Visiting José Andrés‘ new China Chilcano in Washington DC:
China Chilcano from José Andrés opened at the start of the year to rave reviews. The Peruvian tapas joint, nestled into Andrés dominated Penn Quarter, focuses on the multicultural culinary influences of Peru. A few months in, is China Chilcano living up to the hype? On a recent visit, they crushed it out of the park.
The culinary mash-up of China Chilcano includes Criollo, a native to Peru cuisine showcasing its Spanish and West African influences along with the country’s indigenous ingredients and staples; Chinese Chifa, which unites Chinese cuisine with Peruvian flavors; and Nikkei, incorporating the more delicate dishes and concepts of Japan.
The menu is broken down accordingly. There’s a dim sum section, chaufas and tallarines – fried rice and noodles, piqueos, or small snacks for the table, ceviche, sashimi and nigiri, soups, salads and vegetables, and additional portions of the menu such as “The Chinese Connection” and “Peruvian to the Bone.” Most dishes are meant to be shared, so plan on perhaps four to six for two people.
The dim sum is as good a place to start as any, and you’ll be hard-pressed to pass on the Sánguche de Chancho Nipón, a fried pork belly steamed bun. The steamed bun is actually lightly fried too, providing a crispier bite, and is loaded up with that pork belly, pickled daikon, sweet potato, miso, ají limo pepper, and hoisin sauce. Be forewarned, an order only includes one of these little steam bun miracles, and every person at the table will want, and deserve, his or her own.
Another highlight is the Dorado Siu Mai, beautiful little 7-piece dumplings, made with shrimp, pork, jicama and peanut, topped with a “golden egg” – a creamy quail egg adorned with a 23 karat gold leaf shaving. The dumplings are served with a black vinegar and chicha de jora dipping sauce.
If you’re looking for a lighter way to get your palate going, check out the Nobu Usuzukuri, an ethereal beauty of a dish with bright, well-balanced and lively flavors. It’s a Japanese-style tiradito, essentially a carpaccio or sashimi of flounder, served with watermelon radish, white soy ponzu, sweet drop pepper, and ají limo.
Moving to the rice and noodles, a recommended offering is the Tallarín Zhen Fe, made with Hong Kong style rice flour noodles. Considering how they’re made – hand rolled – these noodles have the look of a miniature party accompaniment you might now legally enjoy in your D.C. home. The dish features a rich tomato stew with black garlic, egg and five spice, the thick sauce sitting atop the noodles rather than mixing in and coating them. You get some of that craveable flavor you love from a greasy lo mein or noodle stir fry, without the greasy lo mein.
You’ll have to try at least one Peruvian classic, home-style dish, and the Seco de Res is a hearty, satisfying selection. Served as a deconstructed stew, it features a large, tender piece of short rib laid over rice and served with winter squash, pallares beans and a savory sauce you’ll want to sop up with that rice.
Onward to the drinks, China Chilcano loves its pisco — the “Chilcano” is a Peruvian cocktail made with the stuff. Other cocktails include pisco sour, pisco punch, El Capitán, which is essentially a Manhattan made with pisco rather than bourbon or rye, and a lineup of Jose’s Classics, showcasing reinvented old-school cocktails, such as a 5-Spice Old Fashioned with Chinese five spice.
There are more than two dozen piscos on the menu, as well as house-made macerados, pisco infusions with fruits, herbs and spices. Expect a rotating selection, with highlights including sour cherry, pineapple, and a spicy pepper-infused pisco. You can also have one of their house cocktails made with the macerado of your choosing.
Interestingly enough, at a restaurant where so much care is placed into the exacting aesthetics of a beautiful plate of food, one pleasant surprise came in the entirely visually unappealing “iconic dessert of Peru”, Suspiro Limeña. The dish features a sweetened condensed milk custard topped with crunchy meringue sticks and passion fruit ice. The custard is gooey and caramelly, and is offset by the cold, acidic zing of the passion fruit for a unique and addictive pairing.
The Ponderaciones de Kiwicha dessert, on the other hand, features a beautiful spiral cookie which captures your attention and piques your interest. Yet, bite for bite, Peru’s iconic dessert is the superior choice. Sometimes food just needs to taste really good, plating and presentation be damned, right?
Service is attentive and helpful, but could use to slow the pace a bit. While you’re told to expect dishes to come out as they’re ready, typical for shared plates service, be prepared for three or four to be placed down in quick succession and then removed as soon as your fork or chopsticks are resting back on the table. You’d be wise to set your own pace by ordering just a few at a time so there’s never any all-at-once overload.
China Chilcano’s menu offers a great deal you’ll want to explore. The dishes proved impossible to rank, instead, I was only able to separate them into groups of “absolutely have to order again” – that pork belly steamed bun, are you kidding me? – and the “would still love to have again but might want to try something new next time.”
If you still haven’t made it out to China Chilcano, make a reservation and head on over.