By Luann & Daniel
There’s a twinkle in his eye as he talks about his native country and its culinary traditions, and satisfaction on his face as he surveys his busy Wall Street restaurant. Argentina, Hugo Garcia says, is a center of culture, traditions, values and flavors – all of which are embodied in Café Buenos Aires.
Though he has lived in Huntington for more than 30 years now, Hugo is a restaurateur of another mold. His sharp gray suit picks up the salt-and-pepper highlights of his hair; his smile evokes Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
“I love what I do. This is my passion,” he says, arms outstretched to present to us a table filled with dishes from Café Buenos Aires’ kitchen.
Café Buenos Aires’ menu is mostly Argentinean with some dishes of Spanish and Italian influences. Tapas and appetizers range from $3-$17; entrees, $17-$32.
The dishes on the table in front of us are samplings of some of Hugo’s favorites. They seem to match his personality: colorful, vibrant and exciting. Everything looks so perfect that we don’t know where to begin, so we swish our glasses of Catena Malbec, hoping the Argentinean wine will give us a starting point.
The wine points us to a new item: pork belly, decorated with sweet potatoes, figs, and the mysterious kumquat fruit, in a Grand Marnier sauce. The hint of orange and sweetness of the figs pairs nicely with the tender meat, and the dish is an easy favorite.
The plate of tapas next catches our eye. Today we have a sampler plate – similar to five-for-$14 sampler served at lunch – of a few popular items: center-cut yellowfin tuna served sushi style; albondigas (classic meatballs, $10 a la carte); torta de cangrejo (crab cake with saffron aioli, $14 a la carte); and camarones rellenos (jumbo shrimp stuffed with provolone, wrapped in bacon, breaded and sautéed, two for $12). The shrimp is a personal favorite, but all the tapas bring their own unique flavors to the party, and most importantly, are sharable.
An assortment of empanadas will always win over the table. Fashioned into various shapes depending on the filling, empanadas are meant to be explored. Work through all the choices (ham and cheese, beef, cream of corn or chicken, $3 each) and decide which is your favorite. Another easy-to-share dish is the fondue de quesos con carne (cheese fondue with assorted meats, $12). The cuts of meat at Café Buenos Aires are all tops; you will almost feel guilty dousing them with cheese.
The peppercorn sauce, however, is another story. A small cup came with a plate of grilled meat; it is mild, but gives that little punch when you want a little something extra. Not that the meat needs it, of course.
Our sampler came with chorizo, lamb chops, and filet mignon. Each cut was more tender than the next. Chorizo ($7 for an appetizer size) is smoky and tasty, and is featured in many dishes. Lamb chops (served with asparagus and celery roots, golden beets, sweet potato gratin in a mint demi-glaze for $32) are salty and peppery on the outside and melt in your mouth. The filet mignon, wrapped in bacon and topped with bleu cheese, is a winner.
A more traditional dish comes in the paella. Served as an appetizer ($14) or entrée for two ($62), by itself, the dish has the proper balance of sweet peas, perfectly cooked rice, mussels, clams, pulpo and calamari. The precious, 100-percent Spanish saffron added to the rice brings to mind images of Valencia, Spain, where paella is a staple.
We finish with a satisfying fruit fondue. Dip strawberries, blackberries, mango, pear and apple into chocolate that is thicker and milkier than syrup; it has the taste of melted chocolate pudding.
Our meal comes with interludes that make us feel like a part of the family: Garcia stops by our table to chat about our interests and the traditions of his country; he returns with mate (a South American tea-like drink served in an ornate metal mug with a metal straw) and a little book explaining its origin. His son, Gabriel Garcia, who runs Bistro Cassis down the street – a restaurant Hugo helped open – visits to speak with his father and grab some alfajores, dulce de leche sandwich cookies served to patrons at the end of their meals. Hugo’s wife makes the cookies herself.
“I grew up on these,” Gabriel says to us before popping one in his mouth.
The cookie isn’t the only thing you can get only at Café Buenos Aires. Tripe, black sausage, veal tongue and sweet breads are available for the culinary explorers.
“These kinds of items, they don’t make anywhere else in town,” Hugo says. And boy, do we Foodies love exploring.
Hugo and restaurant partner Fabio Machado are in the process of duplicating Café Buenos Aires’ success in Commack, where Café Mendoza is expected to open soon on Commack Road near Jericho Turnpike, in the old Mannino’s Restaurant.
Café Buenos Aires
23 Wall St., Huntington
Atmosphere: Lively, upscale
Cuisine: Argentinean with European influences
Price range: Moderate
Hours: Seven days, lunch and dinner; Sunday brunc