Aji Picante adds distinctive Peruvian cuisine to culinary scene
'A more elaborate taste of Peruvian cooking'
November 17, 2011 5:00 AM
Locro Andean stew, a small pumpkin filled with pureed butternut squash and chunks of potato, at Aji Picante, Squirrel Hill.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A restaurant opening is always exciting, as each new establishment potentially adds to the richness and diversity of our local culinary landscape. But a restaurant serving an underrepresented cuisine, such as the Peruvian Aji Picante in Squirrel Hill, merits a bit of extra attention.
Some Peruvian food has been available in the area, at La Feria in Shadyside, Chicken Latino in the Strip District and a handful of other casual establishments. But Aji Picante aspires to offer a more elaborate taste of Peruvian cooking, quite different from other South American cuisines.
Located on Murray Avenue, the restaurant shares owners and a kitchen with Pamela's P&G diner in a newly remodeled storefront previously occupied by a Panera Bread Bakery-Cafe. The space has been attractively transformed, the long dining room cozily divided by wooden archways, the walls painted a calming dark blue and decorated with tiled mirrors and imported artwork.
The kitchen is run by chef Jose Luis del Solar, who was born and reared in Lima, but began his professional culinary training in London. He moved to the United States in 2003, spending time in Rhode Island and New York and working as a Web developer before moving to Pittsburgh and returning to the restaurant business.
His menu highlights well-known dishes, diverse culinary influences and essential ingredients. It's relatively short, just five appetizers, eight entrees and four desserts, but daily specials added a little breadth.
Simple snacks such as crispy corn fritters (torrejas de choclo) or skewers of moist grilled chicken were dressed up by their accompaniments ($7). A creamy sauce tasted a little like salsa verde, but was flavored with Andean black mint rather than cilantro. A red sauce looked intimidatingly hot, but was made from fruity, flavorful (and generally milder) Aji peppers. Sweet-tart pickled red onions were good enough to eat alone. The corn fritters came with guacamole as well, and the crisp cakes were even better spread with a generous spoonful.
The causa de langostinos was more elaborate -- restaurant food rather than restaurant-style street food ($8). A miniature layer cake of silky mashed potatoes was crowned with a small pink shrimp and a boiled quail egg. Instead of frosting, this cake was filled with more cold shrimp, dressed with a cilantro aioli, and thick slices of ripe avocado ($8).
Peruvian-style ceviche had all the authentic components, but reminded me that authenticity is no guarantee of deliciousness. Fish, mussels and clams marinated in lime juice and hot peppers were accompanied by a piece of corn on the cob, a large square of orange glazed sweet potato and "cancha," Andean fried kernels similar to corn nuts. The seafood was flabby and saline. The cancha, however, were delicious. A bowl of these crunchy fried kernels would be a tastier snack than the thinly sliced bread and foil-wrapped pats of butter that made up the bread basket.
The mixed seafood fared no better in the paella, which, like most restaurant paella, was more of a rice pilaf. Slightly golden rice was flecked with green herbs and bits of roasted pepper, with mussels, octopus, shrimp and clams arranged in a ring. The rice itself was a little too salty, and the seafood had become dried out and rubbery.
The sudado, or fish of the day, was a better option. The mild white fish fillet (our server never returned with its identity) was pan-seared until golden brown and served on a bed of roasted potatoes, then buried beneath a pile of crispy leeks. The crispy leeks looked enticing, but many were too tough to be easily eaten. Fresh tomatoes lightly cooked in an Aji pepper sauce added moisture and sweetness to the plate.
Almost every table seemed to have at least one order of the seco de cerdo, a crispy pork shank served over white beans (canary beans, according to the menu), chunks of butternut squash and a scattering of peas. The hefty bone was an impressive sight, and cooking the pork shank confit gave it a wonderfully crispy exterior. Unfortunately, without a sauce the meat had dried out in the process.
Although less showy, pollo a la plancha impressed with its bold, straightforward flavors ($17). A fat chicken breast was beautifully browned, its crispy skin worth lingering over. A double-stuffed potato had a golden crust and a wonderfully fluffy interior. Sauteed kale, with its slight bitterness, was nicely balanced by a sweet, savory gravy. A small dish of chimichurri sauce added an extra burst of flavor to each bite of chicken, while seared, small peppers in bright yellow and red added some optional heat.
Specials can also be good bets, like the locro Andean stew, a small pumpkin filled with pureed butternut squash and chunks of potato, rich with melted cheese and flecked with peas and corn ($18). The pumpkin itself was roasted until soft, so this fall stew could be eaten bowl and all -- fun and delicious.
The good food and pleasant setting already have begun to attract a following, perhaps more quickly than the restaurant management expected. Service ranged from slightly frenzied to genuinely chaotic. One evening, after a long wait, entrees even arrived before our appetizers -- a sign that better communication is needed between the front and back of the house. The mishap was handled well: The entrees were returned to the kitchen, our appetizers arrived soon after and dessert was offered on the house. It is hoped these problems will dissipate as the staff gains experience.
It didn't hurt that dessert was delicious, easily capable of mollifying any lingering irritation. An unbelievably rich dark chocolate creme brulee, and a coconut milk rice pudding laced with diced dried mango and orange zest were standouts in their class. The poetically named Suspiro de Limena, which translates to "the woman from Lima's sigh," is deservedly one of the country's most famous dishes. A layer of rich dulce de leche was hidden beneath a thick cloud of whipped cream flavored with port wine. The lightly fruity, not too sweet cream was a wonderful contrast to the intensely sweet caramel. Although relatively small, these desserts are intensely flavored and easy to share
Don't forget to bring some wine or beer to accompany your meal, as Aji Picante is BYOB and charges no corkage fee. For those who'd prefer something nonalcoholic, options include a tangy orange-passionfruit punch, which was festively garnished with wedges of orange and pineapple, and a spicy, aromatic fresh mint tea.
One restaurant cannot be expected to represent an entire country's culinary prowess, and Aji Picante is no exception to that rule. The offerings, while uneven, were distinctive, an accomplishment in itself. I, for one, am glad that it is now possible to say "Let's go out for Peruvian food" and head toward Squirrel Hill.