Pleasing Peruvian plates at Los Balcones Hollywood

New chef Michelangelo Aliaga at Los Balcones in Hollywood incorporates proteins with Peruvian staple ingredients – corn, potatoes, peppers, quinoa, rice and beans to create authentic and hearty South American fare.

Raised in Peru by Italian parents who immigrated to South America, I learned that Chef Michelangelo’s grandfather inspired him to become a chef. After training and working in Spain and Italy, he came to California and worked in a variety of kitchens including Cecconi’s in West Hollywood and Primo Italia in the South Bay.

What makes this restaurant unique, is that it’s attached to one of the most iconic jazz clubs in Hollywood – The Parker Room LA. This small and lively lounge is a great place to meet friends, enjoy a cocktail and some bar menu items before a night in Hollywood or seeing a moving at the nearby Cinerama Dome and ArcLight complex.

It gets its name from the 1940s iconic bebop pioneer, saxophonist, and composer, Charlie Parker. He played here when it was one of the first jazz clubs in the country to have black and white musicians playing together on the same stage.

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Sitting inside the main dining room, I noticed almost everyone was drinking the Peruvian national cocktail, a Pisco Sour. At Los Balcones they serve it in a short Old Fashioned glass. It’s made with La Caravedo by Porton pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, and a pour of angostura bitter in a pretty design on the frothy egg whites. They also make a Maracuya Sour made with the same ingredients plus passion fruit juice. Pisco is a colorless brandy produced in the winemaking regions of Peru by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit. While ordering one of each, our server delivered a bowl of crispy plantain chips with a pleasing garlic verde dip to enjoy with our drinks.

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Looking around the dark room, the tables are close together and the walls are lined with bold yellow and red Inca symbols painted on top of reclaimed wood panels. It offers a fun atmosphere and was packed with people the night I dined.

We started with a mixto bowl of ceviche that had cubes of sashimi grade marinated striped bass, shrimp, octopus and squid with sliced purple onions, choclo (Peruvian corn) and chopped bright and flavorful Peruvian rococo pepper.

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Peru is known for their popular anticuchos grilled street food. On the Los Balcones menu, you can order a tasting plate by choosing three different proteins. For those more adventurous, order the most popular is beef heart. We chose the smokey deep red Peruvian panca pepper marinated chicken; balsamic glazed portobello mushrooms, and tender grilled sea bass belly with sliced green onion and sesame.

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For entrees the Arroz con pollo arrives on a plate with cilantro rice that has peas, carrots and corn alongside salsa criollo (onion relish). Yellow streaks of huancaina, a Peruvian staple made from boiled yellow potatoes, provides a creamy and slightly spicy sauce to enhance the crispy baked chicken leg and thigh.

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Next a plate of Seco de Carne had a thick and tender piece of slow cooked short rib in a cilantro beer broth. It was on top of Peruvian lima beans with sliced purple onions, and peppers.

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Desserts are the weakest items on the menu. We found the picarones (Peruvian sweet potato beignets) too greasy. The aftertaste of the tropical passion fruit syrup poured on top stayed with me for hours. I did like the flavor of the Lucuma (imported from Peru) ice cream. Lucuma looks like an avocado, yet has yellow flesh that is similar to a sweet potato. It’s flavor offers the essence of maple syrup, yet it’s not as creamy as regular ice cream and almost has the consistency of cooked egg yolk.

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Chef Michelangelo came out of the kitchen to deliver to us a new menu item he created, a lamb shank on a bed of polenta with crispy green beans and cilantro. He told us that he is so excited to be at Los Balcones and hopes to recreate many of the dishes that he loved to eat while living in Peru. Within in the few weeks, this talented chef will add additional dishes on the dinner and brunch menu. As the weather warms up, the restaurant offers al fresco dining on the front patio.

A new Los Balcones just opened in Studio City at the former Girasol location with a different chef, menu, and atmosphere.

The hours at the Hollywood location are Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant stays open until midnight on Friday and Saturday and until 10 p.m. on Sunday. Brunch is available on the weekends starting at 10 a.m. $$ 1358 Vine St. (323)871-9600.

This review was also featured in the Beverly Press on March 21, 2019 – Los Balcones.

Peru is a Foodies Paradise

Visiting Peru over the summer, I discovered the indigenous Inca people were agriculturists who introduced four staples into the world – potatoes, corn, beans and quinoa. Potatoes are native to the Andes Mountains. It was a staple food of the Incas. The Inca civilization was the largest Pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas with its capital city Cusco.IMG_7780

The best preserved example of its architecture is in Machu Picchu. Here the Inca’s grew potatoes, fruits filled with antioxidants, and plants to boost energy and help with the high altitude.

Today Peruvian dishes are a fusion of Inca, Spanish, African, Asian, French, Italian and American flavors. Here is a guide to enjoy 10 pleasing gastronomical experiences while exploring Peru.IMG_8136

1. Did you know that 99% of all potatoes in the world are descendants of South America? The potato is originally from Peru, and Peruvians grow over 3,000 types in different sizes, shapes, and colors. When the Spaniards invaded Peru, they sailed tuber treasures back to Europe. One of the most famous Peruvian potato dishes is Papas a la Huancaina (Potatoes in Spicy Cheese Sauce).IMG_8324

2. Another staple the Spaniards brought back to Spain was Peruvian corn. Peru grows more than 55 varieties of corn. The kernel size and colors were a surprise. Besides yellow corn, they grow purple, pink, white and black. In South America they make fermented and non-fermented Chicha corn beverage, almost like beer. In Peru it’s consumed in vast quantities during religious festivals. Driving through Peru, we noticed bamboo poles with red flags or balloons at the tip of the pole advertising fresh Chicha inside. My favorite way to eat corn in Peru was crunching salty Inca Corn, similar to corn nuts, by the handfuls.IMG_8531

3. On almost every menu is quinoa, because it originated in the Andean region of Peru over 4,000 years ago. Quinoa is a sacred crop to the Inca’s who call it “mother of all grains.” In 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization declared “International Year of Quinoa.” It’s gluten-free and easy to digest. I enjoyed spooning vegetable and quinoa soup at Pachapapa in the Plaza San Blas area of Cusco. Quinoa is excellent in pancakes too.

4. The last staple grown in Peru are legumes. A large Lima bean was cultivated in Peru around 2000 BC. They are found in stews, side dishes and salads.IMG_8112

5. Coca is known throughout the world for its psychoactive alkaloid, cocaine. It grows as a bush in the Eastern Andes and along the Amazon River in Peru and other areas in South America. Entering the airport arrival gate in Cusco, Peru there was a wicker basket filled with coca leaves. To welcome visitors a sign states – “Free Coca Leafs, Take only 3.” These leaves are known to alleviate high altitude sickness. Our hotel Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel offered the leaves for guests to steep in hot water and sip. Coca helps reduce headaches, stomach aches and malaise. Since Cusco is 11,000 feet above sea level, the hotel also offered oxygen tanks and masks for guests to breathe in pure oxygen.IMG_8329

6. Cuy is best served grilled and barbecued. It’s a large breed of guinea pig raised in the Andean regions of South America that was first domesticated in 5000 BC. I ordered this on the last night of my trip at Chicha por Gaston Acurio in Cusco. Acurio is Peru’s most famous chef and a global ambassador for Peruvian dishes. He has multiple modern and colorful restaurants throughout Peru. Guinea pig meat is high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol and offers a mild dark chicken meat essence. It was served with purple corn tortillas, pickled turnips and carrots with a delicious rocoto hoisin sauce. For adventurous foodies, at the Cusco Saturday market, cuy was skinned and on a stick with bones and teeth displayed.IMG_8599-2

7. Another Peruvian delight is their exotic array of fruits, some are super foods boasting many vitamins and nutrients, others are known to help cure diseases and ailments. My favorite was the smooth yellow Inca berry, Peruvian groundcherry, Pichuberry, and Peruvian cherry. It’s looks like a yellow cherry tomato offering a slightly tart and sweet flavor profile. There are no cherry pits, just little edible seeds. It’s high in vitamins and low in calories. Peruvians believe it helps those with lung cancer. At the Inkaterra Urumbamba they had bowls of the this fruit in the common areas for guests to peel away the protective papery petals and pluck the yellow fruit inside.IMG_6941

8. Sipping Pisco Sours as a welcome drink. Every hotel we stayed at in Peru offered a complimentary Pisco Sour. At the Inkaterra Urumbama and Inkaterra Machu Picchu Puebla Hotel they made a delicious Pisco Sour cocktail similar to a margarita. It’s made with white-grape brandy with a frothy top layer made with egg whites, lemon juice, sugar and bitters. Some bars add macerated coca leaves or passion fruit to the drink.IMG_7869

9. Eating Paiche an amazon-size freshwater fish from South America’s Amazon River basin. I ordered this at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu resort. It’s a delicious tender white fish that grows up to 100 pounds. The firm fillet is similar to swordfish or Chilean sea bass, yet offers a lingering sweetness that is similar to lobster.IMG_8457

10. Eating ceviche at T’anta in Miraflores (Lima, Peru) or Chicha in Cuscos. Both are innovative dishes by the esteemed chef Gaston Acurio. In Lima, his seaside restaurant T’anta serves marinated raw fish and shellfish in fresh lime and lemon juice. The chefs add some hot chili peppers to give it a zing. It’s refreshing and spicy.

Peruvian cuisine offers fresh ingredients that appeals to all of your senses. Be sure to try a few or all of the above to elevate your South American adventure.

This article is featured in InTravel Magazine https://www.intravelmag.com/intravel/in-good-taste/ten-memorable-peruvian-food-drink-experience

Ricado Zarate’s Newest Peruvian Restaurant

Years ago, I met three-time James Beard Foundation award nominee Chef Ricardo Zarate at his urban Peruvian restaurant, Mo-Chica. Later, he opened Picca, near Century City, and Paiche, in Marina del Rey, introducing Peruvian flavors fused with Asian and European ingredients. Enchanted by his culinary creations, I followed him to Santa Barbara to Blue Tavern restaurant, featuring Californian cuisine with Peruvian flavors. Then, he just disappeared.IMG_1457
The charcoal-fired whole branzino is topped with a very flavorful green mint aji sauce.

Zarate came back temporarily in 2015 with Once, a pop-up restaurant in Santa Monica. Once means 11 in Spanish, and the Peruvian-born Zarate chose the name because he is the 11th of 12 children. Zarate didn’t sit idle. He started cooking in the kitchen of smoke.oil.salt. with chef Brian Gregg, and wrote a cookbook, “The Fire of Peru.”

IMG_7754His cooking inspired my family and I to take a 10-day trip to Peru. Upon our return, I emailed Zarate to share my culinary experiences. He replied back and to my joy, told me that his restaurant Rosaliné (named in honor of his late mother) recently opened and that I should come in for dinner. We visited Rosaliné for dinner on a Saturday night and the restaurant was packed. Even with a reservation, we waited 20 minutes for a table.

Standing next to the small and crowded bar, we ordered four pisco sours – the quintessential South American cocktail. Piscos are made with Quebranta Pisco, a light-colored brandy made from fermented grape juice. The high-proof spirit is mixed with freshly squeezed lime juice, simple syrup, whipped egg whites and a drizzle of Peruvian bitters, and dusted with cinnamon and served in small ceramic cups resembling flower pots.

Rosaliné is located in the old David Myers Comme Ça space in West Hollywood. Los Angeles-based architect Kevin Tsai re-designed the room with herringbone patterned flooring and tiled walls. Baskets filled with greenery hang from the ceiling and a long, glass skylight and creates an atmosphere reminiscent of the verdant Peruvian jungle. Wood tables and mid-century chairs are complemented by a scattering of bright red metal chairs, adding some color into the room.

The dining room is dark and can get a bit loud, especially when all the tables are filled. The menu is divided into categories: Abrebocas (small plates to be shared), La Familia (larger portions), Mamaqucha (from the sea), Allpa (from the soil), and Pachamama (from the land).IMG_1443

We started with causita crocante – four crispy potato spheres nestled in a Sea Star Seafoods choice boned salt codfish box. The crispy potatoes with salted cod were topped with a pickled radish and wasabi Dijon mustard that gave it some zest.

Another eye-catching treat was Zarate’s Peruvian causa in a mason jar. I fondly remember him serving it at Once. Zarate starts with a base of Peruvian botija olive aioli and layers it with yellow potato mousse, smooth avocado and beautiful, thick eggplant terrine. It’s served with thickly sliced grilled quinoa bread brushed with oil. The smooth causa spread on bread is filled with earthy flavors.

IMG_1468I also liked his aceitunas, which arrived on a wooden plank accompanied by a bag of turmeric flat bread pieces to scoop up the spicy Peruvian olives, eggplant puree, micro greens and crunchy cancha corn, similar to a corn nut.

Ready for more food, we ordered the chafe paella made with Peruvian fried rice that is cooked in a skillet until slightly crispy on the bottom. The server brought it to our table piping hot and stirred in prawns, pancetta and pork La Chang Chinese sausage in a fermented seafood paste.

IMG_1460I didn’t see paiche on the menu, however Zarate offers a whole charcoal-fired branzino that’s heightened with a green mint aji sauce. Wood fired tomatoes, beans and grilled lemons adorn the dish.

We all enjoyed the tender pork osso buco wrapped in banana leaves and surrounded by crispy plantains. The pork was covered with a brick red ancho sauce made from slightly spicy ancho chilies and peanuts. It was served with a pickled hard-boiled egg and soft garbanzo tamale.

IMG_1461Not wanting dinner to end, we ordered two desserts. The first was a small slice of a sour Japanese umeboshi pickled plum tart on top of a purple corn spread with a scoop of a slightly orange flavored Chancaca ice cream and a wisp of cinnamon. The second dessert was Peruvian cake with goat’s milk blended with vanilla bean, sugar and coconut milk and served with Harry’s Berries strawberries and meringue kisses that have been slightly torched to a golden color. A scoop of guava sorbet is offered on the side, and a few maracuya passion fruit seeds are sprinkled atop the cake.

When our bill arrived, our server told us that a 20 percent service charge is included, so there is no need to tip. At the end of the evening, it’s divided among the kitchen and service staff.

I saw Zarate in his open kitchen and whispered to him, “Your mother is looking down so proudly on all of your accomplishments.”

$$$ 8479 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. (323)297-9500.

My review was also featured in the Beverly Press on September 21, 2017 – http://beverlypress.com/2017/09/rosaline/

Once – Better Than A 10!

Writer with
Writer with Executive Chef Ricardo Zarate

Following chef Ricardo Zarate, one of my favorite Los Angeles chefs, has been an exhilarating culinary adventure. I first met the three-time James Beard Foundation award nominee at his spirited, urban Peruvian restaurant, Mo-Chica. He followed that success by opening Picca, near Century City, and Paiche, in Marina del Rey, introducing pleasing South American cuisine with a touch of Asian and European flavors.

I also followed him to Santa Barbara to experience his Blue Tavern restaurant, featuring Californian cuisine with a Peruvian flair in hand-tossed pizzas, pasta and grilled meats. Sadly, it all came to an end when he disappeared from the L.A. restaurant scene.
While dining at different restaurants in Los Angeles, I recognized a few of his loyal servers and whispered, “Where is Ricardo Zarate?” Quietly, a few told me, “He is coming back, and he will make a sensation when he does.” I held onto those words.

Last month, I learned Zarate is back. He opened a pop-up in Santa Monica at Santino’s on Lincoln Boulevard. Many of his previous employees wanted to work with the kind and gentle chef again, especially his Paiche crew.

Naming his new pop-up Once (pronounced on-seh) made perfect sense, since in Spanish it means number 11, and Zarate is the 11th of 12 children in his family. Growing up in Lima, he was in charge of cooking for his family at a young age.IMG_7385

I eagerly made a reservation to reunite with my old friend and experience his new venture. The interior of Santino’s is dark, with lots of wood and light fixtures with designs made from wine corks.

I sat at a table for two and noticed the pleasing scent of grilled vegetables and meats. Zarate’s son was assisting him at the grill. The tables are close together letting guests see the different dishes being delivered in the dining room.

Feisser Stone, known as a superstar mixologist at Hinoki and the Bird helms the bar at the back of the restaurant. Guests may order beer, wine and low-proof cocktails including the Mint To Be made with sherry, lime, cucumber and garnished with mint. It was very refreshing on a warm summer night. I also ordered a Passion Fruit Brut made with champagne, aperol and a small passion fruit popsicle. The bubbles of the brut slowly melted the popsicle.

The menu features 11 a la carte dishes that change weekly based on ingredients Zarate finds at farmers’ markets. His goal is to create dishes that people are eager to share with others at their table.

IMG_7390My favorite starter was the Peruvian causa in a mason jar. Causa is a popular layered Peruvian potato dish served cold. Zarate starts with a base of Peruvian black botija olive aioli, layers it with smooth avocado and mashed yellow potatoes, and tops it with a beautiful, thick, eggplant stew with pieces of the dark purple skin. It’s served with thinly sliced grilled bread brushed with oil. Causa has the consistency of budino, and is an exquisite spread on the toasted bread.

We were also thrilled with the smoky barbecued figs paired brilliantly with peppery arugula and crisp pepitas dusted with Parmesan. The dish was drizzled with savory balsamic rocoto chile pepper dressing.

Zarate offers seafood dishes including one of his famous ceviches, which are packed with heat. Paella is grilled on the back patio, and charcuterie plates include octopus and cured meats.

After a plate of deep-fried, crispy Japanese mackerel sprinkled with sea salt arrived, I passed the plate to an inquisitive man at a FullSizeRender-22nearby table. He closed his eyes and smiled after he tasted the crispy fish dipped in a lovely citrus aioli. When Zarate’s wood fire-grilled Peruvian paella was brought to his table in a large, black skillet, the guest urged me to try the fried rice mixed with amarillo aioli, black tiger prawns, juicy and sweet Hokkaido scallops and Chinese lachang sausage.

Three meat options on the menu include a small rib-eye plate and a much larger rib-eye dish served with cipollini onions and grilled tomatoes. We ordered the filet mignon sliced and served in a black skillet with roasted tomatoes, braised cipollini onions, red onions, grilled green onions and sliced fingerling potatoes. Zarate uses Kimlan soy dressing to make savory gravy, and serves a sunny-side-up egg on top, making the dish spectacular.

Zarate also offers three desserts each week including panna cotta, and chocolate and picarones. We ordered the chocolate mousse with lucuma – a Peruvian fruit with maple and sweet potato flavors – and topped with Chantilly cream. The couple seated next to us loved the sweet potato beignets served with a cup of fig syrup. Glasses of sherry, vermouth, Moscato D’Asti, Cardamaro, Bonal and Byrhh – an aromatized apéritif made of red wine – are available for guests craving after-dinner drinks.

Zarate twice walked into the dining room to greet some of his familiar guests. A few diners stood up to shake his hand and pat him on the back. I rose to give him an appreciative hug and congratulated him on his new endeavor. Zarate is back and better than ever.

Reservations are available Thursday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. until October for tables for two, four or six guests. Reservations can be made up to two weeks in advance by visiting https://www.table8.com/v/once-by-ricardo-zarate.

A limited number of tables are available on a first come, first served basis. If seats are available at the bar, walk-in guests are welcome to sit and watch Zarate do what he does best – cook amazing Peruvian plates.

3021 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. http://www.eatonce.com.

This article was featured in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News on September 10, 2015.

Mo-Chica

DSC_0084The special tasting menu featured on Tuesdays at Mo-Chica encouraged me to gather a group of friends to experience Chef Ricardo Zarate’s Peruvian cuisine.

We sat in the back room of the restaurant admiring the vibrant red walls with the words “Mo-Chica” in big letters. A hip-looking llama by famed local graffiti artist Kozem enhances this urban restaurant’s unique vibe.

Looking over the cocktail menu by Deysi Alvarez, we ordered watermelon margaritas – a melon libation with a sweet yet spicy zing – and Peruvian maids, which is similar to a mojito with albilla pisco, cucumber, mint, fresh lime and evaporated cane syrup.

Later we ordered a couple of white wines from Argentina and Spain. The Catena chardonnay offered a hint of honeyed tropical fruit flavors.

Three of us selected the five-course tasting menu for $27 per person. The first course was a salad of vine-ripened roasted heirloom tomatoes with smooth burrata, huacatay pesto (Peruvian black mint) and crunchy quinoa, which originated in Peru.

Chef Zarate enjoys using quinoa and Peruvian black mint in many of his dishes.

One friend ordered a la carte off the main menu. Her grilled artichoke was topped with huacatay pesto.

Our second course was an interesting ceviche trio. Our favorite was the Hokkaido (Japanese) scallops with bottarga (a shaved Mediterranean cured fish roe) resting next to monkfish liver with cherry marmalade. Liver of any kind is definitely an acquired taste. The cherries do sweeten its distinctive flavor. Last, was a delicate bite size piece of Hamachi (Japanese yellowtail) with a slightly salty seaweed salad.

The third course was a roasted chicken thigh layered with truffles. The flavors were intensified with Shitake mushrooms and a jalapeno sauce. Our server Jean, from Lima, DSC_0091explained that the sauce is made with tofu to thicken it without having to add any fat. It was a gorgeous dish. We all enjoyed the golden colored Kobacha, a Japanese winter squash.

After taking a bite of the magnificent short rib entrée, we all agreed this dish was the best of the four served. The meat was incredibly tender and full of distinctive flavors that soaked into the creamy quinoa risotto.

Our last course was a splendid slice of tres leches cake. One friend commented that she wished the cake was soaked with more leche, yet she liked that it was accompanied with a blueberry sauce as well.

We asked Jean which Peruvian dishes on the menu were foods that he ate as a young boy. He said that his grandmother would always make him Papa a la Huancaina –  a dish of Peruvian potatoes, olives, and hard-boiled egg with a spicy cheese sauce made with Peruvian aji Amarillo peppers. Chef Zarate offers his version with green beans and bacon to elevate it to a more modern culinary comfort food.

Upon leaving, we all agreed that Chef Zarate’s beef short ribs were the highlight of the tasting menu. Many top-notch restaurants in Los Angeles serve beef short ribs for $27. At Mo-Chica, it was one of the five courses served for that same price.

Come try the Tuesday tasting menu at Mo-Chica. The dishes will vary each week, yet I guarantee that you will enjoy the unique flavors and creative presentation of Chef Zarate and his talented culinary staff.

Open for lunch and dinner. The lunch special is two daily dishes with rice and a dessert for $15 per person. The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays.  Lunch service begins at 11:30 a.m. Come between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to get 20 percent off your bill. Dinner is from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. $$ 514 W. 7th St. (213)622-3744. http://www.mo-chica.com.

Published in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News.