Venue Review: MachuPicchu
Oh, what a nice touch!" This from my daughter, referring to the intricately folded linen napkins on the tables, just as we were being seated. Indeed they were a nice touch, and especially noteworthy because Machu Picchu is not the sort of fine dining establishment where you'd normally expect to see them. It's a modest 48-seat strip mall eatery specializing in Peruvian cuisine - simply but charmingly furnished, with a few pieces of Peruvian folk art and travel posteresque pictures.
The napkins are, as I discovered, symbolic of the attention to detail and pride that Peruvian native owners Gloria and Victor Orihuela take in their restaurant. So are the crisp white old-school chef's jackets and toques that both wear (though Victor Orihuela is quick to point out that his Johnson & Wales-trained wife is the chef).
My daughter's comment proved to be a harbinger of things to come, too, over the course of a meal that would be liberally peppered with exclamations of surprise and delight. The complimentary dish of canchas, for starters, addictively crunchy kernels of toasted corn that are served warm soon after you're seated. And exotic desserts such as mazamorra morada (a cinnamon-spiced gelatin of purple corn with chunks of fresh pineapple) and lucuma ice cream (made with an Andean fruit whose flavor is an ambrosial blend of maple, caramel and coffee).
Ceviche to savor
In the intervening hour, we happily dug into a cilantro-enriched tamale verde made with fresh corn. A ceviche sampler left no doubt as to why ceviche is a hallmark of Peruvian cuisine. Artfully garnished with toothpick skewers of white corn, the trio included traditional fish (swai, a mild fish with a texture resembling catfish) marinated in the classic "leche de tigre" blend of Peruvian yellow peppers, red onions, cilantro and lime; a spicier mixed ceviche of scallops, shrimp and fish; and ceviche Nikkei, a soy- and ginger-marinated tuna tribute to Japan's culinary influence on Peru. All are available separately, but I'd have a hard time choosing just one.
An entree offering of steelhead trout (whose color and flavor are somewhere between trout and salmon) blanketed with a creamy mint sauce and served with quinoa, was as rewarding to eat as it was to look at. And Machu Picchu's rendition of the Peruvian flagship dish lomo saltado, a flambéed stir-fry of expertly trimmed beef tenderloin, onions, tomatoes and red bell peppers, was exemplary.
On a subsequent visit with my wife, choros a la chalaca (steamed New Zealand mussels, served cold on a bed of lettuce and topped with a salsa of tomatoes, Peruvian corn, onions, cilantro and lime juice) were a refreshing change of pace. Deep-fried yuca, served with salsa huancaina (a creamy, moderately spicy sauce made with yellow Peruvian chiles called aji amarillo) elicited more than one satisfied "mmm!"
Entrees that reward
But by far the most distinctive starter was based on - of all things - boiled potatoes. In ocopa, the spuds are blanketed in a sauce that gets its vivid green color from the aromatic South American herb huacatay, which is pureed with peanuts, onions and garlic to produce a thick, creamy texture and a hauntingly complex flavor. It's listed under the appetizer heading, but would also make a fine side dish.
If our eyes widened at the sight of the ocopa, our jaws surely dropped when the waiter delivered our entrees. Jalea in particular, an order of which produced a large oval platter mounded end-to-end with a bounty of fried seafood (shrimp, squid, bay scallops, mussels, and nuggets of tilapia), served on a bed of lettuce and fried yuca, and topped with a bright, fine-textured salsa criolla.
Aji de gallina, which features shredded chicken simmered in a creamy, walnut-thickened sauce punctuated with aji amarillo chiles, is a textbook rendering of a Peruvian favorite. Served over boiled potatoes with rice on the side, the dish is garnished with the traditional hard-boiled egg and Peruvian olive. Not as impressive to the eye as the jalea, perhaps, but every bit as rewarding in the mouth.
Still, I can't quite get the picture of that huge platter of seafood out of my head. And that was the single portion. I'll bet the exclamations fly all over the dining room when a waiter walks by with the jalea platter for two.