Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: Chifa

As a devout Jose Garces fanboy and believer that Amada is the best restaurant in the city, we had little choice but to try out his latest venture, Chifa. The idea of Peruvian-Cantonese fusion is a bit of a head-scratcher to everyone I've mentioned it to, but it is historically and culturally accurate, not just the product of a fevered mind looking to fuse any old two cuisines together. Still, reviewing the menu prior to our visit, I was concerned by the absence of things leaping out at me, begging me to eat them (in either Peruvian or Chinese accents). Would my fears be unfounded, or was I setting myself up for heartbreak at the hands of Mr. Garces and the unreasonably high expectations he has saddled me with?

The restaurant inside is pleasant enough. A wall near the entry is decorated with dozens of Priceless Ming Vases on rows of shelving, and some very cool industrial-style ceiling fans hang from the ceiling of the front room where we were seated. A lounge-ier area downstairs featured a snaking row of cushioned bench seating along the wall, and when I went down to use the restroom, an extremely loud man at one of the tables. Observation, not a complaint per se: seems like the hosts were checking coats for some parties but not others; we weren't offered a coat check but saw them rushing around with exiting folks' coats while we ate.

L ordered a Lima Bean Fizz, a vodka-based concoction that was more cucumbery than Lima-y, which is probably a good thing. I went for a glass of a fairly decent Malbec, keeping with the South American theme. We skipped the tasting menu, because I have heard that at $65 it does not represent nearly the value of Amada's $45 extravaganza. Instead, we ordered a cross-section of dishes, one from almost each section of the menu, but neither of the pricey "specialties" like the $55 salt-baked fish or New York strip.

First to arrive at our table were some quite amazing warm buns, whose aroma and moist interior suggested that they had perhaps been dunked in butter after baking. They were served with a side of spiced guava butter, which L said was quite good. The texture of the buns' dough was delightful; dense, chewy, but in no way leaden, and the crisp outsides made them all the more fun to eat. If they sold sacks of them at breakfast (maybe dusted with a little cinnamon sugar?) they'd probably give any donut joint in a five-block radius a run for their money.

Our first two dishes to arrive were the shellfish ceviche and the pork belly buns. The menu's description of the ceviche as "paella ceviche" was accurate, as the chorizo and other seasonings lent a very paella-esque flavor to the silky mixture of shrimp, mussels, surf clam and peas. A side of toasted corn nuts and fava beans lent a nice textural contrast. This was the kind of thing we were expecting from a Garces enterprise.

The pork buns were a bit of a change from the dim sum standby in that the bun itself is in two pieces, a top and a bottom, unlike the usual stuffed buns. The slices of pork belly that made up the filling were an interesting departure from the usual neon-red pork amalgam that makes up the common pork bun, and the glaze was just on the cusp of being a bit too sweet. The buns themselves were nice and airy, and a very spicy mayo on the side rounded everything out nicely.

And then ... well, maybe we ordered the wrong things, but it was a steep and sudden dive into mediocrity. The anticuchos in the "bocatas" section, a trio of skewered chicken, pork belly, and shrimp, was, and I wish I could be more articulate here, lame. The chicken and pork seemed to be sous-vided to the point of textural oblivion, and the shrimp was remarkable only in its lack of remarkability. I hate to say it, but the sauces barely exceeded a bottled Trader Joe's level.

Alongside that, a beef noodle bowl, which at least was thoughtfully divided into two portions for us to share. But ... the broth was ... weird, not beefy, not soy-ish, but rather lacking in any boldness of flavor; the beef, again, braised to the point of over-tenderness. And where was the flat-bottomed Chinese restaurant spoon?

The first of our final two savory dishes was a bowl of Chinese broccoli, which was chopped into very tiny pieces and lacking in any kind of interest. Things picked up a little bit with a grilled octopus that I liked (but L did not) - a tentacular spectacular of charred octo-limbs served with a few olive-based sauces. Still, nowhere near as good as the smokey goodness of Amada's pulpo a la gallega.

On to dessert. I went for the "passion fruit and coconut", a multi-component dessert that is equal parts of those two tropical fruits, in sorbet, meringue, curd and noodle form. Other than the meringue being a little sweet for my tastes, it was quite successful. L got the "root beer float", which featured home-made root beer and a rice-studded ice cream. The nuggets of rice made for an interesting texture in the ice cream, but the root beer fell flat – literally, as it lacked the requisite carbonation that makes a root beer float so magical. The flavor of the root beer leaned in a very gingery direction that was a little unusual, but it did make sense in an Asian context. However, the real problem with this dessert was that it was served in a large brandy snifter. The tapering at the top of the glass made getting a decent spoonful out of it next to impossible.

Does it give me any sort of pleasure to be less than thrilled with this experience? Of course not. Perhaps it is the impossibly high standards that Garces continues to set with Amada that color my perceptions: nothing was bad, per se, just not as good as it could have been. The Peruvian-Chinese concept is no doubt a difficult one to address, but though I don't doubt the sincerity of the effort, I did not feel that mastery of the format was in evidence. Too many dishes were on either one side or the other – fusion seems to have eluded this menu as it has eluded nuclear physicists to date.

Maybe the kinks are still being worked out; maybe we could have ordered better; maybe it was an off night. I just wanted more, and better. I'm not sorry to have tried it, but I don't see myself going back anytime soon – why should I, when I can eat twice as well for the same price at Amada? It's a bit of a no-win situation, like the singer who debuts with a big number one hit who gets booed off the stage when they play their "newer material". But the lesson is that part of maintaining a good reputation is that you can't let yourself coast on it. If you are curious, I don't dissuade you from giving it a try. It just didn't work out for us.

Chifa on Urbanspoon

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