Putting Peru on the Map
At two area restaurants, it's easy to become a fan of this Latin American cuisine
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Aug. 5, 2007
Have you been to Adams Morgan lately? The picture isn't so pretty. Eighteenth Street has become one tired and boozy stretch of too many bars and too few serious places to eat. Bright spots are few, but one of them is Las Canteras, a quietly ambitious restaurant that prompts another question: Why aren't there more Peruvian restaurants in the Washington area?
The food from that part of the world is easy to like, built as it is around potatoes and surf and turf. And the repertoire dishes up plenty of personality. Just ask anyone who has dipped a piece of bread in the country's condiment of choice -- the sneakily hot salsa picante -- or knocked back a pisco sour, Peru's national cocktail. There's a sparkplug in this style of cooking, one of South America's most appealing exports.
Chef-owner Eddy Ancasi has done front- and back-of-the-house tours of duty at the long-running El Chalan in Washington and the late El Tumi in Silver Spring, experience that shows up on plate after plate in his new home. Sauteed shrimp in a light wash of butter, garlic and white wine is as good for its sauce as its centerpiece. Lomo saltado -- strips of juicy beef tossed with bronzed potato and tomato in a sweet-and-soy sauce -- delivers strapping comfort in every bite. Chicken cooked in beer is pleasing by itself, better for the cilantro-speckled rice that absorbs the bird's juices and turns the main course into something that pauses table conversation.
Familiar with all the classics -- he grew up in southern Peru, the country's breadbasket -- Ancasi finds new ways of presenting them. Potato cakes are a staple on Peruvian menus; the chef rethinks the appetizer -- cool, mellow and stuffed with chicken -- with squiggles of a heat-infused cilantro puree. Quinoa, a grain popular among early Incas (and in recent times, fashion-conscious kitchens), is served as if it were risotto, with mushrooms, shredded cheese, wine and more in a soothing swirl of flavors. One of the most satisfying salads now playing in town is something the owner says he grew up on: perfectly diced tomato, avocado, onion and fresh white cheese shaped into a colorful form and brightened with a lemony dressing. Lucky kid, you'll think when you taste this light and lovely appetizer.
Not every dish tells a success story. Mahi-mahi beneath a pasty seafood sauce is no great catch, and I'm not sure quinoa belongs in chocolate cake. Shredded chicken draped with peanut sauce is merely decent (the moistener lacks the usual heat). But the many nice details elsewhere in the meal compensate for the flaws. Ancasi bakes his own bread, which is reminiscent of challah, and his guava flan -- adult nursery food with a tropical touch -- is one of those desserts that is hard to share and quick to disappear.
Ancasi packages his food in two handsome floors that reveal an eye for design. Below ground is a cozy bar that looks into an open kitchen. Upstairs is a long and narrow dining room, splashy in red and a showcase for the owner's artwork, including his photographs of Machu Picchu and other sights. The original blueprint called for lots of stone from Peru, an idea that was dropped for cost considerations. But the restaurant's name survived: Las Canteras is Spanish for "the quarries."
Lantern-like sconces cast a low glow. The music doesn't interfere with conversation. Sturdy and handsome, the wood chairs look to be lifted from a colonial-era manse. Las Canteras gives diners both steak and sizzle for not a lot of money (entrees average about $14), making it an ideal spot for the romantic on a budget, provided he or she goes easy on the foam-capped, brandy-powered pisco sours. Trust me, it's a challenge.