Dining Out: Review of La Kerencya Peruvian restaurant in Hartford

Every year or so a new Peruvian restaurant seems to open in the Hartford area. And every year or so I use the occasion as an excuse to repeat my prediction that this year Peruvian food is going to become the next big thing. So much for my predictions. But then again, maybe the simple fact that new Peruvian restaurants keep opening up in the region is proof enough that Peruvian food is becoming more and more popular. Or maybe it just means that the Peruvian population in central Connecticut is growing. Or both. At any rate, I recently had a huge lunch at La Kerencya, a — get this — new Peruvian restaurant on Franklin Avenue in Hartford's South End.

Unlike many of the other Peruvian restaurants in the area, the interior isn't filled with depictions of Andean culture. (This may be the first Peruvian restaurant I've seen without a Machu Picchu mural.) Instead, you might call the inside subdued, except for the jolt of bright orange (almost safety orange) trim that adds a vibrant South American accent to the space's darker brick cantina feel. There's a bar near the entrance. And a main dining room is flanked by slightly more elevated side rooms, one with windows onto the street. There's a handsome small stage where live jazz, Latin music and occasional comedy are performed. The stereo played a mix of percussive Afro-Peruvian classics and more recent crooners.

The staff is eager to help out anyone unfamiliar with Peruvian food. Anyone who's avoided Peruvian cuisine out of fear of the unknown should find ample assistance from the staff and the clear menu. For Americans — those from the U.S., I mean — Peruvian food presents a kind of alternate universe of our melting-pot cuisine. We're used to a jumble of Italian, German, African-American and other influences in our national fare. The same is true of Peruvian cooking, only it's with a different set of variables, or a different accent.

A meal at a Peruvian restaurant typically starts out, as mine did at La Kerencya, with a basket of bread and a small bowl of aji sauce. Aji is a tangy and spicy sauce — somewhere between aioli and chutney — that has hot pepper heat and a creaminess to it. I'm sure Peruvians think I'm gauche, but I splash it all over everything — chicken, french fries, just about anything. From there I dove in to a plate of mixed ceviche. Ceviche is another point of pride among Peruvian cooks, and they're pretty much the masters of this raw-seafood-cured-in-lime-juice dish. This included white fish, octopus and clams, mixed with ample slices of red onion, cilantro and jalapeno, all topped with a clam in a half shell. To the side are hunks of yucca root, sweet potato and some large-kernel boiled corn. As the waitress cautioned me, this was a big serving, probably enough for a nice lunch.

But I plowed ahead. In addition to the ceviche and the sauces, Peruvian restaurants are understandably proud of their skills with roasted chicken. In fact there's a whole mini chain of Peruvian restaurants in the area, Piolin, which seems to be devoted to perfecting the art of roast chicken.

To mix it up, I tried to lomo saltado, which is a kind of Chinese-influenced dish made with beef (you can also get it with chicken or fish), onions, peppers and tomatoes. It comes arranged around a mound of rice, but it's also served with a jumble of french fries. They're not squeamish about doubling up on their starches at Peruvian places. Just go with it. But for the tomatoes and those fries, the lomo saltado could pass for a stir-fry from your local Chinese take-out place.

There's a lot more on the menu — including a special Pisco Sour, as well as a lot of seafood, noodles, stirfries and desserts.

La Kerencya

624 Franklin Ave., Hartford, (860) 206-3985, lakerencya.com

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