Restaurant Review: Chicha

July 1, 2014

 

Tthe term white tablecloth as shorthand 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. For this magazine’s restaurant awards, none of those shortlisted in the Best New Restaurant category use tablecloths at all. And one of them specializes in currywurst, which is to German cuisine what the Timbit is to ours: loved but not lofty.

Chicha is the kind of eatery that happily flourishes in this liberalized dining space. Billed as “modern Peruvian tapas,” the Broadway and Main 40-seater is a category pioneer, with décor that gives few clues to the experience in store. The room has a backstreet-Lima feel with its Peruvian textiles, turquoise-and-black walls, cutlery wrapped in paper napkins, and green-tinted bottles of pisco behind the bar. But the Bin 941/942 legacy of chefs Shelome Bouvette and Allison Flook (GM Kumiko Umeno is the third owner) suggests a more polished culinary sensibility, brilliantly manifested on the table.

These are approachable street-level dishes, make no mistake. Cassava fries with spicy huancaína sauce (thickened with saltines traditionally; with bread here). Classic ceviche with lime, cilantro, and corn. Antichucho skewers smoky from the grill. Causa potatoes and empanadas in flaky crust with savoury 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 sat to our left and right. A Cambie Corridor girls’ night crowded in around the bar, drinking margarita patadas infused with jalapeño, 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 inspirations. Causa is actually 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 chilies, and topped with crab or black-quinoa-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 chicharrón and emerge with a full stomach and a solid idea of what this place is all about. True, the dish is not strictly Peruvian, but it’s derived from the country’s long Asian associations. A soft bun with a sweet mouthful of glazed pork belly, red onion, and a spray of radish sprouts: explosive culinary simplicity. That’s one hell of a bite.

Chicha succeeds in marrying the aesthetics of the high and the low in a room that buzzes with energy and enthusiasm. Here’s a menu of nailed flavours and innovations that rarely draw attention to themselves. Delicious and unpretentious — more or less my highest praise. Is the profile of this food narrow? You could probably parse these plates into three main flavour groups: those drawn from red chili, those from the aji amarillo, and those from huacatay, a green herb described to me as “Peruvian basil” that in fact resembles mint. But that would be to miss the flexibility of this trio as it is used with different proteins and in different preparations. Those are the bass notes of Peruvian flavour. The melody and harmonizing are all Bouvette and Flook — and what a song they make together.

The name Chicha may come from the cocktail chicha morada, 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 tablecloth for that?

 

THE TICKET

Chicha  136 E. Broadway,  604-620-3963

Order  This is not carb-free dining. Whipped potato causa atún, cassava fries, beef-heart antichucho skewer, pork belly sliders

Hours  Lunch Tues.–Fri. 11:30am–2:30pm; dinner nightly  from 5pm

Prices  Tapas around  $12 a plate;  pisco-heavy  cocktails, $10

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