Adams-Morgan, home to a veritable United Nations of dining spots, has added yet another cuisine to its ranks with the arrival of El Chalan, a restaurant whose older namesake gave Washingtonians a taste of Peruvian fare four years ago.
And like its established counterpart, El Chalan has a menu that encompasses a variety of specialties, from tripe stew and shredded meat dishes to seafood in myriad preparations. Within that range there are as many ups and downs as the Andes Mountains, but for an authentic start, you can't miss with a bottle of full-bodied Peruvian beer and a basket of bread accompanied by a gutsy brown chili sauce for slathering.
Potatoes figure prominently at El Chalan, as they do across Peru. Although there is only one appetizer featuring the staple -- a delectably light dish of sliced boiled potato in a smooth, peanutty cream cheese sauce -- potatoes arrive as garnishes and accompaniments on every plate. So do yams, peas and rice. In fact, it's probably the most carbohydrate-loaded menu that anyone, save perhaps for a Redskins player, is likely to tackle.
Ceviche, the citrus-marinated raw fish dish, is said to have been invented in Peru, but the version offered at El Chalan is unlikely to enhance its fame. A heaping plate of rubbery shellfish garnished with an excess of onion and doused in an astringent marinade was a pale image of that popular dish. The seafood soup was similarly flawed, with less-than-fresh shrimp, clams and mussels heaped together in an otherwise decent broth. Chilcano, a light but full-flavored fish soup, was an improvement, further invigorated with a squeeze of lemon at the table.
Of the main courses, meat dishes (such as lamb) tend to be flavorful if a bit too fatty. The beef stew, sprinkled with cilantro, was delicious, accompanied by peas, a rice pilaf and a smooth spread of white beans, swirled with lard for richness. Lighter and tastier was a plate of well-seasoned slivered beef tenderloin, sauteed with onions, tomatoes and finger-length cuts of potato.
As for poultry, the Peruvian-style baked chicken was delicious and generous: two moist meaty pieces of chicken buried beneath herbaceous rice, served with a sprightly salad of chili-infused lettuce and onion. The shredded chicken boasted lots of chicken but nary a hint of seasoning in its vapid orange-colored sauce.
Perhaps the most dismal meal was that of paella, interpreted here as a mountain of wet rice infused with tired-tasting shellfish; dry, chewy sausage, and fatty bits of pork.
The dining room is small and simply outfitted, with enough in the way of ornamentation -- an aerial shot of the Andes, for instance -- to let you know its origin. Service is pleasant if a bit hindered by the language barrier. When we asked for anticuchos, or marinated beef hearts, we were told, "It's finished." Did that mean they were no longer on the menu, or had they merely run out of them that evening? The waiter couldn't tell us.
As for dessert, it's difficult to serve a poor flan (El Chalan's is heavy and awfully sweet), and the rice pudding we requested was, like the marinated beef hearts, "finished."
The menu serves as a decent enough primer for Peruvian fare, but El Chalan tempts us more with what it could be than with what it is. For now, it's an undistinguished if budget-conscious exploration.