“When I was little, my mum always used to give me really hard cheeses to eat. That’s why I love parmesan now,” says Naiara Calviño, chef and owner of Aipim.
And it’s a good thing her mother had such excellent taste because that palate, developed so young, has taken Calviño around Latin America — to Peru, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil — seeking out new flavours.
What makes this new restaurant owner so interesting is her desire to be so completely rounded in every aspect of running a business.
Studying to be a sommelier at CAVE wine institute, after finishing her culinary education at the IAG gastronomical institute, Calviño has worked at Ocho7Ocho, Bar Urondo and latterly at Hernán Gipponi Restaurant as wait staff, because, she says, “working in service was the only thing I hadn’t done.”
So with such devotion to offering a complete package, she opened Aipim, which means mandioca in Portuguese, four months ago.
Fusing flavours is the aim of the short menu, and she has dabbled with regional dishes as well as national favourites, lessons learned on the ground in those countries neighbouring Argentina.
Excluding Peruvian cuisine, there’s certainly a lack of Latin-infused in Buenos Aires, with many chefs using their European experiences, understandably, when setting up shop.
Visiting the Guia Oleo online guide, there are a mere four Brazilian restaurants. Four! From our vast neighbour, with millions more citizens than Argentinas has, not even a handful of eateries exist in BA.
So to find a cosy place in the heart of Soho that is making a distinct effort to give more than a passing nod to neighbouring cuisines is as welcome as a palette cleanser.
With 20 covers, at first glance Aipim seems almost bare, the red-brick walls rather rustic next to the Scandinavian-style tables, the recycled corrugated iron roof shaping the bar, and white folding chairs which don’t look especially inviting. But then it starts to make sense.
The welcome is warm and pulling up a seat, the wool starts to unravel and the concept starts to take shape. The thought that has gone into blending elements — original walls with angular tables, a pair of citrus armchairs alluringly placed in the front window whose orange tone matches the menu, enlarged snapshots of ready-to-devour seafood from somewhere that isn’t Buenos Aires, the vast array of cookbooks from Nigella Lawson to Noma restaurant and a dozen Italian guides in between — the fusion blends together perfectly. The attention to the interior’s detail is second to none.
And what’s so interesting is that exactly the same thing happens when Calviño’s food reaches your mouth.
She’s kept the menu simple, but it’s also exciting with more unusual ingredients taking charge of the menu: the four starters, which average the 65-peso mark, encompass veal sweetbreads, pollock cheeks, pork knuckle and burratta cheese.
Table mate Mr. Links opted for coxinhas stuffed with pork knuckle, accompanied by a mango salsa and malgueta pepper alioli. In a nod to Brazil, these croquettes didn’t quite kick like a mule, but had a warming aftertaste and the flavours came together: tropical meets trotters.
My starter was a home goal, given that I’m always ready to slather mollejas in lemon. Although the prospect of an humita bed of corn didn’t thrill me, the cobs had been lovingly puréed without letting in any old husk, and so the taste was much smoother and less sweet than what stuffs an empanada. Perhaps it was the more savoury, expertly crisped sweetbread offsetting the corn — on the tongue it was a delight to eat, and a generous size serving. The best humita I’ve had.
A quick note on the wine blackboard. Calviño had some solid picks on the red-heavy list including Riglos, Pulenta, Tapiz, and a couple of Clos de los Siete blends such as Petite Fleur.
Another quick note. I loved the bread basket. Rosemary focaccia freshly baked in house, with butter soft enough to spread on without sawing through it. Little things. Details. She’s getting it right.
And after that interlude, let’s talk main courses. The magic number is six, and includes a catch of the day. Also of note, mainly because most BA restaurants, when they try to get it right, get it horrible wrong, is an impeccable English translation of each dish.
Perhaps Mr. Links was reliving a past life as a truffle-sniffing hog as he opted for pork tenderloin at 84 pesos, swimming for its life in black beans, and fried plantain, and an orange-coriander-red onion salad. It gave him a yearning for those Puerto Rican, family-style dishes in NYC.
Trying the pork, he said it was “alright”, but once all the other ingredients came together on the fork, there was more bite for your buck. The process behind fusing those flavours — slivers of Brazil and Peru — has clearly been long and thought-out, and as a complete dish, it was fresh, zesty and decidedly Latin.
My duck breast (104 pesos) came in slices as perfectly pink as Government House. Sautéed in a frying pan, Donald’s plate mates included sopa paraguaya, which is about as distant from a soup as you can get (it’s a kind of corn bread), caramelized peaches and shoyu leaves.
Eating fatty duck skin might be a turn-off to many, but slathering it with a fruit distinctive to the traditional plum was a refreshing welcome. Perfectly cooked, again, the taste and textural combination of those four elements in the mouth was so enjoyable: dining at Aipim made eating a pleasure, rather than a necessity.
Thames 1535, Palermo Soho