leanor Foa Dienstag

Alma 33—Argentinean Cuisine in a Friendly Environment

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Alma 33, a new, Argentinean-inspired restaurant has a lot going for it. The prices are wonderfully affordable. The staff is friendly and eager to please. And peering in at night through its wide windows, the large bar area is wonderfully inviting.

Someone has put a great deal of thought into creating an irresistible neighborhood bar and restaurant that turns out to be a fabulous place to meet friends for a drink, linger over some exceptional appetizers or enjoy a reasonably-priced dinner in the rear dining area.

That someone is owner Richard Lusardi, a New Yorker of Argentinean descent, who has clearly poured his heart and soul into this space (Alma, in Spanish, means “soul”) with its candlelit, warm wood interior that seems to glow. Lusardi, though only 35, is no novice. He has spent years in the restaurant business, managing teams at Craft, The Beacon and Windows on the World. He clearly understands the big and little things—like hooks underneath the bar for ladies’ pocketbooks—that draw people to a place, and keep them coming back.

Lusardi, who keeps his eyes on things from behind the bar, is as warm and friendly as the restaurant he’s hand built. And he’s exceptionally knowledgeable about Spanish, Italian and Argentinean wines that he offers by the glass at remarkably inexpensive prices. His philosophy is to offer a small glass of wine for $4, such as a little-known white Broquel Torrontes that is sprightly and refreshing, or a $6 glass of Alamos Chardonnay. That way, as you move from nibbling outstanding Migas Con Serrano, bite-sized sandwiches of Spain’s famous ham, seared in butter (I would go back just for those Migas) to rich Empanaditas de Pollo or de Carne or wonderful Pintxos De Entrana—skirt steak skewers with salsa chimichurri—you are ready to try a $7 glass of Argentinean Navvaro Correas Syrah (my favorite) or one of many interesting, adventurous wines listed daily on the blackboard.

Placing oneself in Lusardi’s hands when you’re debating which wine to try is a wise move.  We were his guests, so were happy to do so. If wine is not your thing, specialty Cocktails and a long list of Spanish, Italian, Argentinean, Mexican, Uruguayan and American beers, can be recommended by Lusardi, as well.

For many of us, a few glasses of wine and a mix of Alma’s budget-priced appetizers (mainly in the $7 to $10 range) would make a perfect dinner. And there is the option of gathering a group of friends for drinks and nibbles at one of several large tables opposite the long bar. The night we were there, they were extremely popular.

Clearly, Lusardi understands what New Yorkers—especially New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s who want a place to unwind after a long day at the office—really want. And a large, comfortable bar area is one of them.

We moved back to the dining room to try a few of the restaurant’s larger dishes from the Pasta and Entrée menu.

While making up our mind, we enjoyed a basket of soft, chewy, delicious olive bread with an oil/balsamic vinegar dip. We chose an unusual pasta dish, Ravioles de Morcillas ($15), ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and sausage atop a beet and pear apple puree. It turned out to be delicate and tasty. However, another pasta dish, Almejas ($16), whole-wheat tagliolini with manila clams and broccoli rabe, was bland and without interest.

For whatever reason, the food was uneven.

Our next choice, Ostiones ($17), pan seared shrimp-crusted scallops on celery puree with oranges and chives was an inventive dish in which the scallops remained moist, and played well against the delicate orange sauce. But the side of Chauchas we ordered, string beans with garlic, almonds and raisins, was inexplicably bland.

The hands-down winner of the evening was Argentina’s most well known dish, Entrana ($16), a generous portion of skirt steak seared on the grill and then smoked in-house with the essence of apple wood and rosemary. It arrived under a dome and, quite frankly, I can’t wait to eat it again. Along with the grilled meaty trumpet mushrooms The quality of the beef was exceptional, and the marinated seasoning was absolute perfection. It took a while to come to the table but was worth the long wait.

From our sampling of dishes, it almost seemed as though there were two chefs in the kitchen, and the one who turned out Alma’s meat dishes—whether as an appetizer or main course—was the master.

As is the pastry chef. We ordered a Chocolate Mousse—deliciously grainy in texture—covered with a film of Orange Liquor that was sensational. Less rich but equally delicious was an Argentinean desert, sponge cake wrapped around dulce de leche topped with marinated strawberries.

Alma 33 opened Christmas eve in the midst of a snowstorm, but the word is already out because by 8:30 on a Friday night in February, as tango music began to play in the background, the place was packed. I can see why. One of a handful of lively, upscale restaurants and stores pioneering the rebirth of 8th Street, it is well worth return visits. I’m especially looking forward to trying more Picadas (appetizers), such as polenta lollipops and Tabla De Embutidos (Spanish cheeses with homemade confit and jam). Not to mention another round of the skirt-steak skewers and those heavenly Migas!

Alma 33
33 West 8th Street (Between 5th and 6th)

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