Earlier this summer, I was tasked to photograph the food at Chef Ricardo Zarate‘s newest restaurant Picca. In exchange for a suite of photos, a friend and I were treated to dinner on the house. Considering how tough it is to score a reservation and the accolades surrounding the food, it was a more than fair trade in my book.
I’ve been sweet on Chef Zarate’s brand of Peruvian fare ever since dining at Mo-Chica, his first venture downtown. With Picca, he and his partner Stephane Bombet have created an energetic cantina serving modern Peruvian cuisine with a Japanese flair. There’s also a lively bar mixing up cocktails masterminded by Julian Cox.
The restaurant was barely three-weeks old when my friend Danny and I came in for dinner. Chef Zarate, who was recently named Best New Chef in America by Food & Wine, was calmly expediting at the pass.
The restaurant was insanely packed this evening, and we ended up having to wait nearly an hour for our table to open up. To pass the time away, Danny and I sipped on some pretty pink cocktails including the Martin Ricky ($11) and the Rhubarb Sidecar ($11). Real men drink pink.
The long wait was more than worth it when we were seated smack dab in front of the robata grill. Sous Chef Brian Huskey provided the evening’s entertainment with smoke, flames, and all sorts of skewering.
The first dish to land in front of us was the papa rellena ($7). The fried spud was golden crisp on the outside and stuffed with slow cooked beef and hard boiled egg. To finish, a rocoto (chili pepper) aioli.
Danny and I polished off this potato in five seconds flat. We were starving from the wait and attacked the poor thing without abandon. Next time around, I’ll have to remember to breathe and take in the nuances.
From the “Ceviches & Tiraditos” section of the menu, we ordered the ceviche mixto ($14). It included squid, shrimp, fish, sweet potato, and nutty kernels of choclo (Peruvian corn). Everything was carefully coated in citrus, prettied with microgreens, and accented with sweet red onions.
Chef Zarate’s ceviches at Mo-Chica have always held a special place in my raw-seafood-loving heart; I’m glad that he brought them to Picca for a wider audience to embrace.
We also tried the seabass tiradito ($12). The thin slices of fish were paired with a soy sauce and lemon dressing. A sweet potato puree added a sweet element to an otherwise acidic lineup. I’ve yet to meet a slice of raw fish that I didn’t like.
Whenever anyone asks for recommendations on what to order at Picca, I always emphasize the awesomeness of the choritos ($11). The steamed mussels arrived swimming in a delectable aji amarillo butter broth and dotted with salty bits of pancetta. The flavors were bold and moreish.
Best of all, when Chef Huskey noticed that Danny and I were running low on toasted bread, he threw a few slices onto the grill and had them delivered to our table. We used every last crust to mop up the broth.
Next, we dug into a trio of “Causa Sushi.” Here, Chef Zarate replaced traditional sushi rice with neat squares of mashed yellow potatoes. Atop the starchy base were scallops ($7) with mentaiko ( marinated pollock roe), snow crab ($6) with cucumber, avocado, and huancaina (spicy cheese sauce), and spicy yellow tail ($6) with green onions and wasabi tobiko.
I thought that serving Peruvian causa in Japanese nigiri form was a brilliant idea; each bite was dainty and compact.
After gazing at the robata grill all night long, it was fabulous to finally sample some of the anticuchos. The parade of skewered goodies included beef hearts with a rocoto sauce ($6), tomatoes with burrata and black mint pesto ($7), and beef filet with sea urchin butter and garlic chip ($9). Our favorite was the beef heart with its tender texture and spicy sauce.
We also had some fabulous Santa Barbara prawns dressed in a lemongrass and yuzu kosho pesto ($12). The pesto was incredibly bright, enhancing the prawns’ naturally sweet flavor.
Our final skewer was the black cod with miso and crispy sweet potato ($12). The fish was so tender and flaky that I’m surprised it didn’t disintegrate on the grill.
Another dish that I really enjoyed was the homey and comforting arroz chaufa de mariscos ($14) from the “Cuartas” portion of the menu. The Peruvian fried rice contained a variety of seafood including mussels and shrimp, as well as pickled radish. The smoky essence permeating the entire bowl signaled that it was flame-licked on the wok.
The only flop for me this evening was the chanfainita ($12). It must’ve been an off night because the braised oxtail with potatoes and mote (grains) bordered on bland. The meat was superbly tender, but the spicing was missing for some odd reason.
For dessert, Danny and I shared two sweets from Pastry Chef Marko Olaechea. The churros ($7) came piped with lucuma-laced pastry cream and three dipping sauces—carob, marmalade, and chocolate. As anticipated, these were very easy on the mouth.
Danny ate the majority of the tres leche cake ($7) because it had a boozy undertone that I couldn’t warm up to. Plus, I was so gosh darn stuffed.
There’s good reason why Picca is the most exciting place to dine in at the moment—Chef Zarate’s food is stellar, service is warm and efficient, and the ambiance is lively and boisterous. Snag a ressie, grab a seat, and be prepared to have a delicious ball.
9575 West Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90035