Continuing with my repost of restaurant reviews written for my friends at Vancouver Magazine… I confess that I’m torn about posting the bad ones. There have been a few. But I don’t know many food writers who enjoy speaking poorly of a place. And if you have to – because a place is pretentious or over-rated or just poor quality – then you do it once, and don’t necessarily want to repeat yourself.
As luck would have it, most of the new places I’ve tried in Vancouver in the past couple of years have been great. So I’m nowhere near running out of positives.
So I’ll stick with that, for the time being. Here’s my thoughts on the “modern Peruvian” restaurant Chicha, on Broadway over near Main. Excellent little place, well worth trying if you are in town.
The term “white table cloth” as short hand for “fine dining” doesn’t mean much anymore. In keeping with roughly everything else going on in Western society, there’s no longer any agreement on the ceremony of the great meal. At the VanMag restaurant awards last month (2014), none of the restaurants shortlisted in the “Best New” category use table clothes at all. And one of them specializes in currywurst which is to German cuisine roughly what the Timbit is to ours: loved but not lofty.
Chicha on Broadway is the kind of eatery that happily flourishes in this liberalized dining space. Billed as “modern Peruvian tapas”, the Broadway & Main 40-seater is a category pioneer, and the décor gives few clues as to the dining experience in store. The room has a Lima backstreet feel with its Peruvian textiles, turquoise and black walls, cutlery wrapped in paper napkins and green tinted bottles of Pisco stacked behind the bar. But the Bin 942 legacy of chefs Shelome Bouvette and Allison Flook suggest a more polished culinary sensibility which is brilliantly manifest on the table.
These are approachable street-level dishes, make no mistake. Cassava fries with spicy Huancaina sauce (thickened with saltines traditionally, with bread here). Classic ceviche with lime, cilantro and corn. Antichuco skewers, smoky from the grill. Causa potatoes and empanadas in flakey crust with savory chicken filling. And service is impressively fast. We ordered a table of food on a night when the restaurant was slammed. Large extended South American families to our left and right. The housewives of Cambie Corridor crowded in around the bar drinking Margarita Patadas infused with jalepeno and Chilcanos made with ginger. Our food started arriving and didn’t seem to stop, a happy parade of bright flavours and fresh, colourful presentations.
And here’s where the meal steps above its street-level inspirations. Those causa? It’s a cold mashed potato dish served with canned tuna in its most common form. At Chicha the potatoes are whipped to an airy texture, infused with herbs or beetroot or Aji Amarillo, topped with crab or black sesame crusted fresh tuna. Papas rellenas come perfectly crusted, paradoxically light for the carbohydrate payload, stuffed with fragrantly seasoned ground beef. And then the sliders. You could go to Chicha just for the Pan Con Chicharron and emerge with a full stomach and a solid idea what this place is all about. Not strictly Peruvian but deriving from the country’s long Asian associations, a sweet mouthful of glazed pork belly on a soft bun, red onion, a spray of radish sprouts: explosive culinary simplicity. That is one hell of a bite.
In the end, Chicha succeeds in marrying the aesthetics of the high and the low and in a room that buzzes with energy and enthusiasm. Here’s a menu of nailed flavors and innovations that rarely draw attention to themselves. Delicious and unpretentious, more or less my highest praise. Is the flavor profile of this food narrow? You could probably winnow these plates out to three main flavor groups: those deriving from red chili, those from Aji Amarillo, and those from a green herb described to me as the “Peruvian basil” which in fact bears resemblance to mint. But that would be to miss the flexibility of the trio as its used with different proteins and in different preparations. Those are the base notes of Peruvian flavor there. The melody and harmonizing is all Bouvette and Flook. And what a song they make together.
The name chichi may derive from the cocktail chichi morado,made with purple corn, spices, pineapple, and citrus. I prefer the alternate explanation offered by the chefs themselves: “feminine and fun”. And who needs a white table for that?