In the city that appears to have everything, it’s funny to find very little in the way of Uruguayan food in NYC. This cuisine, heavy on beef, cheese, pasta and rich sauces, takes influence from the Spanish and Italian settlers who came to the South American country in the 1800s.
Their diet is comprised of foods that we as Americans tend to like, including steak, sausage, cookies and fried bread stuffed with gooey cheese, aka empanadas. Yet, save for some hole-in-the-wall joints in Queens, the only place dishing out high-class Uruguayan food is found at the three-year-old Tabaré in Williamsburg.
Lescano runs Tabaré with his fellow Uruguayan Diego Perez-Olave, and Bruno Gervais, who is French but lived in Uruguay long enough to feel like a native. The team met at the now closed The Max restaurant in the East Village, where Lescano and Perez-Olave were waiters for four years. Eventually Lescano went on to study hospitality and management, and then started Tabaré three years ago.
When they first opened, they didn’t have an executive chef, but now, former Il Buco pasta maker Ella Schmidt has taken the reigns. She utilizes her pasta skills to make their daily specials, like fluffy potato and farmer’s cheese gnocchi with shallots, white truffle oil and radicchio.
Gnocchi, said Perez-Olave, is the dish you have on the 29th of each month (sorry, February), and before you enjoy it, you take any money bill, make a wish on it and put it under your plate. Then you keep said bill until it comes true. At least that’s how the tradition goes. Either way, it sounds like good excuse to indulge in these little dumplings.
Another Uruguayan tradition is maté, the country’s national drink - it's a highly caffeinated tea that's chock full of antioxidants. While they don’t serve the tea at Tabaré, they do infuse vodka with it to make a cocktail with blue agave, lemon and soda. The drinks list has four more equally innovative cocktails like Porton Pisco with lime, mint and ginger ale (the libations here are nameless).
Pair one of their cocktails or a glass of South American wine with a fresh tuna empanada, which is a savory and sweet appetizer served with a bright herb sauce. They also offer empanadas with beef and green olives, caramelized onions mixed with gruyere and fontina cheeses and chicken with pepper and onions. The organic kale, anchovy, lemon and crème fraiche salad is another good way to start a meal, or go for the Cacerola de Pulpo, a small dish of grilled octopus, lima beans and paprika with aioli.
For main courses, Schmidt has added homemade ravioli of the day, Milanesa de Pollo with sweet potatoes and grain mustard sauce, and their daily fresh fish. They also serve what one of the owners dubbed, “the Uruguayan hamburger,” and what is lovingly called the Chiviot Completo. This dish is a classic Uruguayan sandwich (and one Dagwood would pine for). At Tabaré, they serve it with grass-fed beef filet mignon, bacon, mozzarella, black forest ham, a fried organic egg, roasted red pepper, Spanish olives, butter lettuce, tomato and caramelized onion; all on a on a light roll made by Il Forno. Luckily, it also comes with a pile of napkins and a fork.
While the Chivito Completo might not be a great dish to get on a first date, this joint still makes for a sweet romantic destination. The cozy space has a modern rustic charm as the light is warm and low, and their walls are made of various wooden planks the partners gathered from the street and Craigslist. Every aspect of the design, from the back-lit antique bottles, to the dark concrete tables and bar, and the Latin Americans-style upholstery, were done by the owners, though mostly designed by Perez-Olave.
Overall, the vibe of Tabaré remains comfortable without being sloppy, stylish without being hipster, and ethnic enough without making you feel lost in the small menu. It’s also the classiest way to try Uruguayan cuisine in this city, which, in the end, really does have a little of everything.
221 S. First St., Brooklyn; 347-335-0187