Stock up on patience before you go online to book a table at China Chilcano, the vibrant new restaurant combining Chinese, Japanese and Peruvian accents from José Andrés, a chef who seems determined to tackle every cuisine on the planet before he turns in his white jacket. Unless you like to eat dinner at 4 in the afternoon or 10 at night, landing a table anytime soon in the Penn Quarter arrival — which follows his Spanish, Mexican, Middle Eastern and modernist kitchens in the neighborhood — is as unlikely as an unlocked front door at the White House.
There are several reasons why you might have to wait to be seated at China (say CHEEN-a) Chilcano. They include terrific dim sum in a long-vacant space, formerly Olsson’s Books, that once promised a branch of Wagamama, the hipster noodle bar. On the liquid front, it’s fun to see Andy Myers, the former wine director at the late CityZen, encouraging diners to drink from the reserves of Latin America rather than Europe. And who doesn’t like a first-class pisco sour in a setting that holds your attention as you walk its length, with shipping containers, tatami tables, a massive fish tank — and more red than China — to catch one’s eye?
Commence with a seviche. The house signature is a salute to Gastón Acurio, Peru’s culinary ambassador, and gathers cubed red snapper, sweet potatoes, red onions and the dressing called tiger’s milk in a glass bowl hugged by a bigger bowl of shaved ice. (Peruvian seviche can be on the soupy side.) A link to Peru’s historic ties to Japan, purple potatoes play the role of rice as bite-size beds for barbecued eel electrified with hot mustard. Tam tam is another kick: spicy ground pork and peanuts tossed with chewy hand-cut wheat noodles.
I’ve yet to meet a dumpling here I haven’t liked. First among equals is a trio of juicy lamb pot stickers hiding beneath a lacy cover made from little more than flour, water, cumin and salt, fried to a golden crisp. Followers of Andrés might recognize the dish from the chef’s Chinese-Mexican treat in Las Vegas, China Poblano.
What’s not to love? Honestly, the beef stew is a dull hunk of meat and undercooked winter squash rising from a base of lima beans and rice. The dish could use more of its advertised cilantro. Chicken draped in a walnut cream sauce, sunny with aji amarillo peppers, is the restaurant’s top seller and made for Instagram. But I’ve had tastier versions of the Peruvian staple in suburban mom-and-pops.
With two meals under my ever-expanding belt, I’m partial to the restaurant’s Asian bent, and not just because those fine flavors are so elusive within the city.
Coming up: someone hawking fresh-fruit popsicles for dessert in the dining room. The crew sent to Peru to research China Chilcano’s menu came up with the idea after they found themselves repeatedly stuck in Lima’s notorious traffic. At stoplights, peddlers went from car to car with the icy refreshers.
418 Seventh St. NW. 202-783-0941. chinachilcano.com. Entrees, $11 to $32.