“The Ancient South American Secret Is Now Yours,” read the label on a mysterious package delivered to my door last week. “Drink. Think. Live. Love. Top Leaf Maté.”
It was a selection of teas sent by a Chilean friend who lives in Oregon. He had added a note: “Maté is pretty good with bourbon too.”
Maté is a tea made from yerba buena, a mintlike herb believed, among other things, to boost the immune system, soothe digestion and calm nerves. I didn’t try it with bourbon (never having acquired much of a taste for that whiskey), but I discovered that it was pretty good with pisco, a grape brandy. At Yerba Buena in the East Village, it comes in a cocktail, made with Chilean pisco, lime and grapefruit cordials, called a “Boludo Yerba Maté.”
The restaurant, on a grungy stretch of Avenue A just above Houston Street, looks like a dive in Old Havana. The lofty wood-paneled bar, back-lit in turquoise and lime green, is hung with smoked-glass wrought-iron lamps and flanked by palm fronds. A blown-up photograph of a street in Cuba dominated by a 1959 Chevy BelAir hangs on the opposite wall. The sound system pumps out a mix of salsa, Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban music, but the loudest noise is the rattling of the cocktail shaker.
Behind the bar, dressed in a dark shirt and vest, Artemio Vasquez mixes the restaurant’s drinks. No girly cocktails here. He previously worked at Pegu Club and PDT and his Latin concoctions, made with fresh juices, are as much of a draw as the food. The Pisco Sour is served in a goblet, topped with beaten egg whites decorated with a swirl of angostura bitters in a lotus leaf pattern. The Yerba Buena Mojito—not too sweet—is made with mint leaves steeped in yerba buena, squeezed through a strainer into the rum over ice cubes. You can also start the evening off with a caipirinha or something more esoteric, such as a Desert Rose: rose-infused gin, prickly pear purée and lemon juice.
YERBA BUENA’S pan-Latin menu is overseen by Julian Medina, chef, owner and partner; Mr. Medina also owns Toloache, a Mexican restaurant in midtown. Partner and general manager Giovanny Campos devised the wine list, which has a wide selection of Latin, California and Spanish choices at reasonable prices. (Kudos to our charming French waiter, who when asked which of three albariños he recommended steered us to his favorite, which also happened to be the cheapest, a smoky Martin Codax from Spain at $30.)
The small, low-lit dining room, manned by an affable staff dressed in black, seats just 50 on white leather chairs and banquettes. Plain wooden tables are set with votive candles, and through the louvered shutters at the back of the room, you can catch glimpses of the kitchen. Long, narrow mirrors are tilted along the walls, which are covered in white flock paper; the mirrors allow people facing in from the room to see the action.
And there is plenty of it. Every time I came here there were birthdays, duly noted and celebrated by the staff with sparkler-topped desserts, singing and general applause. (One of my friends, carried away by it all, even inquired about renting the place for New Year’s Eve.)