilled bread, the missing pickles, cornichons and radish, and grainy mustard. As before, the empanadas showed a master’s hand -- chopped roast beef with bits of hard-boiled egg tonight, moist inside, outside fresh and delicate.

A generous portion of perfectly cooked octopus, topped with tapenade, sits on bean purée.

          Unlike the stingy cuts of octopus I’ve been noticing around town, the house’s pulpo de playa coiled around and around -- tender inside, but not too, edges deliciously caramelized. Given the dish’s pallares bean purée, dots of smoked pepper sauce and olive tapenade on top, you could say it was over-accessorized, or you could just concede it was brilliantly dressed. The latter is my vote.

          Three kinds of mushrooms -- the big ones incised for extra tenderness -- come in an iron skillet with toasted croutons and a poached egg to smash on top. Just as I was about to ask for a serving spoon, the waitress delivered one.

Ricotta cavatelli are homemade too, tossed with tomato confit, favas and Sardinian pecorino.

          Rib-eye is fatty, no surprise. I asked to have it rare, cut in inch-wide slices. Alas, my slice from the middle was glazed with a last minute sprinkling of Maldon crystals. I got a mouthful of salt. My companions didn’t mind at all. “I love salt,” said Diane. Perhaps the rest of the steak got a less concentrated dose.

          (But no need to listen to me. It was actor Robert Duvall who said it: “One thing I like about Argentina, they only cook with salt; that’s it.” )

           I’d had my share of fat already -- a chunk of the fine house-made chorizo and most of the unusually lush blood sausage my pals had tasted and rejected. Both sausages are large, just $6, and came with a flat of roasted red pepper. You won’t find me complaining about fat.

Long, fat bucatini gets tossed with favas and pancetta in rich and buttery, Parmesan cream.

          Meanwhile, I wrestle some of that marvelous bucatini onto my plate. It’s al dente and creamy, with wonderful fresh favas (the chef had warned there were no English peas anymore). I also like the handmade ricotta cavatelli -- tossed with tomato confit, favas, spinach and sheep’s milk pecorino from Sardinia.

          I am beyond dessert, but not my friend Garry. “Let us look at the dessert list,” his wife says.

The favorite gelato flavor of Argentina, dulce de leche, makes a sweet ending.

          “I am the dessert list,” the server, Ana Paula, responds with a grin. Flan. Chocolate. Sorbet. She recites a short roster. We share a serving of dulce de leche gelato -- the favorite flavor of Argentina. A gooseberry still attached to its flutter of husk decorates the dish. A couturier touch you might not expect.

          This week Fernando Navas plans to add an affogato with chocolate on top. And maybe a white chocolate cremant. And more vegetables -- “done the Spanish way,” he offers. I say don’t wait for the next monsoon to make this detour.


152 Stanton Street between Norfolk and Suffolk (on the NW corner of Suffolk.) 212 533 3348. Sunday through Wednesday, 5 to 11 pm. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, till midnight.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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