If you’ve ever wondered how loud a jet engine sounds at takeoff, I can give you an approximation. Just drop by the city’s newest Peruvian restaurant, Pisco y Nazca, at happy hour, where my sound meter captured the equivalent: 100 decibels. (For the sake of comparison, normal conversation is 60 decibels.) The cacophony forces customers to read lips and eavesdrop on their neighbors, as everyone raises their voices to be heard.
To my left, I make out a guy telling two women, “DO YOU THINK A WHITE MAN’S GOING TO DO IT?” To my right, a woman says to her companion, “I DON’T NEED YOUR PITY.” My sympathy goes to the hard-working bartenders, who manage to smile and serve without the benefit of protective ear wear.
You’ll want a pisco sour. The drink, featuring grape brandy and a cap of whipped egg white, is as much an emblem of Peru as its flag. Something with potatoes would be good, too, because few countries do more with spuds than Peru. My pick drapes sliced boiled potatoes in a curtain of cheese sauce tinted yellow with aji amarillo chiles, a dish completed with sliced boiled egg and olives. While you’re grazing, throw in an empanada. The fluted hot pocket with shredded chicken is herby and juicy.
Less enticing is a ceviche composed of hake, cilantro, sweet potato, swollen Peruvian corn (choclo) and slivered onion. Despite the enhancers, the citrus-“cooked” fish lacks the sparkle of a model ceviche. A trio of mashed-potato cakes mounted with avocado and more is best for the causa crowned with a crisp, panko-sheathed shrimp. The pedestals topped with gray tuna tartar and chicken salad, on the other hand, taste like tea-room rejects.
Pisco y Nazca is new to Washington but not Miami, which claims two same-named outposts. Colombia native Victor Lopez, 29, worked at both restaurants before relocating to the District to open a branch downtown earlier this month.
Server and chef alike tell me lomo saltado is their favorite entree. Meat and potatoes types will probably appreciate cubes of tenderloin seasoned with cumin, splashed with soy sauce and chicken stock and combined in a stir-fry with onions and potatoes. Next visit, I hope to encounter vegetables that don’t taste as if they were merely passed over a flame. Both the onions and potatoes were undercooked.
A return trip to Pisco y Nazca found me in the dining room facing the kitchen, awash in blue tiles, and within view of woven baskets and a fireplace, the only leftover from what used to be Mackey’s Public House. I’d love to tell you a table away from the bar is easier on the ears, but the truth is, my dining companion and I repeated much of our conversation, or read lips, for the duration of dinner.
Another truth: Only an investment in soundproofing by the restaurant is likely to see me back.
1823 L St NW. 202-559-3726. piscoynazca.com. Entrees $16.50 to $44 (whole fish for two).