If you've ever enjoyed a baked potato or an order of French fries, you have Peru to thank. Of course, we all learned in school that the potato came from Peru and that people there enjoy a gazillion different varieties. Anything more about Peruvian cuisine, though, and most people would draw a blank.
But all that is about to change as Peru sprints onto the culinary scene. René Redzepi from Noma in Copenhagen, one of the world's best restaurants, tweeted just last week, photo attached: "Im in Lima! This guy grows more than 1000 varieties of potatoes. The Brad Pitt of soil!"
Luckily, we're ahead of the curve here in L.A. We've enjoyed some pretty good mom-and-pop Peruvian restaurants over the years. Now, though, we have a bona fide crossover star in Ricardo Zarate, a Peruvian chef who has paid his dues in high-end kitchens both here and abroad. A few months ago, he launched his second restaurant, Picca, a Peruvian cantina where he's packing in an enthusiastic crowd for his vibrant Andes-accented cooking.
The gestalt of the place is exciting and electric. It's a high wire act, though, as Zarate attempts to do for Peruvian food what New York's David Chang has done for Korean. Picca's menu delights with bold combinations of flavors and textures. Some dishes feel like they should come with cartoon dialogue: Smash! Bang! Boom! Others are slightly more subdued. The same elements — sauces, ingredients, techniques — repeat perhaps too much, but overall I'm a big fan of this homegrown Peruvian cantina.
Zarate's career hasn't followed the usual trajectory. He very much goes his own way. After cooking at Wabi-Sabi in Venice and Zu Robata in West L.A., two years ago he opened Mo-Chica in Mercado La Paloma near USC, just a little place with low overhead where he could cook exactly what he liked and see how it went.
It went well, and even better when he starred at the pop-up Test Kitchen on Pico Boulevard (downstairs from where Picca is now, the spot currently occupied by Sotto). This year too, Zarate was named one of Food & Wine magazine's 10 best new chefs. Not bad for a guy who had basically only a food stall when he won the award.
Now Picca is here, and it's been worth the wait. On a Saturday night, the place is humming. From my seat in the window, I can see the cars pull up below, dispensing excited foodies, sedate couples, South Americans coming for a taste of home. Young women in short, short skirts and vertiginous heels hold on to each other, climbing the steep stairs to the entrance like frisky mountain goats.
Inside, it's wild — and loud, it's true, but with such a sense of fun that you'd have to be a real curmudgeon to mind. (The lounge upstairs is said to be quieter, but I've never been seated there.) I love the look of it — the chalkboard running around the open kitchen, the bulbous black lamps hanging in a clump from long cords, the booth upholstered in shaggy faux fur and the square poufs covered in cowhide. One black wall is painted with what looks like a computer circuit board. It's actually an abstraction of an aerial photo of Machu Picchu.
First comes the cocktail list. My order of the Avocado Project gets a thumbs up from our server. I can see why. The velvety drink is a pale mossy green, perfectly poised between sweet and tart, with the taste of white rum zipping through it. And, like a number of cocktails here, it actually goes with the food. Pisco Sour, made with fresh lemon and lime juice and topped with cassia-scented egg white, is dressed up and ready to party. If you've never had one, this is the place. Mixologist Julian Cox's version is sassy and elegant at the same time.
Picca means "nibble," and that's just how Zarate has designed the menu, around small plates in — count 'em — seven categories. To start, I'd head straight for the chicharrón de pollo, nuggets of marinated chicken fried and topped with a zippy salsa criolla. Eat them straight or dip in the coral rocoto chile aioli. But you have to have the pan-fried oysters as well. They're served warm and crunchy in the shell with a cool salsa on the top and bottom.
You'll want an order of the empanadas to share too. You get three, each with a different complexly spiced filling. The half-moon pastry is flaky, and I can never decide whether I like the savory beef or the eggplant better. Papa rellena, the traditional potato stuffed with slow-braised beef and hard-boiled egg, is strictly comfort food, especially when dosed with some of that rocoto aioli.
What looks like plates of sushi sailing around the room are Zarate's riffs on causa, the Peruvian dish that layers mashed potatoes with other ingredients. Here, the kitchen meticulously forms the potato into dense rectangles as a replacement for nigiri sushi rice. It looks beautiful, each rectangle topped with spicy tuna. Spicy yellowtail with wasabi tobiko is deftly prepared, and unagi glazed with sweet eel sauce makes a wonderful topping, but the potato underneath throws these sushi variations out of balance. It's a clever idea that just doesn't quite work.
Manager Stephane Bombet has done a great job in hiring the staff. They're all friendly, enthusiastic and efficient. They also seem proud to serve the food, always a good sign.
I absolutely love the ceviches. The flavors are as vivid and sharp as details in a hyper-realistic painting. And the textures! When you have sea bass with choclo (giant dried corn), chunks of sweet potato and a lime-drenched leche de tigre marinade, it's dynamite. Ceviche croccante wows me with its play on texture — halibut against crispy calamari with some Japanese seaweed.
Zarate is an iconoclast who will use anything that works to make a dish sing. He cooks with confidence — and joy. And that joy is contagious. This is one rollicking restaurant. Whoops of laughter bounce around the room. People are eating with their fingers, passing plates back and forth.
Anticuchos, two skewers to an order, are a treat, especially the corazón (beef heart) with its incredibly rich and deep flavor. Black cod slicked with sweet miso is another favorite, along with baby potatoes with hard-boiled quail eggs, cheesy huancaína sauce and crispy pancetta.
As for the more robust plates, herded under the rubric cuartos, I like the rice dishes best, especially arroz con erizo, Peruvian paella with a mess of seafood and the funk of sea urchin sauce. Every bite is different.
This is not a place where you have to search for the flavors; they practically jump off the plate into your mouth. Take the duck confit with spicy cilantro rice or the sumptuous black cod on a chunky sun-dried potato and tomato stew, which could be my favorite dish.
But desserts don't ring any bells. Why would you stuff tres leches cake into a glass, making it hard to eat, and cover it with more sweet things, including a shard of white chocolate? Or serve tepid and slightly tough churros, already stuffed with cream, with three sweet dipping sauces? It's one of those culinary mysteries.
It's no mystery, though, why Picca is rocking. Gutsy modern Peruvian cooking. Dreamy cocktails. A smart and savvy staff. And a kitchen crew the size of a football team moving around the kitchen double-time. Note the item at the very bottom of the menu: appreciation beer (for the kitchen), $6. Spring for it.
Rating: two-and-a-half stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
****: Outstanding on every level.
**: Very good.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 9575 Pico Blvd. (between Beverly Drive and Beverwil Drive), Los Angeles, (310) 277-0133, http://www.piccaperu.com
Prices: First courses, $7 to $12; causa sushi, $5 to $7; ceviches and tiraditos, $9 to $14; anticuchos, $6 to $12; larger courses, $12 to $16; desserts, $7. Corkage fee, $25.
Details: Open for dinner 6 to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Valet parking, $6.50.