Kendall's Pisco y Nazca Shows Promise

No one in Miami makes tacu tacu like Miguel Gómez. The Iquitos-born chef stews lima beans in a brew of ají amarillo, cumin, and oregano fortified with chicken stock. Once tender, the legumes are mashed into a paste that smarts from the pepper's citrusy sting. Slender grains of fragrant basmati rice are folded in. Then it's portioned into oblong fritters that are pan-fried and dressed in a piquant red onion salad called salsa criolla.

Find them at Pisco y Nazca Ceviche Gastrobar, which the team behind Coral Gables' Bulla Gastrobar opened in a sprawling Kendall shopping center in mid-November. The restaurant is named in honor of two Peruvian cities that are prominent producers of pisco, the country's beloved grape brandy. Yet Gómez, age 37, who was tapped to run the place, wasn't born to be a cook. He didn't grow up in a kitchen chopping and stirring alongside his mother or grandmother. Instead, when he turned 16, he left his hometown for Lima to pursue a business degree at Universidad Ricardo Palma.

His first kitchen training came in school while living with an uncle whom he describes as "anal" with money. Gómez was tasked with cooking on a tight budget while at the same time interning and working as a bank teller. Then, while toiling at Bolsa de Valores de Lima, Peru's stock exchange, something changed. "I'd had enough," he says.

So he relocated to San Francisco and moved in with his mother. He spoke little English, though, so he wasn't able to do much more than bus tables. A few years later, he enrolled in the Napa Valley Cooking School and earned the chops to beg his way into celebrated Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio's San Francisco outpost: La Mar Cebichería Peruana. There, he moved up from butcher to chef de cuisine in about three years, taking over for Diego Oka, who had left to run Acurio's La Mar on Brickell Key. In fact, it was Oka who helped lure Gómez across the country.

Yet the chef wasn't the only thing Pisco y Nazca management took from Acurio. This 250-seater shares an almost identical color palette with La Mar: Deep oceanic teals and petrified-looking hardwoods are lightened with bone-colored paint and similarly hued vases perched throughout the space. There are also chalk drawings aplenty. At La Mar, they signify the kitchen's stations: a grill for anticuchos and a cold bar for tiraditos and ceviches. Here, black-and-white drawings adorn walls with an almost art deco spin on Incan art and its interpretation of the natural world.

Luckily, the restaurant also shares many of La Mar's high points. Servers are affable, attentive, and well-versed in the menu. One waiter easily described the nuances of pisco sours and the galaxy of Peruvian peppers.

On the other hand, the menu is far shorter and more reasonable than La Mar's. Besides the most expensive plate — a whole deep-fried snapper for $42 — most entrées hover around $20. Though the ingredients, flavors, and preparations aren't all that new, Pisco y Nazca handles them with finesse in an elegant space far from downtown traffic jams. With plans for a second location in Doral (and possibly more in suburbs throughout the state and the Southeast), owner Centurion Restaurant Group is banking on the continued popularity of Peruvian cuisine.

And why shouldn't it? During lunchtime, the Pisco y Nazca kitchen breaks out the classic butifarra. The pork sandwich has long been iconic throughout Peru and in recent years has begun making inroads in the United States. A sinewy pork shoulder is braised in a stew of paprika, garlic, and ají panca until the tough bits melt into gelatin. The liquid is reduced to a thick glaze and then layered with the pork onto a sturdy bun lined with crisp sweet potato disks and enough zesty salsa criolla to stand up to all of that meat.

The quinoa tabbouleh, topped with thin slices of spicy seared tuna, is a lighter option, though the salad could use a touch less salt. Still, the combination of the toothsome red and yellow grains brightened with herbs and ginger vinaigrette doesn't disappoint.

The traditional ceviche's leche de tigre strikes the perfect chord of sweet and tart. Shards of translucent, savory flounder are neither too firm nor mealy. Gómez says the flat fish is best for ceviche and sources it from Central America. It works well but no better than a local species like corvina or black grouper.

More than a half-dozen appetizers continue the classic overture. One flaky empanada is filled with the spicy chicken stew called ají de gallina. Its hearty warmth makes you long for more cool days. The other half moon is packed with cremini and shiitake mushrooms cooked Andean-style, according to Gómez. They're tossed in a sauce of onions, tomato lime juice, and chilies. The Peruvian black mint called huacatay is added before it's all flamed off and reduced in tart pisco.

A trio of beef heart skewers called anticuchos de corazón arrives with a pleasant, smoky char though still tender with pink, juicy centers. They almost don't need the assertive ají panca sauce that's squiggled atop. Just as much attention is paid to the delicate marble potatoes that adorn the plate. The purple, yellow, and red gems are boiled, deep-fried, and sprinkled with sea salt. They're an addictive homage to the starchy tubers that are as important to Peruvian cuisine as peppers and fish.

Still, seafood anchors the vast majority of the menu. There are plenty of supple shrimp in the chaufa, a bowl of basmati rice stir-fried with soy and oyster sauces, then topped with a tousle of pickled carrots and daikon radishes. The kitchen also does exemplary work with the pulpo pepián. An octopus is boiled into submission and grilled until its skin peels back to a crunchy, smoky char. The tentacle is brushed with what Gómez calls a Peruvian barbecue sauce made with ají panca peppers, garlic, soy sauce, and cumin. It's the kind of thing you'd want in a jar at home to slather on chicken, fish, and any other protein that crosses your plate. The same goes for the bed of creamy corn under the octopus. The deep-yellow stew looks like little more than creamed corn, but a surprise awaits in a hefty dose of ají amarillo.

It might be surprising to find a locally owned well-oiled machine operating in Kendall, but it shouldn't be. All stripes of chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs are eyeing the sprawling customer base inundated with industrial, national chains that serve diabetes and hypertension. It's a smart move, and one made better when done with style, even if some of it is borrowed.

Pisco y Nazca Ceviche Gastrobar
8405 Mills Dr., Kendall; 305-630-3844; piscoynazca.com. Monday through Wednesday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to midnight, Sunday noon to 10 p.m.

  • Empanadas $8
  • Traditional ceviche $9/$15
  • Anticuchos de corazon $10
  • Pulpo pepián $20
  • Butifarra $12
  • Quinoa tabbouleh $16
  • Chaufa $19

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