Does bad service negate good food? Not necessarily. Many restaurant recommendations come riddled with caveats explaining the place isn't much to look at and the service is shoddy but the food is fantastic; I have never heard somebody tout an establishment by saying the cuisine was awful but the décor and waitstaff were superb. A case can therefore be made that Adriana Restaurant, a four-month-old Peruvian eatery on Surfside's surging Harding Avenue, is indeed recommendable — but it really put this food-first philosophy to the test.
Adriana Engelhard and her husband Mark debuted their first restaurant in Lima, Peru, 14 years ago. "Today we are opening again our house to you," reads the menu's front-page narrative, which ends with "Welcome to our home!!!" Usually when guests enter a house, or a home, they are greeted. There were no salutations upon our arrival at Adriana; nor were we even acknowledged until after a group of eight, also clustered at the door, were accommodated. It gave me time to look around the room, a comely contemporary space with gray tiles, red-and-white chairs, and the visual centerpiece: a vibrant green mural of banana leaves.
Then we were seated with menus. And we sat. And we sat some more. About 10 minutes later, a busperson dropped off a basket of warm, wheaty, puffy ciabatta rolls flecked with sunflower seeds and sided by individually wrapped butter pats. A relatively short while later, a waiter happened along and started out thusly: "Do you know what you'd like?" I'm no Miss Manners, but a "hello" or "welcome to Adriana" would seem appropriate. The only time anyone communicated with us was when, in the middle of our meal, a different waiter came by and asked if he could take an empty chair from our table. Adriana Restaurant, it should be noted, is very busy.
It's not the service but the sauces that are bringing 'em in. Like bright yellow Huancaína, a piquant cheese sauce made with cream, queso fresco, mustard, aji amarillo chili peppers, garlic, olives, eggs, and flour. Peruvian cuisine features the sauce most prominently in papa a la Huancaína, in which it is blended with boiled potatoes. We tried Huancaína with yuquitas, little spherical croquettes of puréed yuca and melted cheese. A gentle avocado sauce paired smoothly with a starter of tequeños, which are fried won tons encasing gouda cheese. Fried balls of chicken breast came with honey mustard sauce, which is a little too T.G.I.Friday's for comfort. Each of these costs $7.95, but you can try the three together for $15.95 via "appetizer Adriana."
Another sampler plate ("for two") showcases calamari, squares of tilapia, and medium-size shrimp, all breaded, fried and accompanied by the Huancaína dip, homemade tartar sauce flush with fresh herbs, and golf sauce (reputedly created by Nobel laureate Luis Federico Leloir at the Golf Club in Mar del Plata, Argentina). I couldn't recall what golf sauce was, so I asked the server. He told us it was the sauce that came with the fish sampler. I didn't bother asking our main waiter, who carried around quite a bit of attitude; he made it clear he not only would rather be somewhere else, but also should be somewhere else, and doing something much more important than waiting on peons like us. Golf sauce, it turned out, is just ketchup, mayonnaise, and sometimes a splash of Worcestershire. The featured seafoods were fresh and cleanly fried, though calamari rings were parceled out in paltry fashion — especially for a plate that's meant for sharing. Those seeking a lighter start can try tiraditos or one of two ceviches — traditional lime-marinated or steeped in creamy aji amarillo sauce, both employing escolar and generous amounts of red onion, toasted corn kernels, and cilantro.
The bill of fare here is extensive, much of it concentrating on cuisine outside Peru. Salads include Thai chicken, teriyaki steak, caesar, cobb, and a "Santa Fe" concoction served in a tortilla bowl (the cheesy allure of which would seem more fitting at The Cheesecake Factory). Pastas come Italian-style: pappardelle Bolognese, angel hair pomodoro, four-cheese gnocchi, and so forth. We passed on these but tried a risotto fused with the famed Peruvian lomo saltado — a stir-fry of beef tenderloin tips, red onion, green pepper, tomato, cilantro, and a light bite of aji amarillo. Each component was adeptly prepared, but the qualities of beef and risotto come through better by themselves.
Fifteen entrées are divvied into chicken, beef, and fish/seafood categories. Some of the offerings, like beef Stroganoff and chicken Cordon Bleu, wander into the realm of prosaic Continental cuisine. I'm not sure where "chicken Adriana" originates from; the menu claims it is "another folly of our chef!" (course descriptions are filled with other curious proclamations, such as "If you don't know it yet, you can't miss it!!!" and "Long live to crazy people!"). If this is folly, Chef Adriana needs to come up with more; the two juicy wedges of grilled chicken were scrumptious in creamy green peppercorn sauce flamed with cognac and sweetened with hints of apples and prunes.
Sabana con tacu-tacu wooed us too. The main component — a large, pounded-out, breaded steak cutlet — was on the dry side, but tacu-tacu saved the day. This Afro-Peruvian favorite is a well-seasoned, pork-based mix of rice and beans fried into the shape of a burrito. At Adriana, the meat and tacu-tacu come with classic criollo accompaniments of a fried egg and fried bananas tossed with vinegared red onions. Price for this dish is $16.95. Excepting osso buco ($33.95), all main courses are under $25.
Just a few seafoods are proffered: tuna with chili pepper chutney; teriyaki salmon; and "shrimp fish," which I ordered because it looked so good passing by on its way to another table. The fish on that plate, tilapia, was sautéed, but mine came as two battered and fried fillets — a cooking method not mentioned on the menu. The tilapia had its usual mild, almost nonfish flavor, which was greatly enhanced by medium-size shrimp and a spicy sauce perked with pisco (Peruvian brandy).
You can try a glass of pisco at the full bar or choose from a concise and not particularly inspiring wine list. At least the prices are affordable: Bottles of white top out at $52, and the most expensive red, the Super Tuscan Bibo, goes for $63. Kudos to Adriana for offering a wide array of refreshing nonalcoholic beverages such as mint lemonade, fruit shakes, coffee coolers, herb-infused teas, and chicha morada, an "acquired taste" drink made from purple corn. Try to order something other than water, glasses of which went unfilled for such long stretches that we were as thirsty as a tour group hiking up Machu Picchu without a canteen. That Adriana's cuisine is assertively salted and spiced made the deprivation that much more severe.
Dessert selections, like the rest of the menu, lurch globally from apple pie à la mode to profiteroles to marble cheesecake, brownies, crème brûlée ... and also include a few Lima-style treats like lucuma mousse and a "stumble" made from chirimoya, a fruit textured like puréed bananas but with a musky pineapple flavor. The chirimoya comes interspersed in a goblet with dulce de leche and cubes of baked meringue. Another dessert brings the same meringue layered with strawberries, whipped cream, dulce de leche, and fudge. Such ingredients are pretty much guaranteed to please any sweet tooth.
I suppose it wasn't surprising that nobody said good night to us on our way out the door. As I've stated, Adriana is a restaurant worth dining at despite the lack of hospitality. On the other hand, if it was Mark and Adriana's home I was visiting, I'd never go back.
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