My new favorite bar snack is a dish of hot cancha. This ancient Andean popping corn is fried to order at Vista Peru, where the warm, salt-dusted kernels remind me of an airy, irresistible corn nut.
The cancha were also the perfect munchie to occupy me while I took in one of the most inspired new dining spaces in town, a cozy conversion of the narrow old Serrano space (and Tin Angel upstairs) reimagined to evoke Peru with a deft modern touch by the family behind Northeast Philly's El Balconcito restaurants and their architect, Christopher Tantillo. Woven oak staves undulate across the ceiling like an inverted Andes mountain range. Folded stacks of colorful fabrics line the vestibule walls between tribal dancers' masks and the lustrous sculpture of an ancient tumi ax used in the sacrificial ceremonies. If I looked closely, I could even see subtle shapes printed across the fabric walls in back that recall the ancient "Nazca line" geoglyphs that trace giant primitive animal forms across the Peruvian desert. One of those — the condor — is a fittingly regal logo for this project, which has grand ambitions to bring Peruvian cuisine into Center City's prime-time spotlight.
Such a welcome concept. So much potential for one of the world's great cuisines to have its moment.
But a hungry man — let alone Philadelphia's Peruvian aspirations — cannot survive on corn nuts alone.
And that's exactly what happened as I ate nothing but cancha for nearly an hour — on two separate visits — while Vista Peru's staff floundered with elemental aspects of running an upscale restaurant, like seating guests on time, taking orders promptly, and delivering food before anyone at the table threatens to fall asleep, or worse.
"I … need … water," rasped one guest, whose salty cancha habit had become a curse as her empty water glass sat unreplenished for nearly 20 minutes. The water pitcher came. We were still half an hour from our first nibble of food.
At my first visit it took even longer (an hour and a half!) before we saw our first plate of ceviche, partly because an unexpected party of six bullied its way into the dining room and commandeered our reserved table without asking the host. Welcome to Old City! The Second Street corridor may be having a welcome dining revival (see Royal Boucherie and Tuna Bar), but pushy old martini bar habits die hard.
When those starters finally began to arrive, I was reminded why I was excited about Vista Peru to begin with. I've always enjoyed my meals at the El Balconcito restaurants in Northeast Philly, where manager Patricia Alegria and her family — mother Rayda Dianderas, chef and stepfather Rene Arroyo, and her brothers Miguel and Rodolfo Toro — produce fine renditions of classic dishes in far less chic neighborhood restaurant settings.
And I tasted that culinary pride in the electric zing of fresh ceviches of white flounder, of mixed seafood, and of tender octopus laced with crunchy red onions that bathed in a citrusy leche de tigre marinade that was equal turns tart with lime, spicy with chilies, and lit with ginger — a legacy of Japan's influence on Peru. The traditional garnishes of giant choclo corn kernels and a hunk of sweet potato were the perfect counterpoints to balance those bright flavors. I also loved that fish ceviche draped atop the pretty causa encebichada, a layered pedestal of mashed potatoes yellow with aji amarillo chile peppers and a layer of avocado.
A more subtle variation of the causa topped with sweet crab disappeared within moments. And two other seemingly simple but classic appetizers — one of boiled potatoes, the other of fried yucca — were irresistible beside huancaina sauce. This creamy yellow cheese sauce thickened with crackers and aji amarillo peppers had the perfect combo of zing and cream, and, at least in Philly, seems destined one day to become a Whiz-upgrade for a Peruvian cheesesteak.
Not that Vista Peru has gone there yet (nor should it). But Peruvian food has always adapted as one of the world's most thrillingly natural fusion cuisines, drawing on the bounty of 90 microclimates touching its coasts, mountains, and jungle and an organic amalgam of influences from Inca traditions, Spanish conquistadors, Caribbean flavors and African slaves, immigrants from Japan (Nikkei), China (those chaufa stir-fries), Italy, and France. Even Arabic influences appear on dishes like anticuchos, the grilled beef heart skewers that are among this restaurant's must-order dishes.
Frustratingly, persistent service issues sputtered over the beef heart, too, with our first rendition of anticuchos already cool and far too chewy the time they arrived. We asked for a redo, and they were simply delicious, the sizzling hot morsels of perfectly pink meat not so much gamy as they were like a very dense pieces of lean steak, infused with a garlicky chile marinade that paired with sweet buffers of grilled choclo corn and purple potatoes on the side.
Of course, this is not Philadelphia's first exposure to Peruvian cuisine in an upscale setting. At Jose Garces' short-lived Chifa, the food was delicious, but far more liberally translated for an American audience. Vista Peru, and the new Chalaco's pisco bar, which opened in Northern Liberties just a few week later, are hewing more closely to traditional templates.
I have no problem with elevating classic dishes by using better core ingredients and more refined presentations. But with menu entrée prices that soar from the mid $20s into the $50s for lobster tail indulgences, the service issues are inexcusable. Inconsistency in the kitchen, especially after the starters, also held Vista Peru back.
The grilled octopus entrée was impressive to behold as it arrived atop what looked like a mini-plancha hibachi. But there was no flame to keep it warm, and we were left to ponder the sad spears of shriveled asparagus that accompanied huge, unadorned arms of octo — still sheathed in slippery skin and noticeably salty — that were underwhelming for $25. The big metal casserole of paella, served in the Portuguese style Arroyo learned when he bought the bi-menu El Balconcito in 2005, was both bland and overly wet. (Apparently, paellas can be requested wet or dry here, but we were never asked.)
I far preferred the big pot of seafood soup, which was rustic and full of oceanic savor in a rich red seafood broth that brimmed with hunks of lobster clams, squid, and shrimp. A creamy shrimp stew — chupe de camarones — brought equal gusto, including some big head-on shrimp, and a fried egg to garnish. If only the gambas al ajillo didn't resort to smaller crustaceans that were not seem worthy of an entrée showcase. The Jalea medley of seafood with salsa criolla that I've loved at El Balconcito's East Godfrey original also was a mixed bag in Old City. The fillet of fish was citrusy and tasty, but the smaller bits of seafood were chewily overdone. Ditto for the seafood "picante" that came in an otherwise delicious cream sauce spiked with rocoto chilies.
We stepped up to the lobster tail stuffed with crabmeat for $55, and it was just ho-hum, a seemingly small tail completely buried beneath a tumble of crab in a rusty-colored dressing. It was fine, but not at that price. It also skewed our lasting impressions of a menu that had a number greater successes with more affordable options. The lomo saltado, for example, was a great value for $18 that brought a perfect sauté of garlicky sirloin strips and french fries in a zesty gravy savory with ginger and soy, an example of Chinese influence on traditional Peruvian cuisine. The Seco Norteño featured hunks of amazingly tender bone-in goat stewed with peppers and served beside creamy white Peruvian canary beans. A buttery risotto-like preparation for quinoa was an inventive approach for one of Peru's signature superfoods.
And then there was Vista Peru's take on the famous pollo à la brasa, a chicken marinated for a day with cumin, oregano and Peruvian Cusqueña beer before slow-roasting in a special rotisserie for over three hours. It was deliciously moist and flavorful. But, like so much else here, it would have been far better if the staff had managed to serve it hot.
A creamy flan and ice creams infused with exotic Peruvian fruits like pumpkin orange lucuma fruit were sweet reminders that this restaurant has all the ingredients to become something special. But, aside from those fabulous cancha corn nuts and frosty glasses of pisco sour, there is so much work still to be done before this condor of a restaurant dream really takes flight.