Peruvian mixed with Chinese and Japanese might seem like an odd combination, but the menu at José Andrés's new Penn Quarter restaurant China Chilcano is far from a random kitchen experiment.
"It's not fusion at all," says ThinkFoodGroup Director of Research and Development Rick Billings. "We're really not creating new styles. We're paying homage to the food and the culture."
The influx of immigrants from Asian countries to Peru in the late 19th century has naturally bred cuisines the fuse together ingredients and techniques from both sides of the globe. Chifa (Chinese) and Nikkei (Japanese) are now very much engrained in Peruvian cuisine.
After three trips to Peru, Billings says the team initially started with about 100 items on the menu, but they've whittled it down to less than half that. "Everything here, it's because it's the best of the best of what we wanted," he says.
On the Chinese-Peruvian end of things, you'll find a variety of fried rice, noodles, and dim sum, including dumplings and pork belly bun with sweet potato, miso, and aji limo chili peppers. There's also a lomo saltado—flat iron steak with tomato, soy sauce, ginger, rice, and shoestring potatoes—and lobster "kung fu" with chicha de jora (a fermented corn drink), smoked black pepper, and aji amarillo (a yellow chile).
Japanese-Peruvian dishes take the form of ceviche, tiradito (the Peruvian version of sashimi), and nigiri—some made with rice, and some made with mashed and seasoned potato called causa. Grab a seat in front of the raw bar for a view of the preparations.
The menu also highlights Peru's native Criollo cuisine with a variety of anticuchos (grilled meat skewers) and traditional dishes like a spicy chicken stew called aji de gallina.
For dessert, stay tuned for fruit popsicles that servers deliver to tables across the dining room in a custom-made box (still in the works) like a street vendor. "In Peru, you would see these ladies walking around the streets with this insulated little cooler with the straps over their neck, and it's full of popsicles and they sell them on the streets," Billings explains.
Drink-wise, China Chilcano is striving to have one of the most extensive selection of piscos in the country. ThinkFoodGroup "cocktail innovator" Juan Coronado has also come up with a list of cocktails that will include modern interpretations of pisco sours (of course) and the chilcano, a pisco-based cocktail from which the restaurant gets its name. The wine list is predominantly South American.
Spanish designer and architect Juli Capella, who's also behind the look of Minibar and Jaleo, drew inspiration from shipyard docks for the decor. Ropes and crates hang from the ceilings, while part of the wall is comprised of a bright red shipping container. There's even a lobster tank, from which chefs can grab the night's dinner. (Live shrimp will be added later.)
Peruvian artist Cecilia Paredes created a mural called "two worlds" of a woman camouflaged into a red and blue flowered tapestry. Meanwhile, neon lights on the ceilings are fashioned in the shape of Peru's Nazca Lines, a series of huge ancient markings on the ground depicting animals whose full shapes can only be seen from the sky.
Other fun touches include lazy susans on some of the larger tables and even a Japanese-style tatami table, where you sit on the floor. (You can take off your shoes, but you're not obligated.)
Check out more photos of the space below:
China Chilcano, 418 7th St. NW; (202) 783-0941; chinachilcano.com
Photos by Jessica Sidman