Open for lunch Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Reservations for parties over six. AE, MC, V. No liquor license. Prices: At lunch, entrees range from $5 to $7, at dinner $6 to $8.
We didn't even know what we were missing until Washington got its first Peruvian restaurant, but now jaded appetites have something new to whet them.
Here is a menu that dangles the promise of shredded chicken in a sauce of nuts and hot peppers, goat stew from northern Peru, marinated and skewered beef hearts and two kinds of ceviche. We don't often see fish fried in the Chalan style, or fish smothered in tomato and onion sauce. And potatoes as an appetizer, in a sauce of fresh white cheese and cream, are certainly a break from p.at,e de campagne.
El Chalan looks, sounds and smells exotic. The dining room, a few steps down from street level, has rough white walls decorated with a mural of a Peruvian cowboy and various brightly colored rugs and hangings. Dark, ornately carved highback chairs are pulled up to tables with red cloths. Waiters are eager to please, a touch shy. Rhythmic music plays softly. You are transformed into a tourist in a country fond of Americans.
If you know anything about Peruvian food, you know that the country has more kinds of potatoes than Mexico has chilies. Thus, Papas ,a la Huancaina, potatoes with a cheese sauce, is appealing. It is served cold, and the potatoes are in a bright yellow grainy sauce of fresh white cheese and cream, garnished with egg and purple olives. (You also learn that Peru has as many kinds of olives as potatoes.) The dish is unusual, tangy, interesting, though the potatoes were unattractively dark in spots. It is the only potato dish listed on the menu, though other dishes are garnished with potatoes.
Anticuchos are cubes of beef heart, marinated in vinegar and spices, skewered and then cooked to a crisp-edged tenderness. They are delicious alone, but are even more so with the shredded onions and fiery cilantro sauce that accompany them. Another appetizer that is agreeable if less unusual is shrimp saut,eed in a mild, creamy, garlic butter sauce with a sprinkling of parsley.
Appetizers, particularly at lunch, seem overpriced, especially the potatoes at $3.25. And among the soups, the shrimp bisque is a lovely red-gold cream with pink butterflied shrimp and pur,eed vegetables, a mild and delicious concoction, but out of line at $2.90.
Main courses are not much more expensive, most under $6 at lunch and under $8 at dinner, and thus a better value. The choices are a half-dozen fish dishes, most of them combined with shrimp, clams and mussels in various sauces, and meat dishes ranging from chicken baked with rice to tripe stew to a marinated and bargain-priced steak. Fish dishes have been good, the fillets soft and moist and topped with just a light wash of sauce. The Chalan-style fish was garnished with shrimp and rubbery bits of seafood that could have been clams or conch. Much preferable was the garnish of Pescado ,a la Chorillana, fish smothered in saut,eed onions and diced raw tomatoes, a nice combination of colors, textures and temperatures.
One of the most famous dishes of Peru is Lomo Saltado, strips of beef saut,eed with potatoes, onions and tomatoes. Unfortunately, El Chalan is not going to enhance that fame, for its version was chewy beef with a soggy stewed taste, combined with vegetables in a bland mishmash insulted by gummy crinkle-cut potatoes. Far better to brave the Cabrito Norteno, which the menu translates as lamb stew but the waiter and tastebuds translated as goat stew. The meat was bony and coarse, as one should expect, but aromatic and tangy from a vinegary marinade and a light-textured brown sauce. And the most promising dish is Aji de Gallina ,a la Arequipena, shredded chicken in a thickened sauce of beautiful red-gold hue, faintly peppered by the red peppers, aji, which give it its name, and mellowed by ground nuts in the sauce. The texture of the sauce was fluffy, almost like a whipped bread sauce. And though the flavor was so mild you had to reach for it, it was faintly delicious.
That is the problem with El Chalan. Peru's food is gutsy, bold, spicy, but El Chalan's food is reticently seasoned. An American who had lived in Peru expressed her disappointment: "People don't eat mild Peruvian food."
What is more authentic is the style of the food. Several dishes were accompanied by raw vinegared and shredded onions, and the scoop of rice that decorated the main dishes had been cooked in oil, as is the Peruvian--and more familiar Cuban--style.
With El Chalan having no liquor license, the possibility of an authentic Peruvian meal is further reduced. You can get, confirmed the waiter, chicha morada, a soft drink of fermented red corn. But it turned out to be an artificially flavored bottled soda, which tasted like grape bubble gum.
Desserts have got the taste right but not always the texture. One day the bread pudding was tough and chewy, though excellently flavored with boozy marinated raisins and coconut. Rice pudding another day was soft and creamy, but the rice had been undercooked, and cinnamon was dumped rather than sprinkled on top. There were also some barely sweetened pale cookies sandwiched with a light caramel, which were indeed pleasant. And if you think of Latin America as a land of strong, full-flavored coffee, El Chalan will disabuse you of including Peru in that image.
We can hope that El Chalan will get not only a liquor license but also a braver notion of the tastes of its patrons, and that it will loosen its restraints. So far, it is an attractive little restaurant that whets the appetite for an unfamiliar cuisine but does not satisfy it.