Restaurant Review

La Fusta

Beef cattle are so plentiful in Argentina, the legend goes, that gauchos barely have to reach out to carve a steak from a passing animal. As gruesome as that sounds, it illustrates the point that beef is an even bigger part of the Argentine diet than it is of ours.

My family is Argentine, and in the early ’90s I spent a year in the country working for an English-language newspaper. If I ever harbored thoughts of becoming a vegetarian, the exceptional quality of Argentine beef banished them from my mind. Ever since, I’ve eagerly visited Argentine restaurants in New York and New Jersey. Some are quite good, but in my experience none can touch La Fusta for elegance and authenticity.
La Fusta may not seem all that promising from the outside. But step inside and you are immediately surrounded by the feel of a bustling Buenos Aires steakhouse. Spanish music plays softly, and the walls are decorated with actual riding whips, or fustas, as well as photographs of horses and riding gear. White tablecloths, big white plates, and courteous, attentive waiters complete the upscale ambience.

Many customers dine in authentic Argentine style. Go at 10 pm and you’ll see tables of large families with children scampering around. In Argentina, people eat late, and if they have kids, they take them along. The children I saw at La Fusta weren’t annoying—they seemed absorbed in the to-and-fro of waiters hurrying food to the tables and by the irresistible aroma of the charcoal-grilled meat. It was entertaining to watch the waiters deftly navigate around the playing kids.

Argentine cows feed mainly on the grass of the pampas, the fertile lowlands, which is said to make the beef exceptionally flavorful and leaner than grain-fed meat. U.S. regulations block the import of Argentine beef, so La Fusta buys American or Australian grass-fed beef.

Ironically, most of the beef on the menu is grain-fed. Nonetheless, when I bit into La Fusta steaks, I thought as I did in Buenos Aires: This is the way beef should taste. The best cuts are the entraña, or skirt steak, which is juicy and so big that it hangs off the plate, and the bife de chorizo, which contains no chorizo sausage and is essentially a New York strip. Both are large enough for two, and the skirt steak, a bargain at $26, could probably feed several hungry gauchos.

On a recent night the shell steak was tasty but slightly overdone, possibly because the busy waiter misunderstood how we wanted it. But the skirt steak was perfect: buttery and tasty. If you don’t mind dragon breath, spoon on chimichurri, the traditional Argentine steak sauce made with parsley, olive oil, and lots of garlic. Both dishes came with mashed potatoes or french fries made from fresh sliced potatoes. The latter were fine, if slightly undercooked and undersalted.

Gaspar Tatarian, 55, is chef and owner, both here and at the original La Fusta in Queens, New York. Originally from Uruguay, he emigrated to this country from Argentina with his parents when he was 17 and took over the business fifteen years ago from his father, Pedro, who had run it since the 1980s. Tatarian’s sons, Stephen and Bruce, have since joined the business.

Stephen says the equine theme comes from his grandfather’s love of horses and racing. “The myth is that he won the restaurant on a bet on a horse race,” he says. “But that’s not true. He sold his race horses to buy the restaurant.”

Tatarian cooks steak the same way the gauchos do—over hardwood charcoal. (He imports his from Argentina and uses nearly 1,000 pounds a week.) The steak is rubbed with salt, then cooked over an angled grill, or parrilla, that lets grease drain off the meat.

“This is the hallmark of Argentine cooking,” Tatarian says. “We really try to preserve the original taste of the food. Our steak is high quality and already tender, so we don’t need to marinate it.”

There is much more to the menu than steak. The flavors are simple and robust—peasant food at its best. Start with plump, delicious empanadas: beef, chicken, or spinach. The grilled provolone empanada with oregano is tasty if not exciting. For an authentic Argentine appetizer, try the shareable matambre casero—rolled, sliced flank steak stuffed with vegetables, sliced hardboiled eggs, and herbs. If you’re adventurous, try boiled, pickled tongue provençal with pickled vegetables. The tongue was delicately flavored, though slightly overwhelmed by the too-vinegary vegetables.

Argentina has a large Italian community, stemming from a wave of nineteenth century immigration. La Fusta’s pastas—especially the house-made gnocchi—are a worthy alternative to steak. In Argentina, it’s considered good luck to eat gnocchi on the 29th of each month—if you put coins or bills under your plate, the saying goes, you’ll have money in your pocket for a month.

Mixed grill, or parillada, is served the traditional way on a mini charcoal grill brought to the table. It includes blood sausage, chorizo sausage, short ribs, skirt steak, intestines, and sweetbreads, with  kidney and liver an option.An American version substitutes chicken and a pork chop for the organ meat.

Argentines mostly get their vegetables from salads. The mixed salad at La Fusta, basically lettuce and tomato, was dull, with far too many onions. But avocado salad for two was a winner. It comes with shrimp, hearts of palm, fava beans, watercress, tomato, and red onion, dressed in lemon vinaigrette.

The Argentine sweet tooth favors desserts that will strike some as over-the-top sweet—for example, the crêpes with dulce de leche. Lighter is dulce de membrillo, slices of jellied quince jam served with soft, salty cheese similar to muenster.

Now when I hanker for Argentine food, I don’t have to book a flight to Buenos Aires—I can just head to LaFusta.

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