A few weeks ago, I wrote that the culinary mafia had named Peruvian the new "it" food. With the mid-May opening of Essencia following closely on the heels of Piqueo's, it's starting to look like the pundits were right.
Anne Gingrass, one half of the duo behind the former Hawthorne Lane, has partnered with Juan and Carmen Cespedes, a husband-and-wife team originally from Lima, Peru to open Essencia, a 45-seat spot in Hayes Valley. The room doesn't feel small thanks to a nearly all-glass façade that allows for plenty of people watching at the bustling corner of Gough and Hayes. (It's also a great location for nabbing walk-in customers, and outdoor tables are already in the works.) Furnished simply with sustainably harvested red acacia tabletops, pale brown walls, and graphic orange and gold lampshades, the room provides a great backdrop for the folksy Peruvian landscape painting that occupies one wall.
Like the dining room, the menu is small. Gingrass designed it around Peru's home cooking and contemporary restaurant cuisine, but rooted it firmly in San Francisco by relying on local, organic ingredients (including hyper-local products from neighborhood vendors like Blue Bottle Coffee Company, Modern Tea, and Miette Confiserie.) Though some things will be imported, she is also working with Bay Area farmers to cultivate Peruvian herbs and vegetables here at home. The result is lighter food than you'll find at most of the city's other Peruvian haunts.
Peruvian cuisine is truly multi-cultural, drawing on Incan roots as well as Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Creole culinary traditions. Ceviche is practically a national dish, so we started with one of the three on offer: sliced Kampachi with creamy hot yellow pepper sauce ($12). This preparation might more accurately be called tiradito, which is distinguished from ceviche by two things: slices of fish rather than chunks, and a lack of onions. The sashimi-thin yellowtail was covered in spicy sauce and garnished with a salad of pickled English cucumbers, soft yam coins, and giant corn. Though I liked the cut of the delicate fish, the sauce completely overpowered it. My favorite part was the salad, which I devoured. I'd like a bowl right now, as a matter of fact.
Next we shared artichokes filled with quinoa salad and lemon parsley sauce ($12). The baby artichokes could have been trimmed better to eliminate all the tough outer leaves, but the salad itself was dreamy: cool quinoa topped with roasted red peppers, fried shallots, and a subtle, well-balanced sauce I'd love to eat, drink, and bathe in from now until the end of time.
For dinner, we went with heartier classics. My boyfriend ordered the "Lomo Saltado" ($26.75), essentially Peruvian steak frites scattered with cilantro and served with stir-fried onions and thick slabs of crisp yucca fries. A pink filet with a nicely charred coat was sliced thin and dressed in a sprightly sauce of beef stock, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, and its own savory juices. I plan to order this on every single future visit; it would be the perfect hangover cure if it were added to the lunch menu.
The leg of lamb simmered in cilantro sauce with peas and risotto ($25) tasted, of all things, Indian. I think it's easy to see why, given the ingredients. Though I ran across a few less than tender chunks, the sauce and the Parmesan-rich risotto more than made up for it. Whisked to the table in its very own miniature Le Creuset, the risotto was spooned up tableside. Since the wee pot kept it nice and warm, I compulsively nibbled on it long after my hunger was sated. Was it Peruvian? Not so far as I could tell. But it was damn good. And, like the steak, the portion was reasonable enough to finish without feeling stuffed.
Credit for the well-edited and well-priced wine list goes to Luis Maya, Essencia's unofficial sommelier. All the selections are imported, with the majority from Spain and Argentina, and their relatively low alcohol levels make them particularly food-friendly. We enjoyed a 2006 Laxas Albariño ($9) and a 2006 Sur de los Andes Torrontes ($7) to start. I loved the Torrontes, which is a grape more often used for blending than drunk straight up. It had honey on the nose but tasted surprisingly dry. We switched to reds for the main course, but the other real standout was the Pedro Romero Amontillado sherry ($7), which was a beautiful amber color and bright with citrus.
Desserts showcased a variety of Peruvian fruits like lucama and guanavana (also known as guanabana or soursop and similar to cherimoya). The latter is a creamy fruit with citrus and vanilla notes that was perfectly suited to Essencia's fresh strawberry-topped mousse ($6). But the real must-have sweet was the plate of alfajores ($4.50), buttery cookies stuck together with a sinful stamp of dulce de leche. One of the cookies incorporated fresh coconut into the ooey-gooey middle, but I preferred the luxury of pure caramel goodness.
What ultimately makes me prefer Essencia to the city's other Peruvian-inflected restaurants is the prevalence of lighter dishes. As a result, most of the flavors, both indigenous and imported, really shine. It's also the best kind of neighborhood restaurant: friendly, appealing, comfortable, and reasonably priced. Regardless what culinary traditions influence the menu, that's always a recipe for success.
Note: This visit was a first impression, and the meal was comped.
401 Gough Street at Hayes
Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner