Latin Blend

Ancient and modern Peruvian cultures mix and match at Candela

A trip to Candela Peruvian restaurant offers a lesson in geography, history and culture. The menu covers the varied regions of the ancient Latin country: the Andes, the tropical jungle and the beautiful coastline. Native dishes, called criollo, and ingredients used by Spanish conquistadors, Chinese and other immigrants blend to create a unique cuisine. Although many of the ingredients mirror those found in the Mexican dishes we all love, there is a definite difference.

There are chilies, of course--in this case, aji peppers in amarillo, verde and colorado varieties. Potatoes are used in abundance. Peru introduced potatoes to the world, and today, more than 2,000 types of spuds are grown there. Beef, seafood, chicken, tropical fruits, yuca and rice also play important roles.

Our first visit was on a Saturday night. Fortunately, we had made reservations, because as the evening progressed, the place filled up with several large parties.

Our pleasant server brought us a small basket of fried plantain chips with a side of aji verde dip. The plantain chips were light and sweet, the perfect foil for the hot pepper dip.

The dining room is awash with vibrant reds and golds; Peruvian art hangs on the walls. On the far wall is a bar with a bright glass mural of a native, his horse and the sun.

I ordered a pisco sour ($8). Pisco is a potent grape brandy, clear in color, that some say is the national drink of Peru. John ordered a Cristal, a Peruvian beer ($4). My drink packed a punch. Similar to a brandy sour but with a bit more of a kick and a dash of cinnamon, this drink would be great on a hot summer day.

Our server explained a few of the dishes, and then we ordered--for appetizers, John went with papas la huancaina ($7), a traditional dish of potatoes topped with an aji amarillo cream sauce. I ordered tequenos ($8), deep-fried pastry rolls filled with a mild cheese. For entrées, it was picante de carne ($12), a beef stew-like dish served with potatoes and rice, for John. I ordered jalea fiesta marina ($22), a Peruvian fisherman's platter. All of these plates are considered traditional fare and represent the length and breadth of the various regions of the country.

The appetizers didn't take long to arrive. John's papas were not only tasty, but also quite pretty. A pale yellow, creamy sauce--consisting of feta cheese and aji amarillo--was poured over three circles of potatoes. A slice of romaine lettuce and a slice of hard-boiled egg added an artistic garnish. The best part, at least in John's opinion, was that the dish was served cold.

My tequenos resembled tiny cheese chimis. But the deep-fried wrappers were more like a wonton in texture. The guacamole on the side was intense with aji verde--definitely not your grandmother's guacamole.

The picante de carne was enjoyable with tender beef and potatoes in beefy gravy. The scoop of white rice seemed odd, but this combo is quite common. The only improvement would've been some type of bread to sop up the gravy.

My seafood platter was piled high with shrimp, calamari, scallops and whitefish in a light, airy batter, along with three mussels, a chunk of yuca and a potato. There was even a tartar sauce, which was spicier than the normal stuff. A garnish of sarza--pickled onions--proved to be quite delicious and went well with the fish.

For dessert, John ordered crepes marjar blanco (crepes filled with dulce leche, a caramelized sauce made from condensed milk, $7). I ordered tres leches cake ($7).

The crepe was deliciously light and just sweet enough. The tres leches cake was unlike what we're used to around here. The cake was more like a soft sweet biscuit, filled with an assortment of tropical fruits and topped with a feathery light whipped cream. Outstanding!

Our lunch visit, on a Saturday, was a tad disappointing, because there is not a weekend lunch menu. (Candela does offer a weekday lunch menu, though.) This meant the meal was going to be more expensive than a normal lunch.

John skipped an appetizer, but I ordered ceviche ($16). Peru claims to have originated this seafood treat, and indeed, it is the national dish. Candela's version is a large portion of citrus-marinated whitefish, onions and parsley. The marinade was almost good enough to have on just about any dish. The yuca and sweet potato are a traditional side with this dish.

John ordered the supreme de pollo ($16). The dish consisted of a whole chicken breast pounded thin, breaded and pan-fried. It was served with french fries, white rice and a spoonful of fresh greens in vinaigrette. It was nothing remarkable, especially considering the price.

I had the lomo saltado ($16), a dish from Lima. The best way to describe this dish is a Peruvian stir-fry. Chunks of beef were tossed with onions, tomatoes and french fries with a splash of wine. A scoop of white rice was served on the side. Chinese food is popular in Peru (thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived near the end of the 19th century), and this dish reflects that influence.

I also ordered an Inca Cola ($2.50). This is a popular drink in Peru. It is electric yellow in color (not very appealing) and tastes faintly like a cream soda.

For dessert, we split lucuma ice cream ($2.50), another Peruvian favorite. Lucuma is a fruit that grows only in the jungles of Peru. The ice cream was dusty orange in color and had a dry texture. Ice cream lovers might be put off by feel, but it was good nevertheless.

Candela offers some great food in a pleasant setting and a chance to learn about a different cuisine--but prices at weekend lunches need to be tweaked if they want to attract a crowd then.