When you think of Argentinian food, your mind’s eye probably goes immediately to glistening slabs of beef. Yes, the steak is good. But Chef Fernando Navas wants his new Lower East Side restaurant, Balvanera, to “open a new road into Argentine cuisine in New York.”
“If you see menus from five Argentine restaurants, they’re probably going to have 80% of the menu the same,” he explains. “This is an Argentine cuisine from my point of view, and taking into consideration my career. It’s very personal.”
For Navas, who has done stints at haute-dining temples such as El Bulli and Nobu, that means dishes that draw on the sophisticated cuisine of Buenos Aires (which is heavily influenced by Italian and Spanish roots), but also the earthier dishes of the north—a region that shares more geographic and gastronomic similarities with Bolivia and Peru.
So quinoa is there, not because it is by now de rigeur in New York’s trendiest restaurants, but because it is grown in the north of Argentina. Sweetbreads make an appearance, as does burrata, octopus, and empanadas (“one of our signature dishes”). And, inevitably, a variety of pastas and meats—including a housemade morcilla, or blood sausage. Navas will also be sticking to the tradition of eating gnocchi (or ñoquis as they’re known in Argentina) on the 29th of each month, by offering a gnocchi special on that date.
Compared to the smattering of other Argentine restaurants in New York, most of which are parillas (a typical Argentine steakhouse), Balvanera is pleasingly amenable to vegetarians and pescetarians. And in winter, the heartier dishes of the north will become more prominent.
Navas is also hoping to make use of Argentine products, where possible. Although there are currently severe restrictions on beef import, he plans to bring in cheeses and oil made from the indigenous Arauco olive. Artwork is still to come, as is the liquor license (“it should be a matter of days,” according to Navas).
Balvanera is named for a historic neighborhood in Buenos Aires where, according to Navas, bohemians flocked in the ’20s and ’30s, and where tango—the sexy, erotic tango that we know today—was being developed. Poets, writers, musicians, and immigrants from all over mingled in Balvanera’s cabarets and cafés, in a manner similar to those in New York’s own melting pot—the Lower East Side.
Like the LES, Balvanera has since been carved into the up-and-coming barrios of Abasto, Once and Retiro. “Even young people in Buenos Aires don’t know where is Balvanera,” says Navas, with a twinkle. “So for me, it’s magical.”
Balvanera, 152 Stanton Street, at the corner of Suffolk. Open daily for dinner from 6pm until midnight.