Picca means "to nibble" in Peruvian, and you could spend all evening nibbling on the delicacies by Chef Ricardo Zarate, to be sure. With his tantalizing alchemy of Peruvian cuisine à la izakaya-style tapas, Chef Zarate delighted our palates with his Andean spiced dishes. I marveled over the menu, glancing through the 50 dishes, a veritable myriad of temptations. I decidedly slowed down my excitement. I was there to learn something new. It wasn't so much about eating as it was about appreciating. Appreciation requires taking things in slowly, no rushing in. I was just so excited to finally have dinner at Picca. A leisurely dinner. No highchair with my wiggling toddler sort of rush through the eating kind of dinner. Just slow dining pleasure and discovery.
There are moments in life when we become acutely aware of our senses. Most of the time, we are skimming the surface, only taking things in superficially, without thought, an automatic response to something we are used to. We know what to expect. We can't help that, we are human, and some of us lean to an almost canine sort of devotion when we truly love something familiar. As a creature of habit, I cling to my morning ritual of Earl Grey tea with milk and honey, a yogurt I'm fond of, an omelette I will never tire of with a warm, crusty baguette. I enjoy the repetition of things I know, and when it comes to food and eating, I do stay within my sandbox of familiar pleasures. I am sentimental. I feel comforted by it. Food brings back memories and creates new ones. But I want to go deeper, clear my mind, open my heart, and discover new experiences with a keen awareness. That is when things transform and sparkle. Even with our ideas of what is what in food. Like sushi, for example. We think of rice and fish. But you wouldn't imagine using potatoes instead of rice, would you? In this food adventure, traveling to South America by chef and by plate, my senses are awakened to the heights of Machu Picchu.
The Yanesha people of the Peruvian Andes believed that food was central to life itself. Peruvian mythological food origins are rooted in plants (*see Smithsonian Food & Think blog link for more on the myths). In Ancient Peru, plants and animals took human form in their myths, and like the Ancient Romans and Greeks, the gods mated with humans that created another sort, a demi-god, but in one Peruvian tale, the demi-god was a Maize god who fertilized the earth with sweet corn.
And what about the potato? Sacred comfort food. I adore potatoes, mashed, laden with butter and cream. We think of Ireland when we think of potatoes, but do we realize the origins of the potato are found in South America? The potato was the gold of Incan food lore:
"In the ancient ruins of Peru and Chile, archaeologists have found potato remains that date back to 500 B.C. The Incas grew and ate them and also worshipped them. They even buried potatoes with their dead, they stashed potatoes in concealed bins for use in case of war or famine, they dried them, and carried them on long journeys to eat on the way (dried or soaked in stew). Ancient Inca potatoes had dark purplish skins and yellow flesh. The Incas called the potato "papas," as they do today. Following is the Inca prayer that historians say they used to worship them: O Creator! Thou who givest life to all things and hast made men that they may live, and multiply. Multiply also the fruits of the earth, the potatoes and other food that thou hast made, that men may not suffer from hunger and misery." (excerpt from What's Cooking America)
Potatoes. You will find them plentiful in the dishes at Picca. Papas. Papa Rellena. Papa a la Huancaína. Sweet Potatoes. Potato in place of rice for the causa sushi. Papas Fritas. Sweet Potato paste. Sweet Potato puree.
We sat upstairs in the lounge area overlooking the restaurant below. I enjoyed sitting right next to Darling all cozy-like, so it was a perfect seating arrangement. The other thing about sitting above, aside from the quieter level of noise, was the perfect view of the cocktail action in the bar--- through the mirrored reflection one can see the cocteles being created. It was exciting to take everything in from our view although I kept missing the moment of the bartenders shaking up their shakers like maracas. After a few failed tries to catch that 'shake it up' moment with my big Nikon camera, I decided to surrender my photojournalistic compulsion to simply enjoy the experience of Picca.
What I found refreshing was that Picca felt elegant and relaxed. You can tell it is about the cuisine, the chef, and the extraordinary food. Nothing about Chef Zarate's cooking is contrived or overdone. You can feel that all of his life's history comes together in his flavor combinations. And there is a reason why Picca is busy and always simmering with a full house of diners. The interior radiates with bustling energy, the ambiance is as zesty as the menu--- sparkling, colorful, bubbling with robust life. The food tastes authentic, soulful, like someone's grandmother is stirring a pot in the kitchen.
The cocteles menu intrigued. Mixologist Julian Cox concocted the cocteles for Picca. I must say, the magical elixirs are sublime. It had been years since I had a cocktail. Yes, I think it had been since I lived in New Orleans, to be exact. I'm usually a wine kind of gal, but Darling asked me to choose a few cocktails that appealed. Thing was, I didn't know he would order two of them for little ol' me. The Avocado Project was my first choice, made of avocado, agave nectar, lime juice and 5 island white rum, shaken, double strained, and finished with salt.
Darling had a Pisco Sour made with pisco, fresh lemon and lime juice, sugar, cassia scented egg white, angostura bitters, all shaken up like a polaroid picture (so the menu says).
The drinks arrived shaken, frothy, creamy.
Picca's menu has its starters, causas, ceviches, anticuchos, main dishes, and desserts all listed in a plentiful array. Cort was our waiter of the evening and gave us his personal attention with the menu. He was personable and gracious, and Darling took that manly liberty of ordering from Cort while I people watched, taking in the atmosphere, happy in my observation deck of sorts. As the French say vive la différence. As in tango dancing, you allow the man to lead you, you surrender to him. True dining romance has the yin-yang of a courtship tango, and if the man wants to order dinner, taking care in selecting what dishes you might enjoy, let him. Especially when the culinary territory is unknown and exciting. I love surrendering to a dining moment like that. It's like receiving a gift. You don't know what will arrive, and so you are completely open to what arrives to your table.
What little bit I knew about Chef Zarate, I gathered from searches online, other food bloggers articles and restaurant reviews. I had heard of Chef Zarate, perhaps from reading the magazine article about him in Food & Wine. One of the many recent pieces written was an extensive write up by Kevin of KevinEats. Of course, Jonathan Gold and L.A. Times Food Writer Irene S. Virbila wrote about Chef Zarate and Picca. Come to find out I've been missing something. Peruvian food with a Japanese flair.
In a discussion about restaurants and chefs that I watched on YouTube, Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert shared their opinions on great chefs. Anthony Bourdain used an analogy to explain the feeling of discovering a great chef and the experience of their cuisine. He compared it to hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time before Jimi Hendrix was well known. The parallel of discovering legendary musicians to discovering great chefs explains the kind of dining experience that transforms your taste buds forever. With certain culinary talents like that, such as Chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, (and perhaps we can add Chef Ricardo Zarate to that genre of talent), there will be fans of chefs, just as there are fans of musicians. I have become a fan of several chefs lately, and Chef Zarate is in fine company with the other chefs on my A list.
In the summer of 2009, Chef Zarate opened Mo-Chica in Downtown Los Angeles. Mo-Chica was voted 4th Best Restaurant in Los Angeles in 2010 by Los Angeles Magazine. Zarate became a Food & Wine "Best New Chef" 2011, and next thing you know, he's got Picca happening with partner Stephane Bombet. But he started out at a young prodigious age, the 11th of 13 children in his family in Lima, Peru, cooking for everyone in his large family when he was 12 years old, using huge pots and making bountiful Peruvian meals. Ever since he was a young child he gravitated to the kitchen, and by the time he was 16 he had prepared a dinner for 600 people through a caterer. Not only did he create a dinner for 600 people with confidence, but he bought a live octopus to make for the event. Octopus sashimi, no less! (Zarate thought octopus sashimi was a Peruvian dish). His natural gift for cookery and exploration of other cuisines (like Japanese cuisine) developed Chef Zarate's repertoire.
He went to London after culinary school and worked in professional kitchens, cooking mainly in Japanese restaurants, learning their techniques and usage of ingredients. And so Chef Zarate began his culinary career in London. Of course previously he was a young prodigy and had a gift for cooking, but as many a gifted chef discover (and artist, and musician and all those that have a dream) the road toward achieving that dream isn't always smooth. Struggle, hardship, and washing dishes are part of the (kitchen) life. Zarate landed a job as a dishwasher at Benihana in London. But that did not squelch the determination of Zarate. He had decided that he would be a cook, and stayed focused on his goal. He eventually did become a line cook at Benihana, and learned as much as he could absorb about Japanese culinary arts. He worked in London for 12 years and held positions with top restaurants and hotels such as the luxury five-star hotel in Covent Garden, One Aldwych, where he was 'Chef de Partie.' Zarate also worked at the finest Japanese restaurant in London, Zuma. Soon after, The Millennium Hotel Group offered him the top position at Sai Sai at the Biltmore in Los Angeles in 2003. And so Zarate arrived in Los Angeles.
A native of France, Picca owner/partner Stephane Bombet sat next to me during a lunch at Jitlada in Thai Town not too long ago. He's not a man who likes super hot and spicy Thai food as much as his native French cuisine, that much I learned when Stephane did not partake in the "dynamite" dish of searing hot chilis upon chilis. Yes, Peruvian with a Japanese flair is more his speed. I saw Stephane in action on the dining room floor, and noticed that he is quite a dedicated sort--- did he really clear a few tables? Busboy and owner. But how did this magical place called Picca emerge? Why, Stephane Bombet went into Mo-Chica looking for a chef to partner with... and the rest is history. Here's more about that in an article by Eater LA with Stephane Bombet.
And so, the food. Our first dish was the grilled vegetable salad on a rectangular plate. It tasted summery, grilled in the backyard. The dressing was light and happy--- an aji amarillo miso vinaigrette. A sunny little bite.
Oysters a la chalaca. Pan fried oysters, cherry tomato salsa. Exuberant pops of flavor.
This was the lovely thing about tapas style dining. Little bites, savory and satisfying, surprising and unique. Tasting each dish, lingering, knowing that another dish will come and it too will delight, splendid, flavorful, sensuously sauced, well plated with combinations that I've never known before, like the huancaina sauce with potato and quail egg, and the chimichurri made with sun-dried tomato and peanuts. My palate knows Latin flavors Baja California style, so taking the mouth-journey to the Peruvian regions of South American cuisine inspires the taste buds of the gastronomical me. I can only thank Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher for her inspiration in writing about food. She wrote about her life and about food, as her phrase and book title 'gastronomical me' is borrowed and applies to celebrating food as life experiences. Food and life is intertwined with our memories, explorations, and travels.
The mama of a Peruvian potato arrived next. I thought it was called Papa Reina, meaning 'Queen Potato', but it's Papa Rellena. Easily it could be the Queen Potato, because it was this magnificently rotund stuffed potato filled with slow-cooked beef, boiled egg, and topped with rocoto walnut aioli. Rocoto is a type of South American chili pepper, round and red like a tomato.
Our next two cocteles arrived: mine was Zarate's Tomahawk, made with rocoto-infused mezcal, fresh lemon juice, agave nectar, fresh huacatay (a South American culinary herb similar to basil and mint), and cucumber foam, shaken.
The taste of mezcal brought me back to a time when I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The smoky, earthy and distinct flavor reminded me of my adobe walled garden, the blue hour that came before dusk, the wide open sky twinkling with a multitude of stars, walking my labrador mutt on dirt trails, smelling the rain in the air before a thunderstorm. That was a time when I had a bottle of mezcal in my kitchen, as a friend was going down to Oaxaca and making small batches of artisanal mezcal to sell in local restaurants. I tasted the roasted wood-fired char of agave piñas in a sip of Zarate's Tomahawk, filling my mouth with such a memory, and my fondness was shaken and strained deep in a fire pit of my sentimental intoxicated reverie. I am not a cocktail drinker, but after this, I am fantasizing about mezcal, hound-like, sniffing around for a way to get back to Picca for another taste.
Phil Collins is a drink made with blanco tequila, dry vermouth, aperol, lemon, peychaud bitters, shaken and topped with soda water. Darling isn't sure why they call this a Phil Collins, but perhaps it made him sing a little song to himself after finishing it. Or a drum solo before the next dishes arrived. Maybe that's what he was doing with the fork and knife?
The empanada trio: beef, chicken and eggplant. These delectable little things were flaky, warm and filled with sumptuous amounts of goodness. The three dipping sauces were huancaína (yellow), rocoto (red) and huacatay (green). A squeeze of lime over the empanadas. The eggplant was sweet, crumbling and melting in my mouth. Darling ate up the beef empanada, and we shared the chicken. The little bite I did have of the chicken tasted buttery and creamy.
Causa Smoked Salmon with aji amarillo yogurt, topped with hijiki. The "sushi causa" is a Peruvian twist on sushi-- instead of sushi rice, Zarate makes his "causa" with a small square of mashed yellow potato. Potatoes are a Peruvian staple. It's just perfect how this dish works with the potato in place of the rice as sushi.
Three dishes on one plate:
- Portobello Mushroom ~ mustard sauce, micro green salad
- Anticucho Papa a la Huancaina ~ potato, quail egg, pancetta, chives
- Zapallo ~ kabocha, sweet miso sauce
The photos I did take didn't have enough light to properly exhibit the voluptuousness of the sauces and the freshness of the flavors. All three of these dishes were put together for us on one plate, and each had its own remarkable quality. I did enjoy the papa a la huancaina as much as I thought I would. This dish is a spin on the Peruvian traditional dish from Huancayo. The traditional dish is made with boiled potatoes dressed in a creamy yellow sauce called Huancaína; a sauce made from sweet red and orange hot peppers, cheese, milk and Peruvian yellow hot chilis. Chef Zarate makes it into an anticucho skewered version with the boiled potatoes, quail egg, huancaína sauce, pancetta and chives. I am crazy crazy for huancaína sauce!
The portobello mushroom was earthy and delicious with the mustard sauce. The zapallo kabocha, one of my favorite vegetables, dressed in sweet miso sauce, was buttery and good. There simply wasn't enough on the plate for me. I loved each one as much as the other, just like my three children, but secretly, there is one that I favored. Guess. Anything covered in huancaína sauce?
The Ceviche Mixto. Mixed seafood, sweet potato, choclo. This was superb as a combination, however, I was so taken with the quinoa stew, I barely ate the ceviche. I knew that Darling loved the ceviche, so wanting to give him that since the quinoa stew was nearly an empty bowl, I forfeited my claim on the ceviche entirely.
Another bowl came out that was strong competition for the quinoa stew, and that was the Carapulcra: roasted black cod, Peruvian sun-dried tomato stew, peanuts, chimichurri.
The Carapulcra dish was exceptional. The sun-dried tomato stew with peanuts chimichurri was another taste epiphany. I was elated. There was a hearty warmth to the sultry sun-dried tomato chimichurri peanut stew with the melting and succulent fish that really made me happy.
But did we want churros? My belly swelling with quinoa stew and chimichurri sun-dried tomato satisfaction, I craved hot tea to finish the meal. The churros bonbons arrived.
Picca is by far one of the most delightful restaurants I've ever encountered. I want to go again and again. There are other dishes on the menu that I have yet to discover and put on my culinary map as things to taste: seabass tiradito, thinly sliced in soy sauce, lemon, sesame oil, sweet potato puree, causa snow crab with cucumber, avocado, and my favorite huancaína sauce!
There's more on the menu at Picca. Pig lovers might enjoy the Patita: pig trotter stew, chorizo, potato, aji panca, peanuts. Tres Leches de Tigre: rocoto, aji amarillo, sea urchin shooters. Tiradito de Atun: tuna, soy ceviche dressing, sweet potato paste. Or the "causa sushi" like the Causa Spicy Tuna with tobiko and cucumber.
Like an explorer charting new land, I am pulled toward the equator of Peruvian flavors, enchanted by the spice and sauce filled landscape of Chef Zarate's cooking. And so, I am raising my glass of a mezcal-filled Zarate Tomahawk in his honor. To the chef!
Picca 9575 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035 310.277.0133 www.piccaperu.com