Thursday, January 22, 2015

Peruvian Numero Dos

China Chilcano still seems to be in a soft opening-ish stage; I was informed when I called to ask about walk-ins that they were limiting capacity for table seating but that we would be welcome to try for bar seats.  Luckily we snagged two about five minutes after arriving at the half-empty restaurant at around 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday last week.  The space is larger than I'd expected, similar in vibe to the remodeled, cooler Jaleo, with a slightly nautical air thanks to heavy coils of rope hanging from various ceiling fixtures.  (I wasn't a fan of the rope; it weighed down an otherwise pretty airy space.)

We started well with the Papas a la Huancaina y Ocopa (Potato, ají amarillo sauce, huacatay sauce, fresh cheese).  A very plated version of what I understand to be a classic Peruvian dish: two rows of tiny, perfect halved potatoes,one dressed with yellow pepper sauce (a bit mayonnaise-y for my taste, but just a personal preference) and cheese, the other with a green huacatay sauce (black mint, an interesting herb that I'd first tried at Ocopa) and garnished with chopped nuts (walnuts?  pecans?).  Boiled quail egg halves also dotted the plate.  Excellent overall, and I particularly liked the vibrant huacatay sauce and crunchy nuts. 

Next arrived the Chupe de Camarón (Shrimp, fresh cheese, Peruvian corn, potato, poached egg, rice).  In Andres restaurant tradition, the broth was poured tableside -- or, in our case (for understandable space reasons), barside while still on the waiter's tray, which deprived us of a view of what was in the bowl before it was submerged.  Much less stew-like than I'd anticipated, I couldn't really distinguish any of the listed ingredients except the head-on shrimp and rice.  The thin broth was tasty but needed more salt and acid to really make it pop, and the rice bed at the bottom of the bowl tasted underseasoned. 

We were thoroughly disappointed by the Jaladito Norteño (Hamachi tiradito-style, ají amarillo leche de tigre, Peruvian corn, huacatay).  The hamachi was so fishy that we sent it back, and the leche de tigre on the one bite that I tried was surprisingly bland and needed acid.  (We are generally loathe to send a dish back unless there's something truly objectionable about it, but we both realized that we had no interest in eating more than our first bite each.)  Maybe just an off night/batch of fish, but not good. 

The Tiradito de Concha Abanico con Kumquats (Live scallop in half-shell, kumquat leche de tigre, masago pearls, tobiko) was much better.  The scallops tasted very fresh (as you'd expect from the "live" description), and I liked the sour-sweet of the kumquat. The pile of scallop slices was thickly ringed in jewel-red tobiko, which added salt when combined, but I found the scallop slices to be undersalted if not balanced with enough roe.  We were told to dredge the scallops in a tiny dish of masago rice pearls (presumably for texture?), which I found weird because then the first thing to hit my tongue was their unseasoned, bland rice flavor.  I liked but didn't love this dish; dishes with disparate components that require me to combine the elements just right to get proper seasoning and flavor are a pet peeve of mine.

Another high point of dinner was the Uni (Nigiri-style potato causa, fresh sea urchin, wasabi, masago pearls, yuzu).  Little rectangles of potato (with a pleasant surprise of jicama in the middle) were rolled in rice pearls (better here than in with the scallops) and topped with uni.  The uni flavor was more of an ensemble member than the star that I'd expected, but the overall combination was delicious. 

We really liked the Raspadilla de Chicha Morada (Shaved purple corn ice, lemongrass menjar blanco, pineapple), which prompted our neighbors at the bar to ask what we'd ordered when they saw the mound of vivid purple-red shaved ice.  Tasty in a fruity sort of way that wasn't noticeably corn flavored; if you'd told me it was hibiscus, I also would have believed that.  (Upon writing this, I think this purple corn might be the same thing that's used in the limeade-y drink that starts meals at Ocopa.)  The menjar blanco tasted like dulce de leche custard, which I love (although I didn't pick up on lemongrass).  A refreshing sweet end to dinner. 

The drink list isn't as extensive (or enticing, to me) as Ocopa's, but I enjoyed my Déjame Quererte (Quebranta Pisco, persimmon, cinnamon, lemon).  It was nicely acidic, not too sweet, and the cinnamon made it feel seasonally appropriate despite its otherwise light fruitiness.  The bf wasn't drinking so went with the Agua de Loco (Crazy man’s water flavored with apple and cinnamon), which tasted pretty much as you'd guess from the description.  I liked it more than he did. 

As the second Peruvian restaurant to open in DC in five months, it's impossible for me to write about China Chilcano without comparing it to Ocopa (as this post reflects throughout). Maybe that's unfair, given that Ocopa has had more time to establish itself (and I've eaten there three times to CC's one), but fair or not, I cut such a seasoned chef and restaurateur as Chef Andres less slack than I would give to someone opening a first restaurant.  I'm always happy to go to Zaytinya, think barmini is fantastic, have had many excellent meals at minibar, Jaleo, and Oyamel over the years (and still miss Cafe Atlantico for brunch) -- all of which contribute to my expectations for any new addition to the empire.  While I found a number of things to like about CC -- and I liked it well enough that I'll go back in a few months -- it's currently clearly the inferior of the two Peruvian options in town on food and drinks.  (In contrast, my first meal at Ocopa back in September left me excited to return, and our recent third was the best yet.)  I'll definitely keep an eye on others' reports in the months to come.


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