I was anxious to return to Paiche after sampling some of Ricardo Zarate's fare during the Top Chef Preview dinner in March. I liked the dishes and flavors that the Picca chef pulled together that night, but he was sharing cooking duties with Naomi Pomeroy from Portland's Beast, so I wanted to return for the all-Zarate-all-the-time menu.
The restaurant wasn't completely full the Thursday night I went, which made me a little nervous, but the wall separating the dining room from the glass enclosed patio was now open, so it made the whole room lighter and brighter before the sun went down.
They have the whole cocktail crazed menu with interesting looking concoctions from Pisco Sours to Cuba Libres, giving a nice nod to Zarate's Peruvian roots (with a little Cuba thrown in), but my friend and I really just wanted some straight up vodka and olive juice for a dirty martini (don't judge). We were informed that they don't carry olives in the restaurant, which is a good note for the olive-tarian group that surely exists in food phobic LA. Our waitress told us about the interesting quinoa vodka they carried that was a little sweet and would pair nicely with a simple twist. It definitely had a different flavor, not that of a healthy salad, but a lighter, refreshing drink. We were sold.
Drinks in hand, we were ready to explore the fish focused menu that is billed as French-Peruvian. With 14 ceviche's to choose from, we had to dig in to see how the sashimi style dishes fared. I'm a huge fan of scallops and the 3 pieces of jumbo scallop that came with our order were delicate and sweet, and barely required chewing. The problem was that these gorgeous mollusks were sitting in a bowl of what you might think is citrus soup. The "soup" had bold, enjoyable, mouth puckering flavors, but the scallop was nearly 50% submerged in this sauce. No one needs that much sauce, but each on its own was wonderful.
This became a theme as we worked our way through the menu. The eggplant tartare had amazing smoky flavor served cold on ice, but there was another pool of citrus sauce that it sat in. At least you could use a wonton chip to scoop out what you needed because otherwise the acid would overpower the dish.
I loved the restaurant's namesake fish that was served on preview night so we ordered it again. Fun fact: Paiche is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. It comes from the Amazon and can grow up to 8' in length and weigh almost 500 pounds. Biting in I had expected more raw fish with citrus, but you do need to cook or sear this fish a little since it's larger and full of collagen, though I don't recommend injecting it in your forehead. The paiche tasted a little conflicted like it wanted to be cold since it was on the inside, but the outside was warm so the textures fought and got a bit chewy. By this plate, my tongue was nearly numb and could no longer taste the sweet sauce.
Luckily we switched gears a little and got the Pacu ribs, which we were told were just picked up at the airport at Midnight the day before. It was definitely fresh and the miso in the lime sauce brought out some savory notes that allowed my palate to come up for air, though you could still taste the lime.
The roasted cauliflower also produced some savory notes from the wood fire grill, and had some nice spices.
We ended with a chocolate tart, which surprisingly, wasn't sweet at all. I'm not sure if my taste buds were shot at this point, but I actually found the dessert pretty bland.
I do know Ricardo Zarate is an inventive cook, putting unique and bold flavors together. I enjoyed the flavors and the high quality of fish he's serving at Paiche, but I just wish he'd use the sauces more sparingly so that they serve to brighten a dish, not drown it. I'm not crossing Paiche off my list yet, but will be a little more mindful on how many citrus sauces I order in the future, and hopefully my waitress will be too.