In my small hometown in Central California there is a restaurant just off of the main drag called Wool Growers. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in town. My grandparents had their wedding reception there and I imagine the plastic green water jugs and red checkered table cloths were used then as they are now. Down a wood paneled hallway just past the florescent lit pool room to your left and the even dimmer bar to your right is a wooden door and a pair of quarter candy machines. Inside is an enormous dining hall where four or five picnic tables that seat two dozen each are packed with the local hunters, farmers and every other familiar face from around town. Getting to your seat is a journey not only because the room is packed six nights a week but because you have to stop and chit chat with everyone as you make your way to your table. If it is duck season, it isn’t out of the ordinary to spot John Madden eating lunch with his hunting buddies.
The waitresses race between the kitchen and the salon and stop at your table long enough to list out which meats haven’t been tapped out yet. The service doctrine is similar to the notorious old school porteño waiters, as kind as they need to be. Here you only choose your main dish — lamb chops being the obvious choice — and cross your fingers that the cooks felt like making chicken rice that night. Before your main arrives an avalanche of dishes carrying lamb stew, vegetable soup, potato salad, red beans, iceberg lettuce salad, bread and french fries are stacked in front of you all for a cool twenty dollars a head. Butter is served in those foiled wrapped individual servings (the pros place them under the hot bowls of soup for a minute) and the freezer burn is part of the ice cream’s charm. House wine is decent but a cold bottle of Bud Light really cements the small town hole-in-the-wall experience.
This, for my 29 years of existence, was my only frame of reference when it came to Basque food. Down-home cooking served in abundance of both food and attitude. So when I heard that a new bodegón vasco was opening up in Chacarita, I, for lack of imagination, expected something familiar.
I was wrong but happily surprised.
Right off of Avenida Corrientes and just a few blocks from the Federico Lacroze train station sits Lekeitio, which soft launched in early June and ‘officially’ opened last Saturday. What was previously a clandestine after hours boliche has since been completely gutted and converted into a slick young space. Industrial grey cement blocks are off set by inviting enclaves of communal bars, tables and booths. A long bar extends from the entry way to the casual back patio and is lit by a long constellation of Edison light bulbs. Family photos decorate the walls, and on some nights a guitarist is invited to play in the back.
At a glance it seems slightly out of context from its immediate surroundings. It is a new piece to a neighborhood that is slowly welcoming new ideas into an old school residential barrio. Designer Jessica Trosman and chef Pamela Villar share a space that functions as both a showroom and bistro just across from the Huracán stadium and Galeria Ruth Benzacar, easily one of the most respected galleries in South America, ushered in a new wave of galleries to the zona.
I am greeted on a quiet Tuesday afternoon by owner Shanti Abiotiz. A nurse by education and entrepreneur by trade, his first stab at a restaurant has been long in the making. Abiotiz was born in the Philippines to Basque parents. The family arrived to Argentina by way of Uruguay where his grandfather founded Bun, the first potato chip company in South America. Today his family is spread between the United States and Argentina. Distant relatives remain in Lekeitio, the small coastal town outside of Bilbao that his family hails from.
Although the family spread, the Basque traditions remained. “We have a strong family connection. My father worked for his father and it’s always been that way.” Abiotiz explains, “The women in my family have written Basque cookbooks, and the dishes here reflect the food I grew up around.” His mother, who currently lives in Washington DC, will be joining the kitchen for a little while to help the still evolving menu.
The restaurant’s philosophy is rooted in that of a bodegón with a distinctly contemporary feel. “The idea is to create a space where people come regularly. Where they always feel welcome.” Abioitiz says, “We want this to feel like a real bodegón with food that feels familiar, that is seasonal and fresh like it would be in the Basque country, and where we respect tradition but give it a little something extra.”
The menu is divided into a small smattering of appetizers, mains and desserts. The optimal outing is enjoyed amongst a group of friends to order a bunch of dishes pintxs style to share over a glass of local craft beer or bottle of wine. The menu was developed following a recent trip to the Basque country and together with the head chef Jack Cook, a talented 23 year old by way of England. “He is ahead of his years,” Aboitiz dotes, “We brought him in for a test and there was no doubt about bringing him in to lead the kitchen.”
For a starter, filo dough replaces the traditional casing for the blood sausage which is wrapped in the paper thin dough, fried and served atop a sweet apple puree. A thick and slightly salty morcilla loudly explodes from the flakey filo dough loudly explodes , and is easily my favorite dish. Mollejas are sliced thin and grilled until they have a lovely charred flavor and crispy outer crust; once they hit your tongue they melt away. During the lunch hour — where diners can enjoy a three course meal with drink and coffee for a ridiculous 100 pesos — special dishes are swapped in, like a hearty pea soup as a compliment to a cold winter afternoon. The risotto de remolacha is prepared with puntalette pasta rather than the more well-known arborio rice, Aboitiz assured me that “this is how it’s made in the Basque country.” The risotto is thick and buttery, and the puntalette has a slightly sticky texture that travels smoothly across the tongue. A rich goat cheese slowly melts over the hot dish into a gooey slightly salty mess.
The most asked about dish is the quijada, a cut of meat taken from the cheek of a cow. The meat is cooked low and slow for five hours until it breaks apart at the slightest nudge. Similar to the local pastel de papa, a healthy dollop of fluffy mashed potatoes are spread over the beef before a quick trip to the oven for a nice browned top. Cook’s version swaps out the local rendition’s ground beef for the slightly smokey tasting cheek, and all those braising juices slowly mix into a dreamy mixture of beef and mash. For dessert, chocolate truffles are cooked with extra bitter chocolate before being rolled in cacao powder and arranged over a tart kiwi or orange reduction. The real winner is a brioche bread topped with sugar that is caramelized like creme brulee and served with a simple vanilla ice cream.
Leikitio’s menu is still in a state of evolution, but so far it hasn’t skipped a beat. And although it is far from the Basque restaurant of my childhood, the sense of familiarity is already there and I aim to quickly become a regular.
Santos Dumont 4056, Chacarita
Tuesday through Saturday 11:00am to 1:00am