Mo-Chica's Quinoa Risotto
I’ve been hearing about Mo-Chica for awhile. On my trip to Pantelleria, Italy, I had the pleasure of hanging out with two LA food critics, who both called Mo-Chica their favorite new downtown LA eatery, so it was on my short list. My foodie pals certainly weren’t wrong about this Peruvian cantina, set in the sleek financial district that has experienced quite a renaissance. As we pulled up and took in the crowds of hipsters walking the sidewalks, I had to remind myself that 15 years ago not many people braved downtown LA after dark. How downtown has changed! A new vibrancy shines out everywhere, with eclectic food neighborhoods offering choices from the modern and elegant to the urban and grungy.
So, Mo-Chica’s story goes that Chef Ricardo Zarate, a Peruvian who trained in London, opened an unassuming little restaurant in LA that served stellar food, calling attention to his unique, modern vision of Peruvian food. He fell onto the radar of a French restauranteer, who helped back the new Mo-Chica, as well as Picca, a Modern Peruvian cantina in Beverly Hills. Zarate has gained quite a reputation; in 2011 his restaurant was named one of the ten best new restaurants in America by GQ, and Food & Wine named him Best New Chef.
Expecting a lot of fanfare for this restaurant, I was pleased to find a casual, modern, urban setting—with concrete walls, simple painted chairs, and tables fashioned of lacquered slabs of wood. A huge graffiti mural spelling out “Mo-Chica” fills one wall. The service is intelligent, but unpretentious. The menu is focused on small plates, with daily specials based on seasonal availabilities. The abiding theme is Peruvian ingredients, flavors and food techniques with a modern, classic take. So, you can taste a Caesar salad flavored with huacatay anchovie dressing or a morcilla crostini with certile egg, brie and japaeno salsa, and the list goes on.
The cocktails are something else at Mo-Chica. When you walk through the glass doors, your eyes are directed towards a small bar with crimson painted walls and wooden shelves of liquors, with an artful mixologist applying his craft to an intriguing list of drinks that are really a history lesson in South American alcoholic beverages. Some are fashioned with piscou, the national Peruvian alcohol made of grapes. The flavors tend towards smoky, salty, sour, savory and spicy, rather than overly sweet. The wines, mostly hailing from South America and Spain, suit the flavors of the food perfectly.
We ordered up several small plates—I found two plant-based delicacies, such as beterraga, a roasted beet salad with burrata, candied corn, and orange aji Amarillo dressing. The citrus flavors, with a bit of heat, put a polish on the heirloom beets, crisp candied corn and endive. The quinotto, a quinoa risotto, with wild mushrooms, parmesan and parsley infused oil, was so rich and savory it just screamed umami. My husband ordered paiche, an Amazonian fish from Peru that resembled mahi mahi, as well as the branzini—a Mediterranean sea bass with a soft, buttery texture served atop ratatouille that he called the best fish he’d ever tasted. For dessert, we sampled two delicacies. The sweet potato, kabocha Peruvian beignets flavored with star anise, cloves, cinnamon and a chancaca sauce were dense, moist pastries flavored with the burnt sugar sauce. Sol y sombra is the chef’s Peruvian take on a classic crème brulee, with purple corn, pineapple, granny smith apples, apricots, raisins and kiwicha, which creates a sort of compote flavor hidden with the satiny, creamy layers.
It was a remarkable meal—about half way through (we had an early reservation) people started pouring in for their tables. Always the Hollywood star spotter, I spied Elizabeth Reaser (Twilight movies, Grey’s Anatomy) and Elizabeth Banks (30 Rock, Hunger Games) join a party to my left, reminding me that downtown is definitely de rigueur these days. I can’t wait to try Picca!
514 W. 7th Street
Friday, December 28, 2012