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Late in the evening at Ceviche, after the crowds had slinked out and the thump-thump-thump lounge soundtrack had been reduced to a heartbeat, chef Javier Angeles-Beron used to pull out the pisco bottles from behind the bar. They were part of his private stock, the stuff he had brought back from his native Peru. He’d pour one shot after another to help me understand the breadth and depth of Peruvian piscos, their different styles and aromas and levels of eau de vie heat.
Before I knew it, Angeles-Beron would trot out his Peruvian cookbook, and I’d sit there at the dark bar, trying to parse the text with my secondary-level Spanish, asking question after question about the odd culinary amalgam known as chifa. There was one thing, though, that I understood well: Angeles-Beron’s enthusiasm for his forthcoming project. He was going to be head chef and partner at Yaku, a restaurant in Arlington that would peddle a modern version of chifa, a melding of Peruvian criolla cuisine with Cantonese ingredients and techniques. The chef was already trying to secure distributors to import piscos for Yaku.
That was nearly two years ago. Angeles-Beron would never see his vision for Yaku materialize. At least not in Arlington.
After a falling out with Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld, founder of the Latin Concepts group of restaurant/lounges, the chef found himself on the outside looking in (Young & Hungry, “Incan Dissent,” 12/19/2007). Angeles-Beron was left with only a small stake in Yaku; he had no control and no say over the project, which would come to fruition by the hand of Fraga-Rosenfeld, an Ecuadorian native who also grew up with chifas (a term that, incidentally, refers both to the fusion cuisine and to the restaurants that serve it).
Following all the turmoil, Yaku finally opened in October under chef Gisela Laos Mejia, a culinary instructor from Peru. Laos Mejia’s lack of experience in a working kitchen proved to be her downfall, and in short order, Fraga-Rosenfeld replaced her with Ismael Otarola, the Latin Concepts executive chef in charge of all restaurants, including Ceviche and Mate. By most appearances (and tastes), Otarola has injected discipline into the kitchen—and sophistication into the menu, replacing the old one, which was too beholden to the deep-fat fryer.
But is it chifa? Would Peruvians recognize their home-grown fusion food on Otarola’s menu? I don’t have a definitive answer, since I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing chifa in its native habitat. But here’s what I do know: Some of chifa’s signature foods—fried rice (chaofa), wontons, and wonton soup—all appear on the Yaku menu, alongside such Peruvian standards as aji de gallina and lomo saltado. (Of course, the latter dish, with its sprinkle of soy and its brief tumble in a wok, has also been influenced by the Cantonese who settled in Peru, so this delineation game has its limitations.)
Here’s something else I know about chifa: It’s homey by nature, which means that it’s not pretty to look at. Large, ungainly piles of fried rice are littered with ragged pieces of protein. French fries are scattered like tornado debris on a plate of lomo saltado. Steaming bowls of wonton soup look like the dumping ground for pantry leftovers. Otarola’s chifa, however, follows a more modern aesthetic in which every dish looks like it’s ready to grace the cover of Food & Wine, which is only fitting, given the silk-shirt and dress-cut-up-to-here vibe that Yaku exudes.
If you ask me, Yaku actually ups the ante for Fraga-Rosenfeld as a restaurateur. The space feels like a glass house erected sometime in the crush of mid-20th-century-modern design. It’s cool, but splashes of color—and Otarola’s cooking—keep the place warm. I’m particularly enamored of the chef’s take on aji de gallina, these pieces of pulled chicken lying on little round cushions of potato and concealed under a luxuriant blanket of yellow bread sauce. The creamy, starchy elements of the dish are electrified with the chef’s deft application of pepper, which can be felt even when the aji de gallina is encased in Otarola’s sublime wontons.
The pleasures don’t stop there. Otarola’s appetizer of tuna tartar, a moist disc of ruby red ahi, looks refreshing but packs blasts of soy and wasabi. The tofu tucked inside a lettuce wrap is silken and soft, the perfect foil to the startling crunch of the appetizer’s fried cellophane noodles. The beef short ribs, not quite falling off the bone despite 48 hours in a water bath, are draped with a Chinese barbecue sauce, sort of like Peking duck, but for bovines. The only clunkers are a pair of mahi-mahi dishes—an entrée of cashew-encrusted filets that taste of last week’s catch and a ceviche in which fried pieces of mahi-mahi are drowning under a sour salad of red onions.
Otarola, for reasons that aren’t clear, doesn’t offer a single, straight-forward Peruvian ceviche. Maybe he’s leaving the signature dish in more capable hands, like Angeles-Beron’s.
You see, from the moment he split with Latin Concepts, Angeles-Beron still harbored plans to open his own Peruvian/chifa place, which he did late last year way the hell up in Olney, where he and partner Percy Lujan are undoubtedly far outside Yaku’s non-compete zone. At Aroma, Angeles-Beron does ceviche the way it’s done back in Peru: The fish and shellfish are marinated in lime juice for less than 30 seconds, which “cooks” the seafood but doesn’t turn the pieces to mush, like the Mexican approach, which usually calls for a lengthy marination. Angeles-Beron’s ceviches still have a fierce, fresh bite to them, but they’re all basically swimming in acid. The only way to counteract the lime is to eat your fish with a forkful of the accompanying sweet potato/sugar/orange juice mixture.
If Yaku aims for the clubgoer, Aroma guns for the homebody, the kind of diner who doesn’t mind if his meal looks like it was dumped straight from a wok. In this way, Aroma is more authentically chifa then Yaku; its fusion dishes have little art to them. The arroz chaufa four sabores is a triangular plate piled high with soy-scented rice—more pilaf-style than fried—and four kinds of proteins, two of which (chicken and pork) suffer from too much time in the wok. The kam lu wantan is an overly sweet, semi-composed plate of steamed chicken pieces served with pineapple, peaches, scallions, tamarind sauce, fried wonton strips, and white rice; it’s the Peruvian version of sweet-and-sour chicken.
The best bites at Aroma can be found on the tapas menu: The black-bean stuffed tamales betray their leaden nature to coat your mouth with soft corn savor, while the mountainous bowl of papas y chorizo pairs rock-size chunks of potato with ovals of glistening sausage, each completing the other like jigsaw puzzle pieces.
No wait, I take that back. The absolute best thing on the menu is the pisco sour, a blast of the Peruvian brandy that’s beautifully frothed with egg white and sprinkled with persimmon-colored drops of bitters. It’s a drink that makes you think big, like taking on your old boss in a chifa fight
Aroma, 18200 Georgia Ave, Olney, (301) 774-6779
Yaku,1900 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, (703) 248-084
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.