The Distinguished Gourmand: Picca
When I last left chef Ricardo Zarate, he was in the kitchen at Mo-Chica. Through the small window separating kitchen from counter, he sent a complimentary dessert to the table. If memory serves (this was a few years ago) he announced through that portal that it was carob mousse, something he was just trying out. This was a few years ago, before the Best New Chef award from Food & Wine, before the…um…imitation Peruvian lunch counter appeared in Grand Central Mark, when expansion of Mo-Chica seemed to be a priority over opening an entirely new restaurant. When the chef (or maybe it was our server — I honestly don’t recall) heard the words “Echo Park” a discussion began regarding new locations. Perhaps content with the lofty praise and dedicated clientele his restaurant had received, during the first months of 2011 Zarate chose to open Picca (“to nibble”), an anticucho (small pieces of skewered grilled meat) bar in West Los Angeles.
Instead of large, ornate plates filled to the brim with oxtail risotto, arroz con pollo or seco de cordero, at Picca the small plates take Peruvian cuisine and presents it with the elegance of Japanese izakaya. Instead of a layered mound of fresh causa like the delicious starter at Mo-Chica, Picca offers delicately prepared variations no larger than sushi. Potato takes the place of rice, and the yellowtail with wasabi-marinated tobiko served last night was bright and delicious. I admired the unique take on the dish, but longed for more than two pieces to an order.
Starters included chicharron de pollo (marinated crispy chicken, salsa criolla, rocoto sauce), papa rellena (stuffed potato, slow cooked beef, boiled egg, rocoto walnut aioli, olives), the aforementioned causa spicy yellowtail and ceviche with albacore tuna. Whereas the ceviche-of-the-day preparations at Mo-Chica pair sushi-fresh fish with garnishes like hominy, red onion, seaweed and canchita, at Picca the dish is broken down to the bare essentials, fish bathed in vinegar, lime juice, spicy peppers and a touch of cucumber. The tender fried chicken was another standout, with the pepper sauce and tangy salsa both helping to elevate the dish.
Next came the chicharron de costillas, a pile of crispy pork ribs, sweet potato puree, feta cheese sauce and salsa criolla on a toasted baguette. It was an indulgent dish, but I was happy to be consuming it. I’m as tired of pork and pork belly and pork ribs in LA’s hip and haute cuisine scene as anyone, but this preparation cannot be lumped together with the various iterations of pork being served across town. Yes, the pork is the main protein, but the feta and sweet potato absolutely balance the dish’s porcine essence. This isn’t bacon-wrapped bacon for chrissakes.
With a belly beginning to swell, the lone anticucho sampled was chicken with rocoto walnut pesto. The juicy breast was fantastic, the bitterness from the charcoal perfect. Will I be returning in the future to try the highly-touted beef hearts with rocoto walnut pesto or the beef with sea-urchin butter? Absolutely.
Two main courses were consumed. First came the seco de pato (duck leg confit, black beer sauce, cilantro rice). The crispy skin gave way to tender meat that was quick to fall off the bone. The rice in beer sauce was a bit on the heavy side, but its rustic blend of herbs and that same heaviness made it seem all the more traditional. Then came the carapuicra (roasted black cod, Peruvian sun dried potato stew, peanuts, chimichurri). The fish was cooked perfectly, the sauce was remarkable. No, there was no room for dessert.
Although not sampled, there is a drink menu featuring between a half-dozen unique concoctions designed by Julian Cox (Rivera, Playa, etc.). Yes, there are two Peruvian lagers – Cristal and Cusqueña — available by the bottle.
All of our dishes were executed to great success. The familiar Peruvian flavor profiles delivered via Japanese aesthetic was a joy to consume. Service was fantastic; the wait-staff is amiable and eager to offer suggestions. Picca is definitely a different dining adventure than Mo-Chica. The focus on small plates is much better suited to communal consumption. With the right number of friends you could easily eat your way through the entire menu, and considering the greatness of my first taste(s) I’d say my first food-related goal of 2012 is now readily apparent: Eat the entire menu at Picca.
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