In the town of Jose Ignacio, in Playa Brava, Punta del Este, Uruguay, Parador La Huella is as captivating as the beach where it is located. In this relaxed beach restaurant, the guests are exposed to fresh sea breezes and discrete sophistication.
As close as one gets to paradise in Punta del Este, the restaurant hosts the most exclusive events in town, but still manages to keep the tranquility and privacy that characterize it. For this reason, it is the favorite of personalities and celebrities such as Prince Pierre Casiraghi, Luciano Benetton, Shakira and Naomi Campbell. The idyllic setting is carefully guarded by the attentive care of its owners, Martín Pitaluga and Guzmán Artagaveytia, and the atmosphere is enlivened by the delightful libations prepared by the expert mixologist, Paola Debrun. But the reason people come to La Huella is for the natural flavors that come to their table, prepared by a team of accomplished cooks.
Beyond fashion and trends, this “almost secret” corner occupies the 20th place in Restaurant Magazine’s list of the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America. Credit is due, obviously, to chef Alejandro Morales’ timeless cuisine.
In 2002, Morales was looking for his place in the world and discovered La Huella. “I stayed here because I found the main ingredients to build my kitchen. In particular, congenial human relations and endless gastronomic possibilities”, he recalls.
Morales’ kitchen is the result of years of experimentation and bears his distinctive, personal stamp. “In La Huella, we are very strict with the simplicity of our cuisine. There is even a joke about being forbidden to decorate the dishes. Somehow, we want to remind our guests of the flavors of home”, says the chef. “My main goal is to prepare food that is timeless and not constricted by the mandates of the latest trends. Neither ancient, modern, not futuristic, it should belong in any or all times.”
His experiences in San Francisco, California, have informed the course of his career. In 2007, Morales did an internship at Chez Panisse, a restaurant-school owned and managed by Alice Waters, a pioneer of the Slow Food Movement, which features and highlights seasonal, farm-to-able cuisine.
Some time later, and after his graduation, Gilbert Pilgram, one of the Movement’s founders, and a benchmark of California cuisine chose La Huella for the for the celebration of the school’s anniversary dinner. This was a challenge for Morales. “Alice Waters showed up for the event. At first, I was nervous, but then I relaxed because I knew how to entertain and host my former teachers and colleagues. I had to choose, very carefully, the products to prepare something simple. At the end, she was impressed with the place.”
Onion tarts, grilled sea bass, sautéed seafood or mussels Provencal acquire unsuspected intensity in Morales’ hands. His idea of excellence is embodied in a salad of organic tomatoes made with plants that have not been genetically modified or grafted to accelerate their growth. Morales worked, for three years, to get the right flavor, texture and size of his perfect tomatoes. “This dish gives me great satisfaction. In California, we get old seeds that precede the advent of agricultural industrialization and plant and develop them for three years until we are able to prepare this salad, which is served with a side dressing of basil, sea salt and olive oil. It is an iconic summer dish, the result of a sophisticated effort in conjunction with local organic farmers.”
Although, in recent times, chefs have become celebrities, Morales prefers teamwork, carried out from the orchards to the kitchen, and his dishes are exquisite works of culinary art. His classics appear in the recent book La Huella. Historias y Recetas del Parador (La Huella. Stories and Recipes from the Parador), a gastronomic treasure full of meticulous recipes and beautiful images by photographer Eric Wolfinger.
“The act of writing a book forced us to translate our idea onto paper, which made it even stronger. The hardest thing was presenting the recipes in a way the reader would understand. But you must always have a minimum of intuition when cooking.”
His meeting with Wolfinger brought him closer to another book, Tartine Bread, from one of San Francisco’s most prestigious bakeries, which inspired him to make his now mythical country bread.
The same simplicity is applied to the desserts, delicately created by Florencia Courrèges, Morales’ wife. “Desserts are very simple. Although there is a high degree of technical complexity, they are austere in quantity of ingredients and decor. We avoid frills because we are not making pastry sculptures,”, says the chef, proudly, about his wife’s creations.
Few places are able to balance authentic flavors, relaxed atmosphere and exclusivity. But Parador Las Huellas achieves this, and more, with characteristic ease and simplicity. ■
PHOTOS: Alexia Fodere.