Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Picca: Ricardo Zarate Scores Again

Picca did not fly under the radar when it opened earlier this summer.  The new restaurant from chef Ricardo Zarate of Mo Chica, fresh off his wins as Best New Chef and People's Choice in Food & Wine Magazine, paired him with restaurateur Bill Chait, the owner of Rivera, Stephane Bombet, his GM and partner, and mixologist Julian Cox, who began working with Chait at Rivera and has since developed the cocktails at each of his subsequent openings (Playa, Sotto etc).  The location is the main floor space above Sotto, in the same building where the much buzzed about Test Kitchen was located.

The opening night was filled to the brim in a giant party and the next night was packed with Test Kitchen regulars and fans.  Once the restaurant opened to the public, I waited several weeks for the crowds to abate (only somewhat) and the operations to find their groove.  Bombet presides over the front of the house, ensuring that order prevails and also charming diners with his winning attitude.  Zarate is clearly visible in the open kitchen, keeping the kitchen humming and approving dishes as they get sent out.  Nobody is dialing it in here.

After a cocktail at the bar made by Cox, my friend Paul and I moved over to our table to begin our meal.  We were given a choice of sitting at the dining bar in front of the kitchen or at a table and we opted for the bar seating as it promised to turn the meal into dinner and a show.

The meal began with the Chicharron de Pollo, marinated crispy chicken, salsa criolla and rocoto sauce. Rocoto is a spicy Peruvan pepper sauce.  The chicken was suitably crispy and got dinner off to a good start.  I am not sure that it dethrones Japanese or Korean fried chicken, but it was in that spirit.  I was curious about this dish as the only chicharrónes I had previously encountered were of the pork variety.

We segued from the fried chicken to the Tuna Tartare, which was served on a layer of avocado and had micro greens and lemon soy dressing on top.  Wonton chips were served alongside to scoop up the tartare and they were light and crunchy.  The tuna was diced into nice chunks, big enough to enjoy and have texture, unlike the almost pureed version sometimes seen around town.  We did run out of wonton chips long before the tuna, but that did not dissuade us from finishing the dish.

One of the specials on offer was a Spanish Mackerel from Japan.  The presentation was beautiful with the fish crisped and presented on the plate with its tail in the air as if it was diving into the Pacific Ocean.  The quality of the fish was very high and it tasted as good as it looked.

The Tuna ceviche continued the raw fish portion of the meal, served sashimi style on daikon radish with choclo kernels and with a citrus sauce.

At the dining bar, we sat in front of the robata grill.  All of the anticucho skewers were grilled right in front of us and it was fun to see the chefs prepare the food.  If there had not been glass between us and the grill, it would have been very hot indeed.

We ordered both the Pollo and the Black Cod anticuchos.  They arrived together and were another high point.  The black cod was quite different from the signature dish at Nobu which popularized it twenty years ago.  It is impossible to eat at Picca without thinking about the restaurant that first brought together Peruvian and Japanese cuisine, but from the Japanese perspective.  Chef Zarate puts the Peruvian element of the cuisine front and center, lending Japanese touches but never letting you forget that it is the Peruvian elements that form the base of his menu.

The only miss of the evening were the Causa Sushi, of which we tried Spicy Yellow Tail and Albacore.  This dish is presented like nigiri, except with causa (Peruvian yellow potatoes) substitutiing for the rice beneath the fish.  The texture of the causa was unappealing to me, much like eating sushi on top of solid polenta.

Chicken Lomo Saltado was served with toast and tomatoes and the meal was back on track after the brief detour.  This was a special on the night I dined, but I hope it becomes a regular menu feature.

Bisteck a lo Pobre - skirt steak, pan fried banana, and chickpeas tacu tacu with a fried egg on top.  This was a hearty stew of a dish and we wondered how we would eat it all yet managed to do so, albeit at the cost of skipping dessert. The egg was pleasingly runny, so the yolk was able to provide another element of texture and flavor to the dish.

Overall I enjoyed Picca very much and can recommend it unreservedly.  It is not inexpensive, though.  No one dish costs very much but by the time you order enough food and drink, it adds up.

The environment is relaxed and lively, the service was capable and the opportunity to have Julian Cox's cocktails and Ricardo Zarate's cuisine in one setting is a very fortunate occurrence.

Picca: 9575 W. Pico Blvd, West LA.  Phone: (310) 277-0133.  Website:  Closed on Sundays.

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