Chile in Manhattan
Chile in Manhattan
There are two places in New York City where you can experience Chile. I had heard about both of them, so recently when Ximena and I had a day to explore Manhattan, we decided to check them out. Tucked away on the margins of Chinatown and Little Italy, well-positioned on the corner of Centre and Grand Streets sits “Puro Wine”, and its companion “Puro Chile”. As the name suggests, this is a wine shop with one of the most complete selections of Chilean wine in the US, more than 200 labels from over 50 Chilean wineries. From Santa Rita’s “120”, that we used to drink as Peace Corps Volunteers in Chile over 40 years ago, to Concha y Toro’s top shelf cabernet sauvignon “Don Melchor”, you can find just about any Chilean chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, carmenere, and cabernet sauvignon. They also have an increasing number of labels of Chilean malbec, pinot noir, and syrah, all newer varieties in the international market from Chile but growing fast in quality and appreciation. And, since over the past few years Chilean vintners have been producing increasingly interesting blends especially of the Bordeaux type, the store sells those too, like Veramonte’s “Primus” (carmenere, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot), Monte’s “Purple Angel” (carmenere, petit verdot), and Casa Lapostolle’s “Clos Apalta” (carmenere, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot).
A visit to “Puro Wine” is accentuated by Lauren’s friendly, well-informed, classy sales pitch. Lauren, the store manager, is not Chilean but she could be. She clearly is committed to Chile and its wines, so she has studied hard at the New York Wine Institute and is travelling to Chile to become the top specialist in Chilean wine she aspires to be. “Puro Wine” offers a pleasant space for social and business events, including frequent wine tastings, so if you live or are traveling in Manhattan you must be on their mailing list so you can participate in one or more of their happy events. Lauren can fix you up at email@example.com.
Around a glass partition is a country brand store with very high quality Chilean products on exhibit and for sale. At the center of the showroom is a showcase with very elegant jewelry made of “crin” (horsehair), which has always been made into decorative artisan products, but these creations, elegant and quite expensive ($110 for a woman’s bracelet), are very, very attractive.
They offer a nice collection of practical sizes of pottery made in a small town an hour southwest of Santiago, Pomaire. This is the dark brown classic pottery that anyone who has lived or traveled in Chile has purchased to serve “chupe de loco” or “pastel de choclo”. These pieces are priced very moderately and if we had not been walking that day we would have purchased several for our kitchen. Chile is now exporting a broad range of packaged gourmet foods, and in “Puro Chile” they offer excellent olive oil, avocado oil infused with “merquen” (that smoky dried chili powder they call “Mapuche Spice” to export to the rest of the world), rose hip jam, and some canned seafood like small clams and crabmeat. Big disappointment though: they do not sell canned “locos” (Chilean abalone), which, if they had it, would probably be prohibitively expensive. The pleasant Chilean woman who attended us gives a very bubbly description of all these products, and does a very good job of representing what is attractive about Chileans in general.
A table with large wooden serving bowls, hand carved from beautiful “rauli”, a reddish wood taken from the disappearing native Valdivian hardwood forests in southern Chile, brought back memories of all the time I spent as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late 1960s in the lakes and volcano region around Temuco, Osorno, Valdivia, and Puerto Montt. Just a sniff of a “rauli” bowl makes my eyes tear with nostalgia for those happy days when my colleagues and I tramped through those forests collecting wood samples for our projects and then relaxing by a crackling fire in the evenings enjoying great quantities of red wine and increasingly incredible storytelling.
Sharing the space with the wine shop and the artisan store are the offices of “Wines of Chile”, a trade association that promotes wines from Chile’s smaller wineries (www.winesofchile.org). The lounge outside the offices is replete with books about Chile, to peruse or purchase, describing Chilean wines and tourism from the Atacama desert to the fjords of Magallanes. It is a fun and comfortable place to sit, read a bit, remember past times in Chile and dream about future visits. “Wines of Chile” seems to be doing a lot to promote Chile’s lesser known wines, but it would be nice if they did more. All too often I find a paucity of Chilean wines offered in restaurants in the US. Country promotion of wines, such as the successful campaigns waged in the US for Italian and Argentine wines, still eludes the Chilean wine producers. Wines of Chile is making a great attempt at it without much help from the large producers who seem to think they can do better on their own, so I have been told.
One restaurant that does have a whole wine list made up of Chilean wines is a small, homey, comfortable place in Manhattan just a few subway stops up the “C” line, on Restaurant row (46th Street West), named “Pomaire”.
Owned and run by Chileans (and a Mexican waiter the day we were there), this place could have the same name as the other place, “Puro Chile”, because for better and for worse, it is pure Chile. Upon entering you can’t but notice the typical naive painting on the wall, showing two huge hands (of God, I presume), one holding the Chilean miners in the mine, and the other assisting the rescuers on the surface.
“Pomaire”, though, is a very appropriate name for this restaurant, reflecting the traditional, almost rustic, laid back ambience of rural Chile and the simplicity of earthy Chilean food. As you would expect, I started with the pisco sour.
It tasted a bit like pisco sour, but for some reason it was clearer than a sour should be, and had a grape and a slice of orange on the lip of the glass, something I think most Chileans would resist doing, not wanting their sour to look too “fruity”. I was surprised by the clarity of the drink, so I asked the Chilean waitress who mixed it, and her Mexican colleague, just exactly how they had made the strange looking drink. I got an explanation that reminded me of so many times over the past 40 years I asked similar questions in Chile. She explained: “The juice was prepared and filtered especially by the owner’s wife late last night, so it would be just right for today’s customers. We didn’t use the egg white called for to make it frothy, because there are so many Gringos who don’t want egg white in their drink, and actually it was made in a very special way just for you because you obviously are an expert on pisco sours!” I probably let on that I was not impressed, neither with the sour nor the defensive explanation, because as I returned to our table, the Mexican waiter whispered to me that if I really wanted a super pisco sour I could get one at “Pio Pio”, the Peruvian Restaurant nearby. I guess even in New York the Peruvians are working harder to win on the age old pisco sour issue. I did not try the Pio Pio Peruvian pisco sour that day, but I would have a feeling it is superior to the “special” one they made just for me at “Pomaire”.
The menu at “Pomaire” is extensive, and pure classical Chilean food: Everything from meat and cheese “empanadas” to sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), pastel de choclo, plateada, bistec a lo pobre, pollo al cognac, and on and on. They do not offer the “one kilo empanada” made famous in their namesake locality back in Chile, so for starters Ximena and I shared a regular size meat empanada.
It was nicely presented and tasty but a stretch when compared to what you get generally in Chile and especially what comes out of Ximena’s kitchen (because she makes the dough a bit thicker and flakier, and she uses diced meat not ground beef for the “pino” filling). But it did have a piece of hard boiled egg and black olive, often left out of inferior empanadas, and did not have too much onion, another shortcoming of some commercial empanadas. For the main dish Ximena ordered cazuela de ave and I, cazuela de vacuno. These very traditional chicken and beef soups (more like stew), were very good, bringing back memories of so many Sunday lunches at Ximena’s home when we were dating. Back then we ate a lot of cazuela, and it is by far my favorite Chilean dish.
Cazuela takes time to prepare correctly, and is best prepared in large quantities enough for an extended Chilean family, so it is one of those classic “slow food” dishes that you see less and less as time goes on. “Pomaire” did not disappoint us with their cazuela, and the ensalada Chilena (onion and tomato salad topped with parsley) was also very tasty, not easy in February in New York, and presented nicely.
Now for a disclaimer, more like an admission. We did not order wine during our lunch at “Pomaire”. I will try to explain it this way, but I know it will not convince the most loyal readers of this blog: The markup on the wines at Pomaire is scandalous. (Ximena reminded me that during our earlier visits that morning we had actually been warned about the high prices of Chilean wine at “Pomaire”). Huge markups on wine everywhere are irritating me more and more these days, but in this Chilean restaurant, where you would think they would be interested in promoting Chile’s great wines as widely as possible, they would resist the “quick buck” temptation. Anyway, we didn’t drink Chilean wine with our Chilean meal, as a way of protesting what I consider unjust markups on something as truly basic to a meal as wine; it is a necessity. I do not remember ever having cazuela without at least a glass of good Chilean wine. And now I am sorry, for in retrospect, I am sure everything would have tasted better with a glass or two of deep, dark Cousino Macul Carmenere Reserva. We also passed on dessert, although they offered “flan casero”, tres leches, and ice cream (very Chilean), not in protest but rather an issue of excessive personal caloric intake.
I certainly would return another day to the “Puro Wine” and “Puro Chile” shops, hopefully timed to coincide with a wine tasting, and to learn about Lauren’s visit to the Casablanca and Colchagua Valleys in Chile. And I think I would return to “Pomaire” for a good “cazuela” or “pastel de choclo”. With the increase in public attention Chile has received as of late, and the way Chile is developing in the global economy, the country deserves a great Chilean restaurant in New York, where one can go to experience Chile, Chileans, good Chilean wines at reasonable prices, and excellent traditional Chilean food. We hope “Pomaire” becomes that restaurant. But, I might try the “Pio Pio” next time too, if only for the pisco sour.
Written in Leesburg, Virginia on February 16, 2011.