It was our luck to arrive as the independence celebration was in full swing, commemorating the day in 1818 when a guy with the unlikely name of O’Higgins dubbed himself supreme director. As we squeezed in the door, an elderly platinum blond in a cowboy hat and fringed vest circled the room. Trailed by a power-chording guitarist, she clutched a microphone and a red carnation as she belted patriotic songs, while the audience cacophonously chimed in on the choruses. It’s a credit to the staff that they greeted us non-Chilenos warmly and found a table removed from the hubbub.
Las Gaviotas (“the seagulls”) is one of three Chilean restaurants in New York, and the least culinarily ambitious. Absent are the seagoing peculiarities of El Arrayan, which include an abalone cousin called locos mayos, and the elegant whole-fish preparations and toothsome peasant fare of Pomaire. Instead we have a comfy bar in Woodside, handy to the BQE, with a menu of South American bar food, some of it quite good. We were delighted by a ceviche of corvina ($6.50), a favorite Chilean fish sometimes called spotfin croaker as a result of the ugly noises it makes when caught. Dotted with finely chopped scallions and swamped in lime, this version is more chilled soup than seafood salad, looking to Ecuador for inspiration rather than Peru or Mexico. It’s so rich that a single serving goes a long way.
The empanadas de queso ($2.50), too, were flawless—bulging half-moon pies with braided spines and a filling of cheese that pulls away in thick ropes when you take a bite. Another excellent starter reflects the cuisine of the frosty southern third of the country: humitas, a double corn whammy of sweet kernels in a warm pudding of corn meal—like a tamale, only bigger, flatter, softer. But other dishes tanked, as if the restaurant really didn’t care. Pastel de choclo ($8.50), a crock-baked pie of chicken and corn, tasted dry and reheated, a pale shadow of Pomaire’s rendition, while the clams orreganata featured big bruisers with a soggy crumb coating and a slight off-taste. Biggest disaster was the pricey mariscada ($13.95), a plethora of seafood in a dishwater broth.
The cooks at Las Gaviotas show an unexpected proficiency at Italian food, perhaps in emulation of their counterparts across the Andes in Argentina, though a tiny fraction of the Chilean population traces Italian roots. Indeed, the long list of pastas (averaging $7) would do a Neapolitan joint proud, and their saucy abundance easily provides fodder for two. Most of my companions preferred the penne arrabiata with its unusual vodka-laced sauce I hear is more commonly deployed with the rigatoni, while I went for a swimming-in-cream spaghetti carbonara rife with shredded ham. The length of a battleship and smothered in mozzarella, the veal parmigiana ($12) was another fave, though top honors went to a dish that, save for the two fried eggs on top, could be found in half the restaurants on the planet: a 16-ounce sirloin ($13.50), perfectly broiled with masses of great fries. Skip the ketchup and deploy the pebre, a lusty homemade relish that accompanies every Chilean meal.
There’s no wine list, but the barkeep will let you step behind the bar to examine the bottles. Chile has been applauded for its inexpensive table wines, and Las Gaviotas serves them exclusively. We particularly liked a 2000 Undurraga cabernet sauvignon ($18), which flaunted big fruit while going easy on the tannins. And don’t miss the pisco sour, the national cocktail of grape brandy, lime juice, and frothy egg whites. Kind of like ceviche, but without the fish.