I am always intrigued by a new restaurant, especially one that I regularly pass by on my way home. And in this case the prospect of trying Peruvian cuisine for the first time and seeing the “top urbanspoon restaurant” sticker on their door, added to the intrigued and heightened my want to try.
The darkness of the space set the ambience and distracted from the smell of an old room, a very narrow old room. To my left, a row of tables backed by booths; on the right, a bar reaching back, as long as the restaurant. The tables were all double tops, tiled in teal and framed by varnished wood. On them sat tea lights flickering in mini metal buckets. The bar had two beers on tap, and a series of bottles on three tier shelves. Shelves painted in sky blue and spotlighted with tea lights in glass holders. Dinner features were highlighted on a chalkboard behind. Due to spacing limitations anyone passing through was forced to bump into chairs and jostle the bodies in them. I questioned how comfortable it would be for anyone of slightly larger girth. The decor included wall planters with greenery growing out at an angle, space enlarging mirrors, and sewn art work. The latter was the only piece that hinted at their Peruvian theme and inspirations. It was a series of scenes with alpacas, mountains, landscapes, and thatched huts.
Starting dinner at 5pm meant we avoided the wait and had the attention of the sole server on tonight. This being our introduction to Peruvian cuisine, she took the time to thoroughly walk us through menu items. Not knowing what was good, and not knowing what a few of the listed ingredients even were, we relied heavily on her expertise. She explained that their Peruvian food was not the traditional sort. It was a modern fusion interpretation, that was heavily influenced by flavours found in African, Spanish, Chinese, and other Asian cuisines. Rich spices, soya sauce, and chilli peppers.
The menu was a large sheet, a listing of small plates and tapas shareables. And on the back, a preview of what their “Dine Out 2014” menu would look like at the end of the month. A look, but you can’t order policy was in place. We were hungry so took her suggestion of ordering four items to share between two girls.
“Causa Atun”, whipped and chilled potato with cilantro, local albacore tuna marinated in a soy sesame sauce, wasabi cream, and passion fruit ponzu. Never had green potatoes before. By looks alone you expect this appetizer to be warm. Though as the “chilled” in its description promised, each bite was a cold mash of ingredients. A texture so soft that the tower of green potatoes collapsed with one prick of my fork. Simplified, this was a mashed potato salad with a Japanese twist. The flavour of the creamy ponzu came through, spicy and a hair too salty. I did not find the potatoes as they were enjoyable, I couldn’t get over its grainy texture; and they needed the extra zing from the tastier tuna chunks.
Off the feature menu we ordered their “Special empanadas”. In house made pastry pockets stuffed with savoury filling. Mushroom, spinach, bacon, and cheese; served with a Peruvian sweety pepper jelly. You knew the empanadas were fresh, they came hot. Each was intense in cheesy flavour, without being too overwhelming. The jelly that came as its accompaniment, really made this dish memorable. It reminded me of sweet Thai chilli sauce. The savoury pastry with the sweet jelly was a great balance. My only critique was that each piece was browned differently.
“Antichuchos pulpo y chorizo”. Peruvian grilled skewers in octopus and chorizo. Served with a Peruvian black olive aioli, basil, and an aji Amarillo mash. The octopus was chewy to the point it was difficult to eat. It didn’t help that the two pieces per skewer came too large to fit comfortable in the side of your mouth. And once you were able to break the octopus down, it’s texture only got more gritty. My guest felt that the cold aioli threw off the warmth and taste of the potatoes adjacent. The sauce, a little bitter and familiar, but nothing we could put our finger on. This was my least favourite dish.
Another item off the feature menu,”Baked crab huancana macaroni”. Sweety peppers, pea shoots, and garlic bread crumbs. This was a good fail safe. A safe menu pick in case we didn’t like anything before and were still left hungry. Realistically this was nothing special. A cheesy Mac and cheese missing its promised crab. When the title mentions crab you expect to see crab meat and to taste it. Crab was not the star of this dish. And I wished for more bread crumbs, a thicker coating for more of a balanced chrunchy versus tender texture. The sweety peppers were an interesting addition. Each dot a pop of sweetness. And it along with the peas gave the otherwise bland plate some colour. Definitely not worth $16, as the most expensive dish of the night.
Still feeling adventurous we added on one more dish to our line up. Another recommendation, “Papas rellenas (potato croquettes). Made with Pemberton meadows beef, olives, currants, salsa de criolla, and rocota chili mayo. Maybe we got full waiting for it, but we found it unappetizing, and no different than all the other tastes before it. Sad, as we had specifically asked for something different to try. The greens on the side gave things a much needed lighter and fresher taste; and helped to cut out some of the salt. The sauce was the same spicy mayo sauce reused, it gave things a delicate spiciness. Overall this was a heavy dish, indicative of its large plate description. But piping
hot inside, I had to blow and chew at the same time. With the potato and ground beef we found it closely resembled Shepard’s pie, but deep fried.
Our meal was cleverly staggered light and worked itself heavier. However the last dish was one two many. The portion size and flavours reminded us of a popular Japanese tapas. Especially with its common use of black and white sesame seeds and the familiar flavour of ponzu, soya sauce, and Japanese mayonnaise. The smaller tables and multiple plates made maneuvering dishware a necessity. A common occurrence and something I always found curious, the expectation is that guests order multiple dishes, yet the table tops do not accommodate such.
By 7pm our one server was juggling six tables full and three bodies at the bar. The only other employee working front of house was the bartender. He never engaged tables, but helped to bus dishes and take phone calls. When we asked to pay, we were left to read our way through the portable debit machine’s operations. Something that was not her fault. I recalled when we first sat down, the patience she showed in walking us through the menu. And the expertise she showcased when highlight the varying elements on each plate. She needed help assisting guests tonight.
Would I come back? – No. The food was good and all the dishes were unique to try for the first time. Though as we worked our way through the multiples we found the flavours repetitive and the elements recycled. Three out of five of our dishes featured the same whipped and mashed potato purée. We left feeling that nothing beat the initial first bite of our first dish.
Would I recommend it? – Yes. It is not often you come across a Peruvian restaurant in Vancouver. Like its theme, a few of it’s ingredients are rare. You are bound to try something new and maybe find something you like. Don’t deny your cravings.