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Adams Morgan tends to treat its serious dining destinations with false respect; its denizens project an image of sophistication, as if they might enjoy a fine meal, but can never seem to release their pie holes from the Miller Lite spigot. A few full-service restaurants—Cashion’s Eat Place and San Marco leap to mind—have dared to stand up to the hood’s drinking culture. But the owners of both places are now cashing out, leaving behind an increasing number of joints that cater to this insatiable appetite for after-hours munchies or plodding menus of grease and cheese to accompany the Super Soaker blasts of suds.
Enter Las Canteras, which clings to the southern fringe of the 18th Street NW strip. The narrow space, painted Indian red and accented with dark woods and Peruvian art, oozes respect—for history, for culture, for the very people who choose to stumble into the place from the barely contained weekend Bacchanal. Las Canteras, in so many words, scorns the live-now, puke-later ethos of Adams Morgan.
Chef Eddy Ancasi, a Peruvian native who has worked in the kitchens at El Chalan and the late El Tumi in Silver Spring, is the driving force behind Las Canteras. It might seem a long shot, but Ancasi’s apparent plea for a more refined sensuality stands a decent chance at succeeding in Adams Morgan, if mostly because Peruvian food looks to be the next “it” cuisine.
Influenced by Incas, Africans, Spaniards, even Chinese and Japanese, Peruvian cooking has not yet deeply dented the American dining scene, save for the sweaty pollo a la brasa outlets in our more ethnic suburbs. But the infrastructure is in place for a dramatic change of leadership in Latin American cookery; one day, years from now, you may find yourself arguing with friends over which Peruvian restaurant—not Mexican or Salvadoran—to visit.
Lima is sort of banking on it; over the last decade or so, the capital has opened nearly 20 cooking schools, graduating far too many future chefs for the country to handle. Many, if not most, of those cooks now wind up in China or Central America or some other country that isn’t as stingy with work visas as the U.S.; many will return to Lima with the knowledge they have gained in those foreign locales.
Just don’t expect those chefs to stay there. Gastón Acurio—sort of Peru’s Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten all rolled into one massively influential chef—wants to be the Johnny Appleseed of Peruvian cuisine. He already has opened four restaurants in South American cities and has his sights set on America. He would like others to follow his lead. “Our dream,” Acurio told Reuters last year, “is that in 10 years there will be 50,000 to 100,000 Peruvian restaurants out there. There are something like 200,000 Mexican restaurants in the world, so why shouldn’t we aspire to something similar?”
Ancasi is way ahead of the Acurio curve with Las Canteras, just one of several new pan-Peruvian eateries in the area, including a second Ceviche in Glover Park (the original in Silver Spring opened in 2005) and the forthcoming Yaku in Arlington. Ancasi, in fact, has been preparing Peruvian food in the States for so long now that he knows what awaits those future Lima chefs if they ever step foot on American soil: compromise, lots of compromise.
Sure, the availability of Peruvian ingredients has increased significantly since Ancasi, a mostly self-taught chef, first started cooking up north 21 years ago. But he still has a helluva time getting his hands on the more than 3,000 varieties of potato found in Peru or even the fresh cheese available in his hometown of Arequipa; more predictably, Ancasi has learned to shape his cuisine for the American palate, which tends to prefer milder flavors and, much to my surprise, smaller portions than native Peruvians.
These compromises play out in ways that are not always obvious to the lay eater: The potatoes for Ancasi’s causa de pollo come from Idaho, not Peru; the cheese for the ensalada de palta y queso arrives from Mexico, not Arequipa; and the peppers for his seviche classico include the more pedestrian jalapeño, not the traditional (and fiery) rocoto.
But you know what? Each one of these three dishes passes not only the sniff test—that ineffable calculation that you’re in the presence of “authenticity”—but also the taste test. The causa appetizer, in particular, is a work of art, a small cake built with thick squares of potatoes tinted yellow with aji pepper paste, between which are sandwiched layers of sweet corn and seasoned chicken.
If you exclude the shrimp version, which smacks more of iodine than lime, the seviches here taste straight out of Lima, even if Las Canteras sells the dish well after noon. Reality check: No self-respecting Peruvian would be caught dead eating raw marinated fish in the afternoon; they’d wait instead for the next day’s fresh catch. No matter. Ancasi’s expertly balanced seviches, at any time of the day, come with half-moon cakes of sweet potatoes and cancha, a loose pile of roasted corn kernels that add both crunch and a warm counterpunch to the raw, acidic fish.
The main courses, for reasons that may say as much about Americans as Ancasi, prove a more frustrating experience. The best of the bunch I tasted is the quinotto, Ancasi’s creamy, nutty take on risotto in which he substitutes quinoa (the “mother of all grains” in Peru) for Arborio rice. The lomo saltado, by contrast, is a soggy beef stir-fry dominated by the in-your-face flavors of soy and cilantro. But at least the dish fails on the side of boldness. The aji de gallina, a shredded chicken plate smothered with a nutty bread sauce, has all the spice of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as if the chef’s concern of offending his white-collar constituency led him to drain the dish of flavor.
Which leads me back to my original point: Have the swilling hipsters of Adams Morgan embraced the complexity of Las Canteras, or do they just want to down a frothy, kickass pisco sour in the downstairs bar? “Most of the people who come to this area [on] Fridays and Saturdays are people, usually young people, who don’t have that much money or are just looking for places…to drink,” says Ancasi, an Adams Morgan resident. “Because of that, I can see the difference on the crowd….To answer your question, I don’t know if it will work, but I hope so.”
Las Canteras, 2307 18th St. NW, (202) 265-1780.