by Ron Bechtol
Peruvian cuisine is having a moment, thanks largely to the warp-speed international expansion of restaurants such as La Mar Cebicheria by Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio. Although he has addressed aspects of Peru’s cuisine ranging from fish to potatoes, Acurio has paid scant attention to a huge component of that country’s food culture, the chifa and nikkei fusions that resulted, respectively, from the arrival of Chinese and Japanese immigrants/workers in the late 1800s. We don’t have to wait for Acurio to bring it to us; chef Geronimo Lopez has done it on his own at Botika.
Venezuelan-born Lopez, the former executive chef at the C.I.A.’s NAO, has an impressive international résumé, and he is clearly familiar with the hybrid cuisines that form the core of the menu at Botika, recently opened in the remodeled, and much improved, Arcade space at Pearl. (Check out the red metal bar stools from Blu Dot; they remind me of origami.) Most of us, however, have much to learn, and here’s a case in point: “chaufa” is a chifa term for fried rice.
For reasons of price, I’m going to suggest that you get to Botika before happy hour ends at 6. The picaderas (appetizers) are much more gently priced, and the tuna tartar I had then was better than the full-price version sampled earlier. To be clear, I wasn’t totally thrilled with the dish either time; despite some nice beet threads and ginger accents, its wasabi mayo component tends to obscure the fish, which came across as mushy. But taken all together, the dish worked well enough with a $5 glass of clean, fragrant junmai sake.
I am thrilled with the happy hour empanadas which, though they are less luxurious than the duck and potato models that are served at regular hours, are corn and cotija cheese-stuffed, exquisitely flaky, and accompanied by a scintillating rocoto chile and oregano sauce. At three for $5, they are a total steal. At the full price of $11, the marinated chicken anticuchos (the classic meat for skewering and grilling in Peru is ox heart, just FYI) are still reasonably generous. Yes, this chile sauce is a touch sweet, but the bed of multi-color fingerling potatoes with chewy choclo (Peruvian large-kernel corn) is almost worth the price alone.
Botika’s open kitchen doesn’t actually offer much of a peek into process. For a more intimate look at assembly, try for a seat at the adjacent sushi bar — and know that if you ask for a “chef’s choice” assortment of sashimi, it will cost you $4 extra. Chef chose tuna, some good yellowtail, a few pieces of umami-to-the-max torched eel, and some excellent octopus with a touch of chile and a whiff of charred rosemary. Even better, was a little pilon the sushi the staff was playing with: nori-wrapped rice topped with baby octopus, all served in a layered bamboo steamer that had become a smoker by the placement of a small container with charred cherry and oak chips in the bottom. The process was simple, the result spectacular. If available, don’t hesitate.
Remember chaufa — the fried rice? This is a cautionary tale designed to suggest that you ask questions. The chaufa term is likely unfamiliar to most, but the menu description, leaning heavily on aji marillo, salsa criolla and crispy pork belly, makes no mention at all of rice. Yet what will arrive is a very generous fried serving of it, studded with unusually good vegetables and topped with a couple of chunks of salty pork belly smacking of spicy anise. Verdict? Well, at least better than most fried rice. Fitting its description? Not at all.
A little questioning on my part also wouldn’t have hurt when it came to ceviches and tiraditos. But no — I plunged right into the al tumbo deep-fried ceviche just because I was way curious. “Al tumbo,” for starters, refers to the tart tamarillo fruit that was used by native Peruvians before the advent of the lemon — expressly for the purpose that Lopez uses it today in his leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), an acidic mix that, along with fish trimmings, can also include vinegar and/or citrus. And the fried part? Beautiful pieces of tempura-battered salmon. In contrast to standard ceviche, the fish isn’t cured at all; you simply dip it in the tart sauce. Kinda like English fish and chips. Minus the chips.
The rewards of patience: another lesson learned. In time, patience will likely reward us with a restaurant sure of itself and convincing in its contemporary takes on traditional fusion as well.
Botika, 303 Pearl Pkwy., Suite 1111, (210) 670-7684, botikapearl.com