Picca Peruvian Cantina
Credit: Ryan Tanaka

Picca Peruvian Cantina

Of all the niche foodie trends to bubble up in recent years, Peruvian cuisine still remains a rarity. Which is a surprise, considering that country's palate is rich with ancient flavors – from earthy recipes for stews, ceviches, and roast fowl – and combines flavors and techniques from indigenous South America, Spain, France, and elsewhere. Award-winning chef Ricardo Zarate (who first earned acclaim for his work at Mo-Chica, a glorified lunch counter in a mini-mall food court) is bearing the yeoman's share to change all that, most recently with his latest restaurant Picca in West Los Angeles. 

Zarate has refined and rebranded Peruvian food as haute, yet still affordable. At Picca, Peruvian food pops with flavor as presented through the lens of Japanese and Spanish cuisines. The restaurant has its stews (try the oxtail) but it's devoted to anticuchos – street-foodish grilled skewers of meat and accompaniment like those from a Japanese izakaya restaurant. In Peru, you'd get one with beef heart, and there's one of those here, too, although we prefer the stick with a naturally tender beef filet, unusually rich sea urchin butter, and garlic chips. And don't think of leaving until you try Zarate's gutsy anticucho spin on famed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa's signature dish: miso black cod and crispy sweet potato. 

There's usually a special ceviche – a raw fish-and-veg mélange cold-cooked in the acid of bitter and/or sour citrus – but three or more are on offer anytime, and this being the Pacific side of the country we recommend the "ceviche crocrante," which pairs fresh halibut with a cool oniony lime juice called leche de tigre, as well as calamari crisped up so delicately it would blissfully fail inspection at a chain restaurant.

You're supposed to order and eat family style at Picca, which works especially well with Zarate's other take on Japanese food formats: causas. In Peru, these would be chilled combination potato-layer dishes with shellfish, spice, and vegetables, but at Picca, they are literally pieces of "sushi" presented on potato mashes instead of vinegar rice. A newcomer would be rewarded for going past the umamified spicy tuna and yellowtail and maybe give a chance to the eel with yuzu guacamole or the smoked salmon with seaweed and garlic yogurt, a primordial fusion of flavor and texture. Fried chicken skin ("chicharron") is here, too, and so is the beef heart (as an anticucho with walnut sauce), but the overall idea is that Peru is everywhere and nowhere at once, so we try to stay forward-thinking. We suggest that instead of thinking of the restaurant's name as a verb that means "to nibble," Picca should be co-opted as a universally understood term that means "to become awash in flavor." [Piccaperu.com]