3/4 I’m not crazy about dining in my own neighborhood because the food is overwhelmingly mediocre. I’m not crazy about dining in Williamsburg because the service is always comically aloof. But sometimes I have to make allowances and lower expectations because I’m either too lazy to leave Carroll Gardens or I’m visiting friends who seem to live disproportionately in North Brooklyn.
Due to the snowstorm, I was trying to come up with someplace no more than a block or two from my friend’s apartment where she was throwing a party Saturday night. I am lame in snow and ice and wanted to lessen chances for potentially falling on my head. I didn’t actually think I’d find anyplace worthy that close to Driggs and Sixth until I remembered brand new El Almacén, which I had genuine interest in.
I found a warm room adorned with cast iron skillets and antique seltzer bottles (I’m still not sure why seltzer is an Argentine obsession but it’s one shared by me. Sunday, I found Bariloche, a product of Argentina at Wegmans and snatched up four plastic containers) that while small, wasn’t cramped, and even had a few empty tables. No ridiculous wait time necessary. Rare for a Saturday night and I blame it on the holidays compounded by bad weather.
Of course being 11231 there was minor weirdness with getting any acknowledgment or eye contact after walking in the door. After a baffling minimum full minute (hey, 60 seconds feels like a long time when you’re actively trying to engage numerous individuals to no avail) we just sat ourselves. No sense in getting annoyed over something that’s no surprise. (I dined at an NJ Cheesecake Factory the following night and you couldn’t get more freakishly chummy, attentive service, duh, it was the Cheesecake Factory. My point being that you’re crazy to not know what you’re getting into wherever it is you choose to eat.)
I was curious about an Argentine restaurant that wasn’t all steak and pasta because that’s really all we have in NYC and well, that kind of dominates in Buenos Aires too. It turns out that the menu is rife with classics: parrillada, choripan, milanesa and empanadas, but the overall feeling is Argentine-inspired with a pan-Latin influence. The first tip off is the use of salsas and spicy sauces. Argentines are notoriously heat-averse and I don’t know if it’s an urban myth but I had heard that they don’t even put pepper on the table and now that I think about it peppermills might’ve been absent during my Buenos Aires trip this spring. Argentine touches show up in things like mate-infused sauces and chimmichurri mayonnaise, but many ingredients hail from other parts of South America. And for the most part the hodgepodge works.
Fried cubes of Manchego are much more pungent than a mozzarella stick, and considerably lighter despite being battered. The tomato sauce played off of Argentina's Italian influence, though as I noted earlier, it was spicier than a typical marinara or anything you would traditionally find in Buenos Aires. These went way too fast.
The weather called for hearty. I’ll save ceviche and salads for a warmer time of year. Short ribs are the ultimate snowstorm food. I’m not sure that I detected any purported mate flavor but the beef was wonderfully rich without being too fatty. The tender meat sat atop thick slices of boniato, perhaps a touch too mealy and dense but that’s just nitpicking. The sauce looks wilder in the photo than I realized at the time. Interestingly, they call these costilla de res but I found out the hard way in Buenos Aires that costillas aren't ribs like in NYC but massive pork chops.
There’s was nothing Argentinean about lechon with black beans and salsa. I stayed away from this because I feared the pork would be dried out. For some reason, moderately priced restaurants tend to ruin pork. You expect a Dominican hole in the wall to get it right, same with a dish that costs $28; it’s the in-between I worry about. It wasn’t tough or stringy at all, and I kept wanting to pick at the dish even though it wasn’t mine.
Fiambres (salumi) and quesos headline the menu and would be a great accompaniment to a glass of Malbec or Torrontes. But as it stands, there is no liquor being served and I hesitate to say it’s BYOB either. I don’t know the laws in NYC but I was always under the impression that if a restaurant didn’t have a liquor license it was ok to bring your own. I brought a bottle just to be safe (also because I’m a cheap lush, and yes, I'm drinking rosé in December–pink wine in winter will be all the rage for 2009), left it in the car and asked if it was ok before toting it in. They didn’t seem to have a problem with this, others were doing the same, but alluded that the practice was illicit and kept the bottle hidden behind the bar and served the wine in coffee cups. It certainly lent a speakeasy flair (so à la minute) that I could go along with but I’d never encountered a similar situation before.
I don’t say this very often but El Almacén is the type of place that I wouldn’t mind having in my neighborhood, especially on a weeknight when I’m stuck for a satisfying meal that’s a notch above takeout. I would take creative Latin over the so-so Italian, sushi and Thai that plagues so many pockets of the city, any day.
El Almacén * 557 Driggs Ave., Brooklyn, NY