This review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2016 Spring Dining Guide as No. 9 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
Proof that Shaw doesn’t have all the fun: this two-story Peruvian oasis in Dupont Circle. Upstairs (Nazca) is a minimalist dining room with a brief but compelling menu, a mix of Peruvian standards (causitas, lomo saltado) and novelties including duck confit over which a tangy marinade is added at the table. Downstairs (Mochica) is a seviche lounge and a bar whose street snacks, pisco sours and handsome design conspire to turn after-work drinks into a full-fledged feast. One of my best memories is meatless: quinoa tossed with creamy avocado, toasted marcona almonds, diced mozzarella and fresh mint, everything wrapped in ruffled lettuce leaves and eaten like a taco. Now you see it, now you don’t.
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Nazca Mochica review: Proof that Peruvian food means more than seviche
This review was originally published March 2, 2016.
The recent debuts of Convivial by Cedric Maupillier, the Dabney by Jeremiah Langhorne and Kinship courtesy of Eric Ziebold have kept more than a few food fanciers fixated on a single neighborhood in Washington.
Should you need a nudge to get out of Shaw and expand your sights, let me introduce you to a young Peruvian restaurant in Dupont Circle. It goes by Nazca Mochica, and it’s the two-story successor to Heritage India. The street level showcases an inviting seviche lounge, Mochica, named after an ancient Peruvian society known for ceramic art. The second floor, Nazca, finds a minimalist dining room with a brief but intriguing menu. Both venues are fun when they’re on, frustrating when they’re not, and possibly the best representative of Peruvian cuisine in town since Carlos Delgado bid “chau” to Ocopa on H Street NE. (Some of us still mourn the loss.)
Duck confit might not be the first dish you’d expect to see in a Peruvian restaurant, but the entree as served at Nazca compels you to sit up, take notice and “Don’t touch! It’s very hot,” warns a server as she places the photogenic fowl on the table. The mahogany bird, shored up with chunks of sweet potato and choclo (giant Peruvian corn), rests near a Japanese stone hot enough to cook meat. So imagine what transpires when the server pours a thin stream of what looks like gravy from a small pitcher onto the rock. The hiss and steam subside, and a diner’s knife and fork make short work of a dish any bistro would be pleased to call its own. The dramatic moistener turns out to be a seviche marinade made with orange juice instead of lime: duck a la orange, only tangier.
More novelty comes by way of a quinoa salad that reads like a conspiracy between a spa chef and a registered dietitian but ends up winning the namesake ancient grain new fans. Some of the quinoa is poached, some of it is popped, all of it is tossed with toasted marcona almonds, diced mozzarella and creamy avocado. For starters. Fresh mint lends a nice breeziness, while golden raisins and candied cashews inject sweetness. As is in vogue, the dish, finished with passion fruit vinegar, arrives with a stack of ruffly lettuce leaves for turning the salad into light but spirited tacos.
The talent behind the cooking is Peruvian native Roberto Castre, a Houston transplant who retains a restaurant in Texas, Latin Bites, which is where he met partners Robert Preston, a government-relations worker, and Walter Lopez, a lawyer. Graduates of Georgetown University, they’re the front-of-the-house smiles who figured Washington would be a familiar place to open their maiden restaurant.
Nazca opens with a tiny foyer and a faux window showing a video of central Lima and its stately cathedral. The 50-seat dining room, in contrast, offers little to look at save for a sheer white curtain and an open kitchen in the rear. The message is clear: Focus on the food. The task is easy when the order is causitas, translated here as totems of potatoes mashed with lime juice, each little cake set off with one of four vivid toppings: chicken salad, scarlet peppers, tuna seviche and pork belly (my favorite). Lighter, but just as lovely, are wavy slices of raw white fish slicked with lime and fish juices — tiraditos, a cross between sashimi and crudo — and dappled with hot red chilies. The colorful garnishes, aji limo peppers, wash over the tongue like lit matches.
Billed as contemporary, the newcomer summons tradition with shredded chicken ginned up with a sauce of hot, yellow chili peppers and lomo saltada. The latter, a stir-fry of beef tenderloin flavored with soy and oyster sauces, is sometimes robust, other visits restrained. The constants are the crisp fried potatoes that grace the meat — and further proof that no one does spuds like the Peruvians. Beer-braised lamb short ribs prove more of an acquired taste, almost as much fat as meat.
Dessert involves a mere two choices. One is a riff on a chocolate panna cotta the chef used to eat at an Italian restaurant of his youth. Nazca’s version, flavored with hazelnut and closer to pudding in texture, comes with a scoop of basil ice cream and an accent that shows no signs of going away, alas: bacon, presented as a crumble. More delicate are a trio of caramel-filled white cookies dusted with powdered sugar, Washington’s reigning alfajores.
If there’s a fault line in the restaurant, it’s the attention: one night ebullient and efficient, other nights textbook imperfect. Is it too much for a party of four to expect four appetizers and four entrees to be served simultaneously, rather than grow cold waiting for a single straggler? As good as the pisco sours are, the twist on margaritas, featuring smoked brandy, pineapple juice and lime zest, are better. But the time it can take between ordering a “pinarita” and actually seeing the drink leads one to believe the cocktail is being made at the base of Machu Picchu — and you’re on the summit. Some servers come armed with résumés from starry competitors, and others act as if they were plucked off the street and given two minutes to train. Your mileage may vary.
In the market for a new watering hole? More casual than Nazca is the downstairs bar, Mochica, which is actually two distinct counters, one where a handful of cocktails are whipped up, the other where Castre sometimes cooks. A flurry of menus — one for liquids, a second for solids, a third for happy hour — is momentarily distracting. But the combination of seviches, tiraditos and Peruvian street snacks rivals the output upstairs. The gems in the low-ceilinged lounge span a riveting salad of raw tuna, roasted peanuts and taro chips lashed with chorizo oil and hoisin-slathered steam buns crammed with crackling pork belly and shredded red cabbage, a package further enlivened with bonito flakes and passion fruit dressing. Only the too-tart branzino falls short.
Two treats under one roof, Nazca Mochica might not be on your neighborhood watch list. But if food is your game, it deserves to be.
Location: 1633 P St. NW. 202-733-3170. nazcamochica.com.
Open: Lunch in the restaurant 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner and bar 5 to 11 p.m. daily.
Prices: Restaurant appetizers $14 to $19, main courses $18 to $24; dishes in the lounge $8 to $19
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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