Uruguay might be shaped like a tear falling down the nose of South America, but Tabaré, a Uruguayan restaurant in Williamsburg, can make you quite happy. The interior, clad in rough wooden planks and bathed in warm yellow light, seems a respite from the city, while the back patio leavens the humble coziness with cool stone tables and bright metal chairs. It's the sort of place that's won you over before you've even ordered.
One look at the menu, with its gnocchi and ravioli, and we wondered if we'd gone to the right place. An influx of Italian immigrants to the South American country in the 1800s explains the prevalence of pasta; although we were tempted by that night's special―ravioli with bacon and mint―we got our Mediterranean kicks another way: the provoleta ($7). Here was pizza cheese without the pizza, fondue without the creepy key-party connotations. The essence of simplicity, provolone had been mixed with oregano and melted. As the cheese cooled and hardened, the dish required serious finger strength.
For the empanadas caseras ($7), we chose chicken with onions and peppers and Spanish tuna with black olives. Flaky, pliable outsides unsealed to reveal sultry insides. The tuna had tomato too, so its bites exuded an acidic meatiness, rather than individuated flavors. Along with these savory baked goods came a hot chili oil and milder garlic dipping sauce.
Our final appetizer, the caserola de pulpo ($12), was as sloppy as the empanadas were tidy. Lima beans, octopus, aioli, lemon, paprika, and mozzarella had been swirled and baked into soft submission, less a casserole than a hot tub of goo. Maybe the bean-to-tentacle ratio could have been adjusted slightly, with more cephalopod and fewer legumes, but we quibble. Again, Tabaré impressed us with its subtle Italian influences and easygoing execution.
And then something happened. Well, technically speaking, nothing happened. The wait between appetizers and main was so long, we could have flown to Montevideo--or at least gotten to JFK with time for a fro-yo before the flight. For nearly thirty minutes, we sat, sipping our dwindling water, wondering whether we'd been forgotten out on the patio. Reluctantly, we entered the dining room to discover what happened to our plato principal and saw our server chatting with an elderly couple in Spanish, posing for pictures, and, yes, holding our sandwich.
Q: Was it worth the wait? A: Sort of. The chivito completo ($14) piled tender, well-seasoned filet mignon atop greens, tomatoes, slivers of green olives, a fried egg, mozzarella, and bacon, and held everything together with a toothpick on which flapped a tiny Uruguayan flag. This sandwich combines breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a day's worth of meals between bread. It sounds great, and, honestly, it was still pretty good served lukewarm. Nevertheless, each bite was a tease about what might have been.
Perhaps in its own way Tabaré wanted to remind diners that in an era in which we think our cameras and blogs bestow on us some authority, ultimately the kitchen and waitstaff remain in charge. No doubt the truth is more prosaic: the servers made an error that derailed a good dinner. Still, we recommend the gullet-pleasing food and charming atmosphere. Even with the gaffe, this was a very good meal. Tabaré is best for: a date when you have nowhere else to be.