While we talk, as if to demonstrate, he slaps some ricotta cheese on a dry cast-iron pan over high heat. When the cheese is blackened, he transfers it to a plate. He proceeds to char vegetables: tomatoes, olives, broccoli rabe, a couple of small chilies. He adds them to the cheese, then drizzles the whole with an herb-and-lime vinaigrette to create a complex salad — a wonderfully earthy, sprightly dish. (When I get home that evening, I try to duplicate it for dinner guests; I get close.) The grilled-cheese-without-bread trick shows up on the menu at Del Campo in the form of charred provolone with an herb salad.
“Use a cast-iron pan,” he says when I ask later about tips for home cooks. “Set your heat at medium to medium-high. Allow the char to develop to caramelization. You don’t want to cook the food, just caramelize it. It’s trial and error.”
Albisu also uses a simple Cameron’s indoor stovetop smoker, which is basically a deep, rectangular cake pan with a tight lid and a rack. He places a bed of house-dried herbs into the bottom of the pan, places a cut of meat on the rack, then carefully wields a blowtorch to get the herbs to smolder. He closes the lid and lets the herb-infused smoke perfume the meats for just a little bit, anywhere from about 30 seconds to two minutes.
The menu features a smoked Iberico pork chop with “burnt garlic pearl vinaigrette.” The veal chop comes with blistered arugula. Prawns (grilled, of course) are dressed with grilled lemon oil.
Even desserts get the flame. There’s grilled pineapple in the tres leches cake, grilled apricot in the rice pudding and a grilled lemon pound cake with pisco-macerated strawberry compote.
All that scorching, charring, burning, smoking and other three-alarm variations on barbecue and grilling extend traditional notions of live-fire cooking, which says something about the incredible rise of barbecue in recent years.
“I think definitely now is the time to do something different,” the chef says. “I grew up on it and continue to eat this way and enjoy it. I’m just refining it a little.”
His refinements are less about technique than about flavor. They include adding nontraditional ingredients such as broccoli rabe and olives to classic Peruvian dishes and tweaking traditional Peruvian pairings, such as citrus and fish, with char.
On cue, Albisu gets an idea. He happens across a piece of beautiful raw salmon and cuts it into thin slices about an inch long and half-inch wide. He grabs the charred avocado I saw when I arrived and chops it into small squares, then forms the diced fruit into a line about the length of a finger. Meticulously, he drapes the salmon slices over the avocado, then drizzles a burnt-onion-flecked chimichurri vinaigrette over it. (Sometimes, he says, he chars salmon and pairs it with avocado and a lemon aioli.)
I take a bite. The flavor is both bright and subtly dark, familiar and transporting. By using the standard combination of fish and avocado and pairing it with the unconventional chimichurri (usually reserved for steak) and charring, Albisu doesn’t upend tradition; he just tweaks it. The spontaneous dish is a modern take on a Peruvian mainstay.
“Seviche,” Albisu says.
Of course. Seviche. Just, you know, a little refined.
Shahin and Albisu will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow Shahin on Twitter: @jimshahin.