Your eyes don’t know where to focus at China Chilcano, the highly anticipated Chinese-Japanese-Peruvian hybrid from José Andrés that took Penn Quarter by storm in January. The dining room, which shares its block with the Spanish chef’s flagship tapas restaurant Jaleo, is a swirl of red walls fashioned from shipping containers, green stencils, Edison light bulbs tethered to thick rope, a busy bar, bamboo cages and a sunken tatami table.
Stir in a full house, and you have a smorgasbord of stimuli.
As dizzy-making as the decor is the menu, which crams onto a single broad sheet seviche, dim sum and fried rice dishes. They’re a reflection of the Asian influence on Peru dating to the 19th century and pacification for those diners who waited patiently (and futilely) for the noodle bar Wagamama to open at this address. “You order,” every one of my guests has said to me after glancing at the list, which hopscotches from live scallops to lomo saltado to grilled duck tongues served on a skewer. No surprise, there’s a dedicated chef for each cuisine; James Gee, formerly of Jaleo in Bethesda, serves as the head of the bunch.
The layout drives a man to drink, which here is not a bad thing considering the pisco sours that bring Lima to Washington and the presence of the convivial Andy Myers, the former wine director at CityZen. (The kitchen prompts thirsts of a different sort, but more on that later.)
Use the dumplings as your springboard. Oh, the pail of tropical chips are fun, and so are the wispy patties of fried yuca, lashed with honey-colored chancaca syrup at the table. But short of Saturday dim sum brunch at the Source, good dumplings are hard to find in Washington, and the kitchen at China Chilcano (pronounced CHEEN-a chil-KAHN-o) does Asian stuffed wrappers justice. The most arresting example is a quartet of juicy, cilantro-spiked lamb potstickers beneath a crisp, cumin-colored lattice. Yet another slips pork belly into lotus steam buns slathered with a cross-cultural sauce of hoisin and tamarind. The pillowy packages require you to open wide for a filling that also packs in pickled daikon, cilantro and sweet potato.
More variety comes by way of a $16 “Lucky” sampler of three different siu mai presented in tiers of their own in a steamer basket. Remove the top lid to see four packets filled with shrimp, pork and jicama, each morsel topped with a quail egg and speckled with gold leaf: art you are happy to eat. The next basket contains equally luscious dumplings stuffed with scallop, pork and heart of palm and glinting with tobiko. One’s luck runs out with the siu mai on the bottom layer. Ground chicken and cloud ear mushrooms prove heavy and bland.
If you’ve eaten at Oyamel, Andrés’s Mexican outpost across the street, the raw seafood salads will ring some bells. One preparation displays folds of hamachi on a sauce of “tiger’s milk,” an electric combination of lime juice, chilies and fish juice. More novel are mash-ups of causa (Peruvian potatoes) and nigiri (Japanese sushi). The simply billed “Uni” places a dime-size piece of lightly torched sea urchin on bite-size blocks of potato encrusted with white “pearls.” Surf and earth merge in the mouth, accompanied by the soft crunch of the beady crisp rice.
“Peruvian to the bone” groups a handful of home-style dishes, some of which have lost their charm in the transition to a restaurant. A stew of shredded chicken, ground pecans and rice — the popular aji de gallina — is a tame version of the Peruvian mainstay whose golden cheese sauce gets its color and kick from the aji amarillo chili. The kitchen employs the enhancer with the restraint of a straitjacket. The menu pays its respect to Peru’s street food culture with tiny skewers of grilled shiitakes, chicken thigh and marinated duck tongues. The last are creamy and taste mostly of fat and garlic; a squeeze of lime gives a welcome jolt. Another menu category, “The Chinese Connection,” infuses lomo saltado (grilled steak) with fresh ginger and soy sauce. Shoestring potatoes and shishito peppers — some hot, some not — complete the brassier-than-usual dish.
If I could ask a favor of the kitchen, it would be for the cooks to taste their work more. Salt bullies a few dishes at China Chilcano. Cold wheat noodles with julienned carrot and cucumber are pleasantly chewy, but they’re masked by a salty sesame seed sauce. And the sodium-saturated broth in a strapping bowl of egg noodles, bok choy and lime overwhelms the delicate shrimp-and-pork dumplings swimming in their midst.
Whipped up by the same Spanish designer who gave Washington the whimsical Jaleo and Minibar, Juli Capella, China Chilcano has the most uncomfortable seating of any new restaurant. The banquettes are plumped with so many pillows, diners feel trapped, while the trim booths seem designed with human reeds in mind. (Suck in your gut if you’re not Kate Moss.) The neon squiggles above your head? Those represent the ancient Nazca Lines in southern Peru: desert etchings that make sense only when viewed from on high. It seems everything is a matter of perspective here.
There’s a lot to take in at China Chilcano: a lot of scenery, a lot of accents, a lot of liquids (30 kinds of pisco and growing). Sometimes, it’s enough to make your head spin. Often enough, it plays to the heart.
Location: 418 Seventh St. NW. 202-783-0941. www.chinachilcano.com.
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday.
Prices: Snacks and appetizers $4 to $18, main dishes $9 to $32.
Sound check: 78 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
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