Three chefs update Argentine fare at Azul

The new culinary team at Azul: Hernán Simesen (l.), head chef Nicolás López (c.) and Matías Romano

The new culinary team at Azul: Hernán Simesen (l.), head chef Nicolás López (c.) and Matías Romano (Photo/Erika Rojas)

For empanadas, skirt steak and the meat fiesta known as parrillada, there are plenty of options among the many reliable Argentine restaurants in the city.

But as any recent Buenos Aires traveler knows, the culinary offerings from the southern end of the Americas are much broader and diverse.

“I want to explain to Americans that Argentinean cuisine is a lot more than just parrillada and wine,” says Stefano Villa, the owner of Azul, a cozy restaurant with blue-washed brick walls at the corner of Stanton and Suffolk Sts. on the lower East Side.

Azul is marking its 10th anniversary by reinventing its once-traditional Argentine menu, bringing in other staples from the countryside – from wild boar to venison – and cooking them with a contemporary twist.

The revolution started one evening a year ago when a young man with long, dark curly hair and a multitude of questions came to have dinner with his girlfriend.

A few days later, the enigmatic diner, Nicolás López, returned with his résumé in hand. Only 27 and originally from Salta in northwestern Argentina, López already had almost a decade of cooking experience in South America. His last job had been as head chef in the restaurant of the Argentine embassy in CaracasVenezuela.

“I put him in charge very fast,” says Villa. “He does the job New York-style. He gives you no time to think.”

The Italian-born Villa, who also owns Industria Argentina and is a partner in Novecento, two other Argentine eateries, opened Azul in December 2001 after traveling in Argentina and falling in love with the country’s cuisine.

His new chef’s next move was to recruit two more chefs back home with fresh ideas for his revolution: A former cooking school classmate, Hernán Simesen, 27, also from Salta, who worked with chef Fernando Trocca at Sucre – a top-tier restaurant in Buenos Aires – and a friend of a friend, Matías Romano, 28, from Buenos Aires, who was mentored by an Argentinian TV cooking show personality, Juliana López May.

“The concept that the three of us have is to feel pride in Argentina,” says López, who finished putting his team together last month. “We simply work with our ideas mixed with the recipes of our aunts and grandmothers.”

The new chefs bring elements from all different parts of this area. There are red and blue potatoes and quinoa from the Andes and wild boar and venison from Patagonia. There’s also seafood, like sea bass from the Falkland Islands and South American king crab, known as centolla.

Dishes include López’s favorite: braised lamb tongue, rabbit confit served with an apple slaw, venison carpaccio and boar with quince sauce.

The restaurant has not only revamped its menu and website, but has been airing the Copa America soccer games and is participating in NYC Restaurant Week, both going on through July 24.

Despite all the changes, Villa says plenty of traditional beef remains on the menu, along with a a wide variety of Argentine wines.

“We are only adding recipes,” he explains.

Originally published in the NY Daily News.

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