In the world of Washington night life, where landing a couch seat in a cool bar means getting by the fashion police at the door of the 18th Street Lounge, the opening of a place like Chi-Cha Lounge, a stylish new nightspot that discourages ties but not sweat pants, qualifies as big news. The dress policy, which I never notice being enforced, hardly inspires a mass dress-down; on one Friday night, my girlfriend notices so many black and navy suits that she says the crowd looks like one big bruise. But even if Chi-Cha is just another trendy place to be seen, factors besides the dress code testify to a refreshing embrace of sloth. Finally, a place to eat that has couches and a hookah.
Chi-Cha’s menu states that the lounge was designed to reflect the “rustic charm” of the hacienda owned by Ecuadorean proprietor Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld’s grandfather. I’ve never been to the Andes, where Fraga-Rosenfeld’s grandparents had an avocado farm, but “rustic” still seems like a stretch. The thrift-shop couches and chairs appear to be randomly arranged, yet amid all the earth tones and the mirrors and paintings, which are more judiciously arranged, everything seems to match. But unlike the forced laid-back atmosphere of Ozio, the cigar bar in which Fraga-Rosenfeld was an original partner, Chi-Cha’s vibe earns the place its “lounge” moniker; twice upon entering the tangle of bodies inside Chi-Cha, friends ask me if the actual dining room is downstairs.
The fact is that Chi-Cha’s lounge is its dining room, and given the surroundings it’s no surprise that the food is also swank. Fraga-Rosenfeld and chef Carlos Davila call Chi-Cha’s cuisine “Modern Andean,” a relatively obscure strain of Latin American food that the restaurant further distinguishes with a variety of personal touches.
The hot and cold items are all tapas, so whether your selections make for a snack or a meal depends on how much you order. The two types of ceviche are good examples of the subtle twists Chi-Cha puts on more familiar Latin cuisine. The ceviche mixto stands apart from the norm with an unexpected rush of pepper heat, while the ceviche Rosita is something new altogether: Fraga-Rosenfeld’s grandmother’s recipe calls for shrimp and white onions (no calamari or flounder), and the orange-flavored tomato sauce is reminiscent of the sweet marinades used on chicken, beef, or pork in many Mexican and Salvadoran kitchens. Aside from a pasty dish of steamed potatoes and peanut sauce, Chi-Cha’s cold items are zesty and ruled by lemon, with touches of cilantro (as in the ensalada de hongos) or cumin (in the ensalada del abuelito) where appropriate.
The scarcity of tables at Chi-Cha becomes more of an issue when it comes to the hot dishes. Passing a plate of marinated mushrooms between friends on a couch is no big deal, but when meat is introduced, a knife and several more limbs are required to get the job done.
But the sometimes messy balancing act is worth it. Where Chi-Cha’s cold dishes are light and citrusy, the cooked meats are hearty and complex. Dishes like pollo limón, fritada, guagua relleno, and camarón al ajillo are all powerfully infused with various combinations of garlic, onion, and peppers. Every creation here is a joy to look at, and the wonderful tamalsone with chicken, the other vegetarianare notably funky. The menu describes the tortilla de los Andes as a version of the potato pancake, but I think Andean shepherd’s pie would be more to the point. Chi-Cha’s Chilean wine just doesn’t seem right with this fusion of mashed potatoes and spicy beef. I’d suggest ordering the tortilla with an ale.
Despite the quality of Chi-Cha’s cuisine, it’s impossible to judge the place on food alonebecause food isn’t really the point. It’s more common to hear patrons asking about sucking some fruit-cured Arabic tobacco from the hookah than requesting a description of the tapas. The menu is actually buried in a larger book, a collection that contains press clips, the “Rules of the Hacienda,” and some stories pertaining to Chi-Cha’s cuisine and its owner. Chi-Cha takes its name from an Incan drink, a bitter, sangríalike substance made mostly from fruit and corn or rice. On our first visit, a waitress tells us the drink will make us “want to stay a while,” and we doeven though we can’t finish
half a glass of the stuff.
With so much emphasis placed on the rituals of hanging out, I can’t eat at Chi-Cha without wondering if the place is cool or not. An unimpressed friend calls Chi-Cha “too dweeby-trendy,” but she changes her mind once we settle in for some food. It’s hardly the fault of one nightclub that most people need some kind of shtick to signal that they’re having fun. Chi-Cha is charming because the food is excellent and the atmosphere is whatever you want it to be. And it’s cool because its entrepreneur is proud enough of his heritage (and savvy enough about local night life) to introduce it to an uninformed clientele of his own choosing.
Chi-Cha Lounge, 1624 U St. NW. (202) 234-8400.
One reader recommends Anatolia Turkish Cafe to anyone who feels as she does about artichokes. “I totally love them,” she gushes. It’d be hard not to adore anything prepared the way Anatolia’s artichoke hearts are. They’re in good company, sautéed with tomatoes, green peppers, lemon, and mushrooms in a garlicky white-wine sauce. And as for Anatolia’s entrees, a friend we run into rates his meal the best lunch he’s ever had.
Anatolia Turkish Cafe, 655 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. (202) 544-4755.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.