The best beach restaurant on the planet is not in St. Tropez or on the Amalfi Coast. It is in a small town on the Uruguayan coast called JOSÉ IGNACIO.
You can smell the fire-roasted meat long before listening to the bossanova music or seeing the chimneys protruding from the thatched roof. And when the restaurant finally emerges from the sand dunes of Playa Brava in José Ignacio, Uruguay, it looks like a bohemian pirate ship run by hippie-chic captains, a den of dining rooms and open kitchens made of wood and canvas. Inside, a massive iron grill casts a glow on sun-drenched diners, who toast with chilled caipiroskas. Servers slide past each other at Chuck Taylors, bringing wooden trays of grilled steaks, grilled shrimp and grilled vegetables to the tables. Everything is smooth. Everything is fine. Everyone is happy.
Welcome to La Huella, the most idyllic seaside restaurant in the world.
“We are a parador, a simple beach restaurant with simple food,” says Alejandro Morales, the chef at La Huella. Except it isn't. During January, Morales and his team of 40 cooks serve up to 1.000 tapas a day. How many simple beach restaurants bake their own bread, partner with organic farms to grow their vegetables, and publish a cookbook?
The owners of La Huella - Martín Pittaluga, Gustavo Barbero and Guzmán Artagaveytia - opened the restaurant many years ago. The idea was to feed the tourists on vacation during the summer and the people of José Ignacio all year round. Soon after, boutique hotels, luxury sports cars, and trendy entertainment began to descend on the sleepy fishing village. Over the years, the trio have brought their expertise in European and South American restaurants, cultivating an ecosystem that is both a way of life and a place for good food and drink.
La Huella: The End of the World Restaurant
During the offseason, the team travels overseas to find ideas to bring to the mothership. Morales' mastery of asado - the South American tradition of cooking meat over an open fire - is homegrown, but he learned how to make paella in Spain and seafood pasta in Italy. La Huella's bread technique is from the Tartine bakery in San Francisco, and the idea for organic farms came from Chez Panisse.
In turn, this culinary cross-pollination is now attracting diners from around the world. American chefs on vacation looking for that kind of laid-back atmosphere, like the one in Montauk when the Rolling Stones crashed into Andy Warhol's house, have started picking up on the tales of La Huella and the bohemian José Ignacio: “ Everything in La Huella was magical, magical, magical, ”says Frank Falcinelli, who took time from his burgeoning Frankies Spuntino empire in New York City to choose José Ignacio earlier this year. Falcinelli and his partner, Frank Castronovo, are globetrotting to research ideas for their restaurants. "But I haven't seen anything at that level or that great," he says. "There is no place like La Huella in the world."
I followed the smoke signals south in early March, arriving during the Uruguayan summer. As the food editor for Bon Appétit, I had also come on a mission to learn more about barbecue. I don't want to exaggerate, but the fire speaks to me. As a restaurant cook, I took advantage of the fire cycle in grills and wood-fired ovens. So I was in La Huella to learn the language of flames and embers.
Uruguayan cuisine has evolved beyond the strips of meat that the gauchos roasted over the fire. And the backyard grill has replaced the open fires of the plains. However, asado, which refers to both the event and the act of grilling, is still part of the fabric of Uruguayan culture, and meat is the staff of life. “We have been barbecuers since we are born,” Morales tells me.
In six days, in restaurants and patios, on the beach and in a luxurious barbecue in a new farmhouse, I ate almost a quarter of my weight in succulent sausages, blood sausages, sweetbreads, kidneys, ribs, flank steaks, rump steaks, suckling pig, pork skirt meat and roast lamb. The meat is always served in this progressive order of the roast: first the sausage, then the tripe, and last the most precious cuts. Most of it was delicious, though a little stale and juicier in flavor, and it cooked to a point Americans are used to. It is in the context of this meal, however, that the calming powers of the ink Malbecs and the intense grape Tannat are understood.
The days and meals in José Ignacio unfold in a dream of blue smoke. I attend a barbecue in the backyard behind Gustavo Barbero de La Huella's house. Its brick grill is built at waist height so that a man can look at the fire from eye level and feed firewood to a raised iron box called a box. As the fire burns, the coals fall to the grill floor, where they are raked under the iron grill.
Tonight, Morales and Barbero grill an entire section of short ribs, called a manta, flipping the rack at an angle so the thicker ends are closer to the fire. Patience is the key. The meat slowly caramelizes over the coals while also taking direct heat from the fire in the box. Meanwhile, there is plenty of whiskey and red wine, and Barbero will satisfy our hunger with slices of the crisp ends of the meat. Lastly, once the meat is half juicy, we eat it, no frills, along with mashed roast potatoes reheated on the grill.
The next day, the La Huella team took me to the private club that they opened last year. La Caracola is a dream of sea and sky in a strip of sand isolated from the mainland by a tidal lagoon. This time, Morales plays pitmaster in a fireplace so big you could park a Chevy Tahoe in it. He spreads a whole organic lamb on a grill one foot from the fireplace floor, then rakes the coals under and around the grates. We drink mate, swim and talk during the four hours it takes for the lamb meat to start to rise from the bone. The soft coals, along with the salt, pepper and time, transform the lamb into a smoky, mahogany brown barbecue that rivals any whole pork you've ever eaten.
As good as the meat is, La Huella's seafood is even better. Morales opposes the tradition of roasting by using corvina, a thick, fleshy fish with white scales, and leaving it on the scales. When its embers have died down to a perfect medium, Morales brushes the meat with melted butter and bathes it with salt and pepper. He then seals it meat side down, just six inches above the coals. Finally he flips it over and lets it finish cooking in its own juices.
By bringing these lessons to the table, I have come to realize that the asado, like the atmosphere at La Huella, is not magical. It is born from a ritual and feeds on experience and hard work. First you need to establish a fire and a charcoal base. If you feed it and take care of it, the fire will burn bright and hot.