Sunday, June 26, 2011

Picca - 06/25/2011

9575 West Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
(310) 277-0133

The opening of Picca, Ricardo Zarate's Peruvian small plates restaurant has been on my culinary radar since I first heard about the restaurant during last fall. Zarate, best known for his restaurant Mo-Chica, was also "resident chef" at the hugely successful Test Kitchen as well as the restaurant's most prolific chef with 7 separate events. That I somehow missed them all only heightened my anticipation for Picca's arrival.

The past few days have been filled with family-style soft opening events but today's official opening is the first day that the full menu is available. Though I was tempted to attend the first night of the soft opening, I decided to wait in order to try all FIFTY courses in true opening night fashion.

I was very impressed by what Zarate's team did with the space. During the Test Kitchen era, the upper level was a tired orange walled space more suited to a cafeteria than a contemporary restaurant. Today, the dark wood space is highlighted by a brightly light bar and a brand new exhibition kitchen where the anticuchos and causa sushi are prepared.

RHUBARB SIDECAR - cognac, picaso, fresh lemon juice, rhubarb gastrique, shake violently, garnished with spiced sugar
It probably comes as no surprise, but all the drinks at Picca feature pisco, a Peruvian grape brandy. First up was a twist on the classic sidecar, the lemon juice and rhubarb mask the burn of the alcohol almost completely.

MARACUYA - fresh passion fruit, lemon juice, grenadine, scant absinthe, pisco, long hard shake (not too long) strain into flute 1/4 full of cava, lemon twist garnish
Another light floral libation, the Maracuya features a gentle sweetness layered over a lingering aroma of anise from the absinthe.

CHILCANO de ANIS - lime juice, ginger syrup, anise syrup, pisco, whip //mix quickly and vigorously, top with soda, pour over 3 cubes and crushed ice in copper mug, Garnish w/ mint sprig tapped around mug, 1 spray of pernod
The last cocktail was reminiscent of a ginger beer, spicy and lightly effervescent. I particularly enjoyed the copper cup which kept the drink ice cold.

empanada trio - beef, chicken, eggplant salad
The meal got off to a strong start with a buttery flaky crust around three distinctly different fillings. The eggplant salad featured a meaty tender feel and slight sweetness while the beef possessed a dark savory sweetness and the chicken reminded me of a Chinese curry pastry.

papa rellena - stuffed potatoes, slow cooked beef, boiled egg, rocoto aioli
The second course was a delicately soft potato filled with an olive tinged filling of dark savory beef. The exterior of the potato was lightly browned giving it a light savory flavor reminiscent of the fried potato cakes my dad used to make.

jalea mixta - crispy mixed seafood, tartare sauce
Despite being a relatively straightforward plate of mixed fried seafood, this was immensely satisfying. The seafood was perfectly cooked with fresh snappy textures under the light batter. The accompaniments included a classic tartare sauce and topping of salsa that provided a refreshing counterpoint.

tuna tartare - tuna, lemon soy dressing, wonton chips
Perhaps it is the result of going to higher caliber restaurants, but I've been enjoying tuna tartares again of late. Zarate's has classic sushi notes of soy and wasabi with a perfectly crisp savory wonton chip and fresh avocados to provide some levity and body.

grilled vegetables salad - market vegetables, mix greens, aji amarillo miso vinaigrette
Not being a fan of salads I wasn't expecting much from this course but it turned out to be unexpectedly delicious. The grilled onions have a wonderfully sweet aroma while the raw greens sound a lovely bitter note. The whole salad is finished with a mustard-tinged kick from the aji amarillo.

conchas a la parmesana - scallops, parmesan cheese, spianach, lemon sauce dressing
I was expecting something heavy and dense but this was absolutely brilliant. The spinach and scallop amalgam is coated in a ritzy Parmesan crust and the zippy citrus puts the dish over the top.

choritos - steamed mussels, pancetta, aji amarillo butter
This might be the best preparation of mussels that I've ever eaten. The mollusks were delightfully snappy and the rich broth of tomato and yellow pepper helps to counter the funky brine of the mussels.

chicharron de pollo - marinated crispy chicken, salsa criolla, rocoto sauce
Zarate's chicken "nuggets" were delicious in a guilty pleasure kind of way. The chicken is delectably moist but lightly seasoned, necessitating the rocoto sauce with a spiciness that hits hard and fades fast.

PISCO SOUR - pisco, fresh lemon and lime juice, sugar, cassia scented egg white, shake like a polaroid picture, angostura bitters
Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru a frothy blend of pisco and citrus topped with a shaken egg white. The flavor is immensely clean and refreshing.

ALL SAINTS FIZZ - venezuelan rum, pisco, fresh lemon juice, evaporated cane sugar, frankincense tincture, soda
The fizz is remarkably like the pisco sour but with a bit more oomph!

MARTIN RICKY - lime juice, grapefruit juice, simple syrup, 2 dashes peychaud bitters, pisco, Whip, soda, pour over ice in collins topped with strawberry air
Most of the evening's cocktails had a similar feel, no surprise given that they all heavily featured pisco and citrus. This was the best drink of the night the strawberry air giving the drink and exuberantly sweet fruity aroma the others lacked.

scallops - mentaiko
Nigiri with potato? Given the Japanese influence on Peruvian food it was no surprise that Zarate would do his own take on sushi inspired by causa, a traditional Peruvian potato dish. First up was a scallop mixture that possessed a creaminess reminiscent of the filling in a California roll.

snow crab - cucumber, avocado, huancaina sauce
The second nigiri was a snow crab simple and sweet with a marked salinity.

spicy tuna - tobiko, cucumbers
Definitely classic spicy tuna. The fish is seasoned with a piquant mayo while the cucumbers add a light crunch.

albacore - garlic chip, ceviche sauce
This was my favorite of the causas, the albacore is slightly seared with an intense char reminiscent of the barracuda at Mori sushi. Easily the most flavorful and complex of the nonet that we would try

chicharron de costillas - crispy pork ribs crostini, sweet potato puree, feta cheese sauce, sauce criolla
This felt surprisingly light despite actually being one the large plates composed primarily of shredded pork covered in a sweet sauce. The overall effect was like a BBQ pulled pork sandwich

chicken - celery, cilantro, huancaina sauce
Hearty potato with shredded chicken slathered in mayo, this course reminded me of a classic chicken salad.

smoked salmon - hijiki, shallots, aji amarillo yogurt

A bit heavy for my tastes, the smoked salmon possessed a flavor akin to smoked ham that transcended the tang of te aji amarillo.

shrimp - pickled cucumbers, yuzu kosho guacamole
I normally find ebi at sushi restaurants to be lackluster but this was better than most. The shrimp still had a light snappiness while the topping added a scintillating liveliness.

spicy yellow tail - spicy mayo, green onions, wasabi tobiko
I expected this to be like the tuna but this felt a bit less polished. The accompaniments were similar but the yellow tail didn't have the presence to stand up to the mayo.

cristal - lager, peru
This wasn't the Cristal that I'm normally used to but it the clean classic lager profile was a nice pairing with the upcoming grilled meats.

cuzquena - lager, peru
Though still a lager, the Cuzquena had a bit more malty sweetness than the Cristal, on its own I preferred the Cuzquena but the cleaner flavor of the Cristal was more fitting with the food.

ceviche criollo - seabass, rocoto leche de tigre, choclo, sweet potato
Picca offers three types of ceviche first up was a classic sea bass, the plump succulent fish is marinated in a traditional brine and sweetened with grains of corn and chunks of sweet potato.

ceviche crocante - halibut, leche de tigre, crispy calamari
This was my favorite of the three ceviches, the halibut is uniquely textured, snappy, rough and almost grippy. Still the fish is soft compared to the crispy fried calamari which also gives the Crocante a uniquely savory tinge that the other ceviches lacked.

unagi - avocado, cucumber, eel sauce
This would have been a welcome addition to any sushi restaurant. The plump succulent eel is bathed in a classic sweet sauce while the potato adds a starchy heft that rice simply cannot match.

ceviche mixto - mixed seafood, sweet potato, choclo
The final ceviche was similar to the first, but I felt the mix of seafood didn't stand up as well to the accompaniments as the sea bass did though the raw hewn brine and crunch of the seaweed was most unexpected and welcome.

tres leches de tigre - rocoto, aji amarillo, sea urchin shooters
The trio of classic ceviche marinades were unabashedly briny and almost bitter; this felt like less of a course and more of a college dare. Still it was an interesting experiment to try the sauce sans fish.

oysters a la chalaca - pan fried oysters, cherry tomatoes sarsa
This was undoubtedly the best cooked oyster course I've ever tasted. Wrapped in a light crispy crust, the oysters were impressively complex sweet creamy and briny all wrapped together.

pollo - chicken breast, rocoto pesto
Consisting of grilled meat on a skewer, Anticuchos are a popular street food originating in Peru. Naturally the grilled meat draws comparisons with yakitori albeit with a Peruvian flair. First up was a grilled chicken breast, moist and flavorful this was the quintessential definition of grilled meat.

zapallo - kobocha, sweet miso sauce
While there are very few things that I refuse to eat outright, Kobocha is certainly one I struggle to enjoy. This wasn't actually so bad as the charcoal grill leeched some of the sweetness out of the squash.

seabass tiradito - thin slice sea bass, soy sauce, lemon dressing, sweet potato puree
I actually tried this dish earlier in the week at Providence. At the time I found the aji amrarillo a bit overwhelming, Since then he has tempered the acidity, resulting in a more cohesive spicy-sweet flavor.

tiradito de atun - tuna, soy ceviche dressing, sweet potato paste
The last of the raw fish courses was a seared tuna reminiscent of tataki. The clean fishy flavor of the tuna is sweetened by dabs of sweet potato while the sprouts add a bright grassy counterpoint.

beef filet - sea urchin butter, garlic chip
A classically tender filet, the meat was richer than most with a tangible butteriness, perhaps the result of the uni butter.

salmon - miso, pickled cucumber
A much more effective preparation than the causa, the fish almost exudes luxurious fish oils. The sweet miso gave the dish a flavor reminiscent of a miso black cod.

scallops - aji amarillo aioli, wasabi peas
Another strong scallops course, the aioli gives the shellfish some kick as well as a tart creaminess while the wasabi peas add an interesting textural note.

tomatoes - burata, black mint pesto
The grilled tomatoes were interesting but I don't know if I'd order them again. Coupled with the cheese and pesto the flavor was reminiscent of a rustic caprese salad crossed with a fresh tomato sauce.

papa a la huancaina - potato, quail egg, pancetta, chives
I had this course at Mario's and found it to be a bit bland so I was curious to see how Zarate would approach the course. With miniature eggs and potatoes this looked far more contemporary than Mario's preparation. The texture is dense and rough and even with the pancetta a bit bland. Certainly better than Mario's but it lacked the verve of many of the night's other dishes.

santa barbara prawns - lemon grass yuzu kosho pesto
This was easily the best of the anticuchos and probably the best course overall The woody essence of the charcoal is the perfect partner for the clean ocean-y essence of the shrimp.

alitas de pollo - chicken wings, lime
As basic as some of these dishes are they are so well-prepared and flavorful it's hard not to appreciate them. The wings are coated with a delightful golden brown skin and delectable succulent interior. The lime was a nice touch though the chicken was just as good without it.

black cod - miso anticucho, crispy sweet potato
Speaking of miso black cod, this was actually one of the stronger preparations of the dish. The pinkish flesh is almost gellied in texture and dissolves effortlessly on the tongue

corazon - beef heart, potato, rocoto sauce
Corazon or beef heart is the most popular style of anticucho. The meat is firm and sinewy with a flavor that is a cross between beef and liver, a perfume of rich meaty sapor and the iron kissed tang of offal.

camote - sweet potato, honey, serrano chili sauce
After the Kobocha, I was a bit optimistic about this course, but this reminded me of why I disdain sweet root vegetables. Combined with the honey and charm the result is a disconcerting cloying sweetness.

portabello mushroom - mustard sauce, micro green salad
The portabello was surprisingly strong, easily one of the better anticuchos. The golden brown cap hides a supple meaty interior with its unabashedly earthy essence. The weight of the mushrooms is balanced by a small salad of vegetal micro greens.

seco de pato - duck leg confit, black beer sauce, cilantro rice
I had a variation of this course not too long ago at Jaleo that I found a bit heavy-handed. Ricardo does a much better job, pairing aromatic southwestern style rice with a bitter beer sauce to counter the potent richness of the duck.

arroz chaufa de mariscos - mixed seafood, peruvian fried rice, radish pickled
Arroz Chaufa or fried rice is one of the more well known Chifa dishes. This didn't taste like a classic fried rice, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit more. The flavor was more like the blend of ginger soy and scallions that accompanies steamed fish at the end of a banquet.

arroz con erizo - peruvian paella, mixed seafood, sea urchin sauce
The Peruvian take on paella looked similar to the seafood fried rice but with a deeper ocean flavor on account of the sea urchin sauce. The uni also gave the rice a heavier creamy texture similar to a risotto which I found quite enjoyable.

lorco de quinoa - quinoa pumpkin stew, choclo, parmesan cheese, crispy tomato stew
I had serious doubts about this course from the start so I wasn't surprised when I found this to be a disconcerting jumble of sweetness mixed with the cloying funk from the cheese and tart tomato stew.

bisteck a lo pobre - skirt steak, egg, pan fried banana, chickpeas tacu tacu
The meat was fairly typical for a skirt steak, moist, stringy, and flavorful. The duet of steak and eggs was quite enjoyable though I didn't need so much rice. By this point I was craving something sweet as a change of pace from the previous 40+ savory courses so I absolutely adored the fried plantains even though I normally abhor bananas.

chanfainita - braised oxtail, mote and potato stew
I was surprised not to see a Lomo Saltado on the dish but this was a similar if richer combination. The tender slow-cooked oxtail was smothered with a dark sauce and generous chunks of potato to provide a starchy base for the stew.

carapulcra - roasted black cod, peruvian sun dried potato stew, chimichurri
Nice to have black cod in a non miso based preparations. Honestly I couldn't bring myself to eat the stew at this point but the fish itself was wonderful, oily flaky with enough savoriness thanks to the skin.

sudado de lenguado - halibut stew, peruvian corn beer sauce, yuyo
The final savory was also one of the hardest to palate both physically and in terms of flavor. The fish is lost in a heavy broth of tomatoes and the intensely ripe acidity was simply overwhelming at this point.

cheese cake
I almost thought I was hearing things when our server said this was an aji amarillo cheesecake. This turned out much better than it had any right to with a distinctly savory with a flavor that one of my friends likened to Fritos cheddar cheese dip.

lemon tart
This turned out to be the best dessert of the night, buttery crust and an intensely bracing lemon tempered by the bright flavors of the passion fruit sauce.

tres leche cake
Still, one of my all time favorite desserts, tres leche cake is still a must order whenever I see it on the menu. Surprisingly as sweet as the cake can be, I thought it was a bit lost among all the fruit, especially the ripe raspberry syrup on the bottom.

The final dessert consisted of churros filled with a some sort of cream that tasted like maple syrup or molasses and three dipping sauces: carob, cinnamon marmalade, and chocolate. The churro turned out to be good enough on its own that it didn't require any sauce though I would have liked a bit more crispness, the interior of the churro felt a bit moist.

My personal experience with Peruvian food is fairly limited aside from Zarate's Mo-Chica the only other Peruvian place I've been to was the famous Mario's Seafood and Picca outshines them both. Not to say their food was bad, but Picca elevates the cuisine with more exotic ingredients and an emphasis on freshness and quality. My one complaint was that the flavors felt a bit repetitive, though I think the fact that we had 46 savory courses might have had something to do with this. Taken in reasonable quantities, the heavy emphasis of spice and acidity was quite enjoyable, giving the meal a much lighter feel despite the heavy use of potatoes and rice.

Peruvians are renowned for their ceviches and Zarate certainly does that reputation justice but my favorite dishes were the anticuchos, simple yet with a sublime flavor from the use of bincho-tan a white charcoal made from ubame oak in japan. Picca was certainly worth the wait, as the food is soulful and immensely satisfying. Zarate deftly blends the numerous culinary traditions in Peruvian cuisine, serving up delicious fare in a lively fun and very social environment.

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