Cinyras dedicates this net to the Nymphs;
For his old age cannot lift it up And fling it far, the
dart-thrower’s toil. But, o you fish, rejoice as you feed, Because the old age of Cinyras Has given the sea the chance to have
DIY Happy Hour: At the southern Italian restaurant Sotto in Beverly Hills, mixologist Julian Cox uses reposado tequila (“rested,” barrel-aged tequila) for this cocktail. It’s a variation on the Paloma, made with tequila and grapefruit soda. “I put this drink on the menu as a joke, trying to make it Italian by adding Campari and Italian orange soda,” he says. “It became Sotto’s most popular drink.”
If you ever had the luck of trying the pop-up restaurant du jour of 2010, you may recognize this building where Test Kitchen once resided. It was literally a pop-up of pop-ups. In it’s four month life span, the kitchen saw some amazing chefs including Ricardo Zarate, the chef and owner of Picca Peruvian Cantina who manged to transform the formerly dreary facade into something fun and warm. Zarate’s first restaurant, Mo-Chica, is housed inside a small food court, a seemingly odd location considering the quality cuisine it delivers. Honest food speaks for itself and I’m convinced that this new stand alone restaurant will prove to be just as winning.
I’m digging the bright face lift on the exterior. Have you ever had a more exuberant welcoming by a cow? Inside, the design elements continue to pop out with a zillion textures - mirrors, wood, tile, glass panels, chalk boards…scrawled with drawings, menu specials and literal graphics about Peruvian food culture.
The open kitchen serves as a beacon of bustling activity. Up front, the sushi bar alludes to the Japanese influence in Peru, as well as the menu here. Along the walls, glass partitions allow you to watch the hibachi-like grill and peer into the hot cooking station in the back. Foodie friendly, I like it!
I was in the mood for a girly drink and the Martin Ricky was bang on. The cocktail menu by Julian Cox centers around Pisco, a traditional Peruvian grape brandy. It’s very neutral in flavor, much like vodka. My cocktail was pretty in pink. Made with lime juice, grapefruit juice, simple syrup, peychaud bitters, pisco, soda and strawberry air. It was divinely light and refreshing. Not too much sugar or fruit to over power the flavor of booze.
Sounds strange on paper but The Avocado Project was tasty - 5 Island white rum blended with fresh avocado, ascrobic acid, fresh lime juice, agave nectar and finished with salt. This savory drink maintained a nice boozy flavor with a smooth creamy texture. Similiar to a piña colada minus the ice or maybe how you’d imagine a vegan margarita to taste. Not that there’s such a thing as a meat margarita but you never know…
As we sat, I had time to admire the high ceilings which let in a lot of warm sunlight and added a lot of dimension and life to the dining area. I would describe the interior as modern rustic. An oxymoron, I know. Even here, the line art seems to resemble both primitive cave drawings and modern street art.
Our first dish to arrive was the Choritos - steamed mussels with crispy cubes of pancetta, fresh herbs and aji amarillo butter. Served with toasted bread, these were the essential edible sponges needed to soak up every last drop of the delicious golden sauce.
Typically, the most simple of dishes require exact execution to hit the mark. Here, the mussels were cooked perfectly and the ratio of seafood to meat to carb was just right. Great balance.
What comes before ceviche? Uh, Sushi?! At least, in this Peruvian restaurant it is. Not complaining. I think Zarate’s rice-free interpretation is quite admirable. How do you change up such a revered and adored element of traditional Japanese cuisine? This is how. For starters, each order comes with two pieces and is situated atop a well-formed block of mashed yellow potato.
The sushi chefs are hard at work, meticulously constructing their bite size confections of meat and potatoes. The “meat” options are very traditional - spicy tuna and unagi to name a few. All with the exception of one very exotic item - chicken! Okay, so I mean that only in the context of sushi. Unusual, right?
Our first hybrid sushi selection was the Albacore, served with garlic chip and ceviche sauce. The fish was tender and juicy. Marinated generously. Typically, I find Albacore to be stringy and bland but this had a nice mellow flavor.
Our second pick was the Smoked Salmon, served with hijiki (a brown sea vegetable), shallots and aji amarillo yogurt. One bite and this just dissolved upon impact. You could taste how fresh the fish was, despite it being cut up in little cubes and it was smokey, in a really good way. I almost felt like the salmon was too creamy for the potato but it was delicious nonetheless!
What’s next? Ceviche and Tiraditos. While I’m familiar with ceviche, tiraditos was new to my vocabulary. Ceviche is typically cubes of raw fish marinated in citrus juices. Tiraditos, on the other hand, are more akin to a carpaccio or izakaya sashimi plate where raw fish is thinly sliced, plated and then drizzled with dressing.
A beautiful mistake - Tiradito de Atun. Seared tuna with soy ceviche dressing and sweet potato paste. This item was accidentally ordered (instead of the sea bass) and came back compliments of the kitchen. We welcomed this generous gesture with hungry eyes of course. The fish was velvety and seared ever so gently. The sweet potato was reminiscent of miso and had a mild sweetness that complimented the tuna well.
The dish we intended to order came next - Seabass Tiradito. Thinly sliced sea bass with soy sauce, lemon dressing and a sweet potato puree. The sharp kick of citrus contrasted nicely with the savory umami of the soy in a tongue tingling way. Zesty.
I’ve never had a raw preparation of sea bass but based on this dish, I’d do it again and again and again. Delicate and buttery. It has the texture of yellowtail belly but with a slightly firmer bite. Loves it!
Back to cooked food. This one was fresh off the grill - Black Cod with miso anticucho with crispy sweet potato chip. I can’t help but but think of yakitori but seriously, this is beyond comparison. This flavor packed fish was charred to utter perfection. The blackened edges manage to envelope the buttery fish with just the right amount of ruggedness that only constant tending and turning could yield. Yum.
Say hi to my new best friend manning the grill. Haha. Think he’ll share that rib-eye with me? Drooool.
Our next dish was Peruvian paella, Arroz con Erizo, which was made with mixed seafood and bathed in a sea urchin sauce. Briny and beautiful, this dish is not for land lovers. The flavor sings much louder then any Spanish paella that I’ve tried and is laced in every single kernel along with some heat to keep you alert and wanting more.
My favorite dish of the night was the Seco de Pato. This dark beauty boasts duck leg confit with a black beer sauce on cilantro rice. Duck, beer and cilantro made this is a no brainer for me. I’d sign up for anything with crispy skin and fall off the bone meat. What’s surprising is the rice in this dish is equally as good as the duck. No, I’m not drunk on black beer. This dish was rich, earthy and comforting. Makes me secretly wish for a Peruvian fairy godmother that could make this for me at home. Yum.
As the end of our meal approached, so did daylight. The room quickly transformed after our main course into a dark cantina.
For dessert, we picked out a perennial favorite of mine - churros. The twist was a passion fruit custard filling. Can you say - double yum? They look a little stubby but it was the perfect size for dipping.
Dessert came with three dipping sauces: milk chocolate, an orange-liqueur marmalade and carob. Yick on the last one. While I found these fancy churros to be quite enchanting alone, it was still fun to play and taste. I like the idea of layering flavors and you bet that I tried every single flavor combination.
This is the man behind the magic - Ricardo Zarate. He was recently named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef. He seems to be one hardworking guy. I remember seeing him almost every single time I dined at Test Kitchen, working on the line, plating or cutting Iberico Ham alongside other chefs.
Despite my devotion to tradition, I still love venturing beyond the standard Lomo Saltado and Pollo a la Brasa. I choose Picca because it manages to offer interesting flavors that seem familiar yet brand new, all at the same time.
Picca 9575 W Pico Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90035 Neighborhood: West Los Angeles T: (310) 277-0133 W: PiccaPeru.com
Tonight, @PlayaRivera debuts its new spring cocktail menu by @juliantcox. Starting at 5:30pm you can enjoy the cocktails specially priced at $9 (normally they range from $10-$13). Gotta love a cocktail called Count of Monte Crisco – buttered mezcal!