First Bite: Picca Mixes Peruvian Flavors With Sushi Aesthetic
F. Friesema Jonagold apples
If you look at restaurants as movies, and sometimes it's hard not to, Picca is one of those places whose trailers seem to have been running forever. There's Mo-Chica, of course, where Ricardo Zarate first came up with his concept of modern Peruvian food, and his guest-chef gigs, and his endless pop-ups at Test Kitchen -- located, conveniently enough, below the space that eventually became Picca. Zarate became a Food + Wine best new chef at a point in his career when most Angelenos weren't quite sure who he was. And then Picca opened, almost without notice, a handsome, airy room up a flight of stairs from Pico, with a glassed-in kitchen and supergraphics where you might expect the moody black-and-white photographs of dancing Quechuas to be.
Zarate's conceit here is the opposite of Nobu Matsuhisa's: Instead of inflecting izakaya cuisine through Andean flavors, he's filtering Peruvian cooking through the aesthetics of the sushi bar, so that causas, the criollo dish of cold mashed potatoes layered with things like avocado, chiles and crab, becomes a blocky kind of sushi, piers of cool potatoes topped with spicy tuna tartare, eel and avocado, or albacore with toasted garlic, like a spud analog to the crunchy-rice sushi pioneered at Koi.
The category of anticuchos, traditionally skewers of grilled, marinated beef heart sold as street food in Lima, has been expanded to include skewered sweet potatoes with honey, salmon with miso, and even cherry tomatoes with burrata and the first fresh huacatay, black mint, I have ever seen outside Peru, although the original corazón is breathtakingly good. I've never had a better version of carapulcra, the freeze-dried potato stew, a standard of Inca cooking that may have been the first recorded instance of molecular cuisine, which tends toward a certain packing-peanut consistency but here was tender, a little chewy and full of flavor, like the potato equivalent of salt cod. And the seco de pato may have been made with duck confit, but the beery, herb-infused rice it came on tasted as if it had come from the kitchen of a Chiclayo grandmother.