The other evening, I had a most unique dining experience. Perhaps the fact that it was the night after Thanksgiving could explain some of it.
My guest and I walked into a large, beautiful dining room with fresh flowers on every table and found ourselves completely alone: no other diners, no hostess, no wait staff. After a bit, a very sweet lady came by and told us to sit anywhere we liked.
She brought us a menu and went to get us some water. When she returned, we asked her for a recommendation, and she took my menu and looked it over but seemed confused and continued searching it for some particular dish. Finally she said, “I’m sorry, but I am a banquet waitress. The rest of the staff didn’t come in tonight.”
We asked if we could see the wine list, and she went to get it but said she couldn’t find it. So she asked if we wanted red or white. We said “white,” and she went in the back to look at the bottles and brought us the names of four whites from which to choose.
We were making our selections at this lovely Peruvian restaurant called Muelle Peruvian Cantina (located in the newly renovated Hotel Huntington Beach) when a charming gentleman came over and introduced himself as Chef Renzo (full name Renzo Emilio Macchiaveilo). He discussed the menu, made suggestions and told us the plates are smaller, allowing guests to taste more items.
To our knowledge, this is the only Peruvian restaurant in Orange County that is offering the small-plate concept, with smaller prices. He also mentioned that the place had only been open for three weeks and things were still being worked out.
We placed our order and sipped our wine, and a plate of crusty sliced baguette arrived with house-made potato chips, toasted Peruvian corn and the classic spicy green chili sauce — aji verde.
I’m a fan of jalea de mariscos, which is like fried calamari but with shrimp, scallops, fried yucca, whitefish and tiny rings of calamari, all strewn with toasted corn and pickled onions in lime juice (salsa criolla). The seafood was coated in a very light tempura-like batter that was devoid of grease. Everything tasted so fresh and delicious.
We had more of the tasty fried shrimp in the chicharron de camarones, served with two versions of aioli for dipping, one with a bit of green pepper and one with red.
After these appetizers, we selected our entrees, which were also smaller. Since Peru is a coastal country, Peruvian restaurants have lots of seafood on their menus. I had a small but delicious piece of pan-seared Chilean sea bass in a wonderful sauce spiced with rocoto peppers and cilantro and an underpinning of Asian flavor. Scattered on the plate were a few scallops and shrimps.
Peru has the second-largest Japanese population in the world, so it’s no surprise that Asian flavors appear in many dishes. This is true of the lomo saltado, which is a stir-fried dish with Cantonese elements merging with Peruvian. Thin slices of chicken are cooked in a sauce with onions, tomatoes cilantro, garlic and French fries. The dish is served with white rice on the side and is flavorful and hearty. You can also get it with beef or fish.
A similar dish (tallarin saltado) features noodles and vegetables in place of fries and rice.
Desserts are few, but we had the churros and the mango mousse. What made the churros a little different was the addition of caramel in the center. The mousse was very mild and light, as was the thin slice of cake under it.
When we got our bill, the waitress said that she didn’t have the prices for the desserts and said we also got “the 30% discount,” which wasn’t mentioned anywhere but was fine by us.
Although things seem a bit disorganized, I have no trouble recommending Muelle Peruvian Cantina. The food is quite good, the room is very attractive and the prices are reasonable.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Muelle Peruvian Cantina
Where: The Hotel Huntington Beach, 7667 Center Ave., Huntington Beach
When: Breakfast from 6:30 to 10 a.m., lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
Appetizers: $6 to $12
Entrées: $7 to $15
Bottles: $22 to $156
By the glass: $7 to $15
Corkage fee: $15
Information: (714) 891-0123 or hotelhb.com