“Balvanera takes its name from a historic ‘barrio’, or neighborhood, of Buenos Aires where poets, musicians, and creatives once convened.”
—from Balvanera’s website
Our second visit in as many months has already convinced us that six-week-old Balvanera is one of the very best new informal restaurants to open in Manhattan this year. It’s not likely that our remarkable dinners here, during which we cumulatively ate our way through half the menu, could have been a fluke. Certainly not with Gael Greene’s and other raves creating the kind of insider buzz that is bringing in chefs like Aldea’s George Mendes to check out the simple but passionate cooking of chef-owner Fernando Navas, an alum of the kitchens at elBulli, Nobu, and Samba Brands Management (of Sushi Samba fame).
And yet there were several tables open last night when we left the restaurant after an early dinner. Our theory? It’s partly the same reason we thought we’d never even bother visiting Balvanera: We’d read in Laura Catena’s wonderful book Vino Argentino (2010) that the typical portion size at an Argentine meal is 16 ounces(!) of meat per person. (Woof!) And with Americans having decreased their per-capita meat consumption over the past five years (with future declines predicted), meat-driven cuisines appear to be declining in popularity in turn. We certainly weren’t interested in checking out what we’d mistakenly thought might be “yet another steak joint.”
Meredith Boyle and chef-owner Fernando Navas at Balvanera
But while the flavor influences at Balvanera may be Argentinian, the spirit and execution here are lighter and definitely more produce-driven (with several vegetarian options), perhaps “more reflective of women’s sensibility,” suggests the restaurant’s very masculine chef-owner Navas, whose girlfriend Meredith Boyle brings gracious hospitality to the front of the house several nights a week. “We are proud of all of our dishes here, but especially the variety of vegetable-based dishes we offer,” he says.
Left: Empanadas Caseras / Center: Papas Rotas / Right: A Chocolate Dream
As well he should be. The omnivore friend we met at Balvanera last night deemed Navas’s empanadas (we’d ordered the ones with sweet corn, roasted red pepper, provolone, and aji amarillo; 2 for $8) the best he’d ever had. We’d tasted the wonderfully crispy Papas Rotas (served with roasted garlic aioli and pimento; $5) last month, so logic deemed we didn’t need to try them again — but our hearts felt otherwise. They were even better last night.
Fava Y Ricotta Tostadas: Housemade Soft Cheese, English Peas, Lemon Vinaigrette
The Tomates y Fresas salad of heirloom tomatoes, fennel, strawberries, arugula and arrope reduction ($16) turned tomatoes into the fruit our grade school science class taught us they were — while in Navas’s hands, the strawberries found new soulmates in the savory ingredients in this tart but balanced salad. Added to the menu since our last visit, the Fava y Ricotta Tostadas (made with housemade soft cheese, English peas, and lemon vinaigrette; $11) proved to be our favorite fava dish of the season.
We shared the Setas Salteadas ($18), happy to dig into a bed of barley blanketed with meaty yet silky king trumpet, blue foot and shiitake mushrooms and a poached egg, just as our omnivore friend enjoyed his dish from the other side of the menu.
Zanahoria al horno: Roasted Carrots, Queso Fresco, Oranges, Escarole, and Pepitas
We might dub the past year to be “The Year of the Carrot,” having tasted as many extraordinary carrot dishes as we have at Eleven Madison Park (Daniel Humm’s carrot tartare), Narcissa (John Fraser’s carrots Wellington), and Public (Brad Farmerie’s roasted carrots with cauliflower couscous). We’d definitely add Navas’s Zanahoria al Horno, an enchanting tangle of flavors and textures ($10), to that all-star list.
Iced Mate: Brewed Yerba Mate + Lemon + Honey + Sugar
Later last night we were still planning to put finishing touches on the keynote speech we’ll be delivering at the International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC) this coming weekend in Seattle, so we skipped the wine list in favor of Balvanera’s refreshing house summer drink: Iced (Yerba) Mate, which is flavored with lemon, a dash of honey, and a hint of cane sugar, and garnished with a husk cherry, large blackberry, and three slices of lemon. We ordered seconds, along with a dessert to share: a creamy nearly-room temperature chocolate cloud that seemed a cross between a mousse and a ganache, perfectly balanced by a bit of fruit salad and citrus sorbet.
Service at Balvanera is warm and welcoming — maybe because the dining room is serviced by the able and personable husband-and-wife team of (bartender) John and (server) Maren, native Minnesotans who just moved to New York with their Midwestern sweetness intact. We love that these happy couples are adding their homey touch to this corner of the Lower East Side — which we hope more guests will soon treat themselves to the pleasure of experiencing while supporting this outstanding newcomer.
Flavor Pairings & Affinities
Balvanera is at 152 Stanton Street (near Suffolk), on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 212.533.3348. www.balvaneranyc.com