Ensalada de chonta (hearts of palm salad) at Bar Amazonia
Ensalada de chonta (hearts of palm salad) at Bar Amazonia Credit: Nevin Martell

Walking up the steps to Bar Amazonia, you get the feeling you’re not in Blagden Alley anymore. Jungle sounds dance amid the upbeat tropicalia lounge music complementing the burble of the happy hour crowd on a recent Friday evening. Reaching the second floor, greenery sprouts everywhere, creating a rainforest vibe, fortified by trippy, ayahuasca-inspired art on the walls. The bar stretches the length of the heavily windowed room, offering views of the sunset skyline over Shaw and a peek at the breezy 50-seat patio offering a mix of partially shaded high tops and lounge seating.

This slice of whimsical wildness is a collaboration between executive chef Carlos Delgado and his partners, Glendon Hartley and Chad Spangler, who own Service Bar, recently named one of North America’s 50 best bars. Taking inspiration from the Peruvian rainforest, Bar Amazonia opened in early May. The 24-seat tasting menu restaurant, Causa, occupying the first floor and focusing on the cuisine of the Peruvian coast and the Andes Mountains, is set to debut at the end of July if all goes according to plan.

Raised in the coastal city of Callao, west of Lima, Delgado has been proselytizing about his home country’s cuisine for nearly a decade in D.C. His first sermon was at Ocopa, his groundbreaking Peruvian restaurant on H Street NE, where Hartley oversaw the cocktails. It opened in 2014 but shuttered two years later. Delgado went on to head up the kitchen at China Chilcano, José Andrés’ vivid Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion eatery in Penn Quarter.

The visions for these restaurants danced in Delgado’s head for a decade, which is apparent as soon as dishes hit the table. The cuisine here is thoughtfully composed and artfully balanced, a distillation-turned-progression of all Delgado did before. “Everything on my menu tastes like Peru with a capital P, as authentic as can be,” he says. “I don’t want to just sell people food and drinks; I want to give them an experience. I want to give them a reason to travel to Peru and teach them about Peru.”

As soon as I took my first bites, I began looking at plane tickets.

Lagarto (alligator croquettes) at Bar Amazonia
Lagarto (alligator croquettes) at Bar Amazonia Credit: Nevin Martell

The menu is divided into snacks, skewers, and medium to large hot and cold dishes, all designed to be shared. Smaller bites include tortitas norteñas, dainty johnnycakes dressed with uni and onion relish, and croquettes hiding bits of alligator, which, if I’m being honest about it, tasted like chicken. Madurito is the surprise hit. An uber-ripe plantain, roasted to further accentuate its natural sugars, is covered with smoked dried pork (cecina) and draped with melted Parmesan and Gruyere. Salty, sweet, and savory, it’s perfect drinking food.

Speaking of drinking, the cocktail options are as colorful as they are creative. The list has something for everyone, from the bubbly, pisco-powered tongue tingler La Misión to the Otorongo Ciego, a heady mix of cognac, scotch, and banana liqueur. If pisco is your thing, the bar team is currently building a library more than 120 titles strong and growing.

Back to the food. Cebiche Amazonia is required eating. Made with whatever fish is freshest (corvina and tilefish the night I dined), lime, plantain, and spicy, citrusy charapita, Peruvian hot peppers known on the internet as the world’s most expensive peppers, it is an ebullient celebration of contrasts: crunchy and smooth, sweet and salty, spicy and soothing.

Another must-order is the ensalada de chonta (hearts of palm salad). I never had one quite like this, likely because all those I’ve eaten relied on canned produce. Not here. Fresh chunks and mozzarella-like shreds of the vegetable are mixed with chunks of creamy avocado and tossed in dressing with a pop of passion fruit for a tangy-sweet component. The salad was so good I ordered another one to go.

There are a slew of skewers, all grilled over binchotan (Japanese charcoal). Try a few of the more unusual cuts, like beef heart, salmon belly, and duck tongue, which are the most rewarding.

Chaufa putumayo aka wok-fried rice with egg and chorizo at Bar Amazonia
Chaufa putumayo (wok-fried rice) with egg and chorizo at Bar Amazonia Credit: Nevin Martell

For larger dishes, grab a bowl of chaufa putuymayo—wok-fried jasmine rice tossed with featherweight stamps of fried egg and chorizo—that’s far lighter than your average takeout fried rice. Or make your own open-faced sandwiches with patarashka, fish cooked in banana leaf (a meaty chunk of grouper when I was there) and crunchy rounds of patacones (fried plantains).

If you’d like to finish with something sweet, try Delgado’s play on Black Forest cake. A cacao pod made of chocolate hides chocolate mousse and syrupy cherries, and a scoop of cherry ice cream comes on the side.

For a more Peruvian finale, go for the chazuta, creamy mousse made with macambo seeds, a cousin of the cacao, which have a nutty, white chocolate sensibility. The creamy swirl hides mint passion fruit sorbet, which pops on the tongue, an acidic fireworks display. It’s exciting and electrifying, one last transportive moment making Blagden Alley feel countless miles away.

Bar Amazonia, 920 Blagden Alley NW; (202) 629-3942, causadc.com

Got a tip on a new restaurant opening? Email goodtaste@washingtoncitypaper.com. Follow Nevin on Instagram @nevinmartell and on Twitter @nevinmartell.