Friday, January 29, 2016

Chef Mariano Alvarez: Some Unfinished Business

I first met Chef Mariano Alvarez of Buenos Aires Bistro at Sabores San Miguel back in June, 2013.

His steak sandwich is one of the biggest sellers at the festival every year.

Last year, he cooked at the SMA Food Festival as well. The pork belly and sausage sandwiches were both crowd favorites. The good news is that you don’t have to wait another year to get one. They will be added to the menu at Buenos Aires Bistro on Wednesday nights.
Mariano loves cooking at Sabores San Miguel and SMA Food Festival because he gets to cook things he normally doesn’t make at the Bistro. “Some people have never heard of or tried traditional Argentine food in SMA, in spite of its popularity in other parts of Mexico” he said.

What most people don’t know about Mariano is that he owns not one but two successful restaurants; Buenos Aires Bistro in SMA and Patria Sur in Queretaro. Patria Sur’s menu is mainly pizza since the anchor there is the wood fired oven. At Buenos Aires Bistro, where they have a parrilla, it’s grilled meats. They also make magnificent pastas at both locations.
“Buenos Aires Bistro is a little bit of Buenos Aires in San Miguel, a true representation as I remember the Buenos Aires I grew up in…those flavors and traditions mixed with a touch of Mexico” he says.

Although his cooking is a reflection of his childhood, it’s Mexico that has played a major role in how both his cuisine and his restaurants have evolved…

Mariano was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, moved to Toronto, Canada at age 18 where food and cooking was always part of his family tradition. It was a ritual to have a feast at home every Sunday.
Coming from dual cultures, his parents were the perfect pair in the kitchen; his Mom, being Italian, would do the pastas, sauces and salads and his Dad, being Argentine, would grill different meats on the Parrilla. Mariano always helped so early on, he learned about cooking.
While he was attending Business School at the University, his mom owned a small Italian eatery. Mariano thought he knew more about running it than she did. She finally cornered him one day and said “dear, the day you have your own restaurant you can do things your way, in the meantime, we’re going to do things my way.” This was a milestone moment for him. He said that he hated the restaurant business but every time he would go out to eat, he was secretly scrutinizing how they did things, evaluating the dishes and wondering if he could do it better. There was definitely some unfinished business.
Many years later, he became friends with a formally trained Neapolitan chef Roberto Granata; Chef Granata was the first chef to bring authentically certified Neapolitan pizzas to Toronto for the high end chain Il Fornello. They would get together to cook, he helped out in his kitchen and they catered a few events together. That’s when he learned how to run a restaurant and started to fall in love with cooking for people again.

His first attempt at a restaurant fell through due to timing, and by the second attempt, he had already decided to leave Toronto for Argentina by way of Mexico. The plan was to stay in Mexico for two months then head south. Two months soon became nine. He decided he liked it in SMA and stayed. After a year sabbatical, he was ready to open a restaurant.

The restaurant in SMA was going to be a joint venture with Roberto because he had come to visit one summer and like Mariano, he fell in love with SMA. But Roberto got anxious about leaving everything he built in Toronto behind so he said to Mariano “Why don’t you do it… I’ll help you with the know-how.”

Mariano took the plunge. He learned the rest on his own, reading a mountain of books and leaving much to experimentation.

I enjoyed being on the receiving end of his research. Of the three new recipes he had me taste, two of them went on his menu. He lets the flavors speak for themselves. He doesn’t like to complicate things, keeping things simple and elegant.

When I asked him if he had a favorite childhood food, his food memory was long…

 “Well yes, and way too many to count. To this day, I keep asking my mom for this cabbage stew that she used to make us that was just delicious but she can’t remember it. Sunday BBQ is a given; my mom’s Veal’s Tongue and Shrimp alla Provençal; my argentine grandmother’s “Pastel de Fiambre” (loosely translated Cold Cuts Cake) which was made with 50 pancakes and we would have it as an appetizer for Christmas and New Year’s, my Nonna’s (Italian grandmother) polenta with chicken and tomato sauce” His Aunt’s homemade pizza that she always made for his birthday is also a given. Also, the little paninos that he made for the SMA Food Festival was inspired by one that his Dad would make on the BBQ. He then shared a curious story; his Mom, Aunt, and both of his Grandmothers are all excellent cooks but they’re all terrible at giving you recipes. They all cook from memory and instinct because that’s how they were taught. After reading many books, mostly Italian, he started to understand how to translate their dishes into recipes. In a way, it’s helped his understanding of them and their cooking. It also brought them closer together and has helped him to rescue family dishes.
He pays homage to them and where he came from by hanging their photographs on the walls of his restaurant.

His role models are Francis Mallman, the epitome of Argentine cuisine. “He represents simplicity and honors Argentine tradition but includes French discipline. He’s both bold and passionate” he said. He also admires Lele Cristobal from Quilmes, a city in Buenos Aires where he is from, who is a famous chef and TV personality.

He changed the name of the restaurant from El Tomato to Buenos Aires Bistro…

When he bought El Tomato, it was vegetarian for the first year. He started to introduce meats and non-vegetarian dishes, naturally gravitating towards his culinary origins, and by 2013, the name was not fitting with the concept that had evolved. After four months of planning and six months of redesigning and redecorating, they opened with a new name, a new menu and a new look. His customer mix is about 50% Mexican nationals and 50% Americans, Canadians, Europeans and other foreigners who come to San Miguel for vacations, holidays and weekends.

A signature dish? The jury is still out on that one. As far as popularity, Ricotta, Pecan and Prosciutto Sorrentinos are a big hit. Steaks? The Ribeyes and short rib are very popular. He only makes risotto for special occasions, but both friends and customer give him high praise for that dish.
He tries to keep his dishes as authentically Argentine as possible; however he likes to change it up a bit. For example his Pan Seared Salmon in a Ginger Garlic Soy Sauce is definitely not Argentine or Mexican. His Five Chile and Habanero sauces are Mexican inspired. He says that this beautiful country, Mexico, has positively influenced his cooking.
He met his wife Malula, who is from San Luis Potosí, in a moment of serendipity. A mutual friend introduced them while she was celebrating her birthday in his restaurant. She’s a life coach but still finds time to help Mariano out if he needs it.

His Sous-chef, Martin, has more than 13 years of experience working in different kitchens in the US. He’s been with Mariano for almost 2 years now. “He’s very committed and gets me as far as quality of products and service” he said. He also has Carolina who started as a dish washer. Two years ago, an opportunity came up which he offered to her and Caro took it so she’s been trained the way he likes things done. She’s very committed to her work and family which he highly values. She comes to SMA from Comonfort every single day. He really can’t say enough about his entire team, “they are all great people” he says. Every time he calls on them, they are more than ready to step up. He is very grateful for them. “In the end, we are like a family.”
Buenos Aires Bistro does not have a wine sommelier. The wine list is based on what Mariano likes, much like the regular menu, keeping in mind that people also want variety and allowing for different palates. He has sommeliers come to the restaurant and show him their wines and if he loves one, it goes on the wine list. He likes interesting wines with a history; a story to go along with the wine itself.

He’s always changing the menu, not drastically, but just enough to keep it fresh. Here are the things I tried during my visits:

NEW: Burrata con Manzana al Sartén, Arúgula Fresca y Reducción de Aceto Balsámico/ Fresh Burrata with Pan Seared Pear and Arugula with Balsamic Reduction

This was one of the best salads I’ve tasted lately. Nothing is quite as good as pairing a creamy Burrata with the mild and sweet flavor of a pear.

NEW: Filete de Res con Camarones Salteados en Salsa de Crema, servido con Espárrago en salsa de vino blanco/ Filet Mignon with Sautéed Shrimp in a Cream Sauce served with Asparagus in White Wine sauce

Mariano said he is not ready to put this dish on the daily menu yet; it needs a little work. I thought so too…but just a little.

Tira de Asado, con Camote y Zanahoria al horno con Ajo y Cebolla, y Col de Bruselas salteadas con Soya/ Short Ribs with Oven Roasted Carrot & Yam with Onions and Garlic, and Sautéed Brussels Sprouts with Onions and Soy Sauce

It’s been a long time since I’ve had meat this good. The dish was cooked to absolute perfection and I got 2 other meals from the leftovers.

NEW: Banana Frita flambeado con Brandy y Helado de Mate/ Brandy Flambéed Fried Banana with Mate Ice cream

I call this dish an Argentinean version of Bananas Foster. The herb to make the ice cream is called Yerba Mate and it’s used for a traditional tea that is heavily consumed in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. The plant only grows in South America because of the soil and climate. In Argentina, people drink it without sugar, and since it’s already very bitter to begin with, many people get put off the first time they drink it. If you make it at home, you can add sugar. “It tastes really nice if you give it a chance” he says. “It is obviously something you need to acquire a taste for.”

All of Mariano’s beef is Certified Angus. The Mexican beef from Sonora is export quality, which makes it hard to source because producers obviously prefer to sell it abroad at US prices. Some of his beef is from the US because the quality is there. If he can, he always tries to support local or national businesses. “ It’s not always possible though because the quality has to be there” he said. He’s very committed to the quality of his products.

Buenos Aires Bistro has an entertainment factor that most people don’t know about: tango classes. It all started a few years back when the tango community in SMA (he didn’t know SMA had one at the time) needed a place to dance and practice so he stepped forward to help the cause. It’s his way of supporting the culture of his country that has crossed many international borders. Group classes are at 7:00 PM for beginners and 8:00 PM for more advanced lessons. It’s only $30 pesos per class. There are no registration fees, you just show up and dance.

Mariano’s second restaurant, Patria Sur, celebrated its’ first anniversary on the first of December and we were in Queretaro for the party…

He opened Patria Sur because he needed a new challenge and wanted to try another concept. He didn’t want two restaurants in the same city and Queretaro was the obvious choice. It’s an emergent city and the demographics are very different from SMA.

When I asked how he manages his schedule between the two restaurants, he said that it requires a lot of planning to juggle both. He’s learned which balls are rubber and which are glass however, effectively running Patria Sur in a lot less time than it took to get Buenos Aires Bistro down.

Patria Sur, located at 4100 Blvd. Bernardo Quintana , Plaza Boulevares in Queretaro, has already earned great ratings. We thought the food was outstanding, especially the Buenos Aires Pizza with fresh tomatoes, ham, and green olives, which is very typical in Argentina. The Surf and Turf Pizza and Pizza del Tata were a hit as well. Tata is old colloquial word for Grandpa. It has tomato sauce, mozzarella, sautéed spinach, sautéed onion, sautéed mushroom and goat cheese.
Not being a fan of inland seafood, I was surprised I also liked this squid dish for which Mariano has a special method of cooking.
Mariano’s partner in the restaurant is Uruguay born Nacho Avila. He started to work in a bakery at the age of 12. By 17 he was making pizzas. He came to Mexico on vacation with his girlfriend at the time. It was during that trip they broke up and heartbroken, he decided to stay in Mexico for awhile. From Acapulco he came to SMA because he had friends from Uruguay living here. He worked in sales but gained a reputation among friends for the Friday pizza nights he organized once a month; something he would do for fun and because he loves to make pizza. Nacho knew it was a matter of time before he'd go back to his passion. Around 2010 he wanted to do a pizza night Friday's at the old El Tomato but because of the size of Mariano’s kitchen, they couldn't make the project take off. In early 2014, they started to talk about what it would be like to have a pizza place with traditions from the Rio de la Plata, and that's how Patria Sur was formed. By September 2014, they were building their own wood fired oven with the help of his father, a hard working bricklayer in Canelones, who built dozens of ovens back home.

When he’s not at his own restaurants, he likes to go for sushi at Gami Sushi on the Ancha. He also likes brunch at the Rosewood. He enjoys the Milanesa Napolitana at Centi’Anni and the Indian food at Bhaji; things he normally doesn’t make for himself at his restaurants or at home.

He enjoys simple things when he cooks at home. He’ll make a nice frittata with whatever is in the fridge or make risotto on the spot for friends or family if they’re coming over. He enjoys a cup of coffee with some toast and good cheese in the morning; or a cheese platter and charcuterie with a cold beer in the evening.

Mariano says he goes through phases and stays creative on a day-to-day basis by reading a lot but most of his inspiration comes from traveling. He returns to Argentina once or twice a year to discover new things to bring back to SMA for his customers.

With Patria Sur comfortably under his belt, I asked him what he’s going to do next.
He smiled...

This is one chef who, in spite of everything, still has some unfinished business.
Stay tuned!

Bon Appetit!

Buenos Aires Bistro, Mesones #62, Centro, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Hours: Monday – Sunday 1:00 PM – 10:00 PM

Patria Sur, 4100 Blvd. Bernardo Quintana | Plaza Boulevares, Queretaro, Mexico

Hours: 2:00 PM – 12:00 AM