My thoughts on the matter run as follows: It takes a lot of guts even to try. Then it takes money, of course, and the right location, the right concept for that location, and a clever -- or at least non-cringe-inducing -- name. It takes competent service (preferably splendid), good food (preferably excellent), reasonable prices, tasty libations, pleasant ambience, and -- a huge one for many -- immaculate bathrooms. It takes a dogged persistence, and consistency (for regular customers), plus either foot traffic or a draw -- or both, ideally. To earn this critic's approval, adequate stemware is key. Finally, and most importantly, it takes a certain intangible that speaks of a love of all things culinary, of a house where hospitality is the rule. It's a vibe, in other words, as unmistakable as rain, and I was feeling it quite thoroughly at Destino.
Set on the relatively tranquil stretch of Upper Market surrounded by the Lower Haight, Hayes Valley, the Castro, and the Mission, Destino would appear to have found its niche. It's billed as a "Nuevo Latino Bistro" -- Nuevo Latino being the potentially risky fusion of Spanish, Central American, and South American cuisines with European techniques. The mix adds up to a chic, homey spot where traditional Peruvian dishes meet a tasteful style of innovation.
As I stepped into Destino, it was hard not to think that the place is decorated exactly how it should be. Warm, burnt-orange walls fill a cozy dining room with a hearthlike glow, while slow-burning icon candles, a small oil lamp at each table, tremendous mirrors, and a gorgeous, multiarmed chandelier strike notes ranging from baroque to modern. At 8 p.m. on a Monday, the crowd was sparse, conjuring images of the last Nuevo Latino place I reviewed (Che), which was pretty good when I visited in January yet has since closed. I sipped a grapey, sweet, white sangria as I waited for Vincenzo and Alexandra, who brought the customer count into the double digits.
Things started quite splendidly. Our table bore a plate of sliced baguettes and a tingling/fiery aji amarillo (Peruvian for "yellow pepper") sauce; the music -- Latin, of course -- was lively, but non-intrusive; and our waiter may well have been Superman (more on that later). Even the short, affordable wine list bespoke a class operation, yielding an impressive Argentine Cavas de Chacras syrah -- dry, earthy, and gorgeously well rounded, with undertones of tobacco and cool evening wind. Since she'd never succumbed to the pleasures of "the golden carbonated beverage," Alexandra simply had to try an Inca Kola, an electric green brew that tastes vaguely of cream soda. She claimed not to like it at first, but was chugging it with wild abandon by evening's end.
Peru is definitely in the house at Destino. Like similar versions at either of the two Fina Estampas, Destino's cebiche a la Peruana proved one of the few dishes in this city more electrifying than my own supra-piquant Five Tang Soup (patent pending). Tender, lime-cured whitefish and red onions burned exquisitely under a dusting of aji amarillo, while roasted corn kernels provided the ideal counterpart, overcoming the seviche's razor-sharp acidity with a dry, smoky pop.
Colombian arepas provided our first taste of Destino's style of fusion -- crisp cornmeal biscuits filled with a mild goat cheese, then served with a chunky corn and tomato salsa. Since the arepas themselves were a bit dry, a more liquefied salsa might have been in order. Still, they were good, as were the empanadas rellenas -- small pastries stuffed with rich, savory minced pork loin, served with a sweet cinnamon dipping sauce and spaghettilike ropes of shredded, cinnamon-dusted chayote, a mild, gourdlike squash popular among Mayans, Aztecs, myself, and, from what I've seen thus far, Vincenzo and Alexandra.
The anticuchos were the highlight, though, particularly for Vincenzo. If somehow a person walked into Destino and began eating anticuchos without knowing what they were, that person might imagine they were enjoying kebabs of tender, flavorful, slightly citrusy marinated beef -- and they'd be right. Except that anticuchos are made from beef heart, suffused with the pungent savor that characterizes so many fine organ meats (a leg of lamb version is also available). A side of french fries and corn on the cob rounded out the plate, although the finest combination was a bite of anticuchos followed by a sip of Argentine syrah.
At approximately 9 p.m., customers began trickling in, and before we knew it the place was packed. Suddenly, our lone waiter had a dozen tables to attend to, yet he rose to the occasion unlike anything I've ever seen, taking orders, delivering plates, clearing them, and answering our innumerable questions. When the people at the table next to us asked what a chayote looked like, he retrieved a real, live one from the kitchen to show them, then brought it to us. He even found time to deliver a pair of Peruvian pilsners -- a watery, Budweiser-esque Pilsen Callao (three thumbs down), and a hoppy, skunky, flavorful Cusquena (six thumbs up, since one thumb each wasn't enough).
We ordered three large plates, and were glad we'd done so 66.666 percent of the time. Rich, buttery blue nose sea bass cooked in banana leaves came with a side of sticky red rice and tender, smoky, Creole-style black beans drizzled with chipotle rouille -- a definite success. A beer-marinated duck breast wasn't nearly as mind-shattering as some duck breasts in this city, but it was still pink, tender, and decidedly edible. The accompanying beer-braised duck thigh was so expertly slow-cooked it fell off the bone in thick, moist shreds. Sticky green rice laced with peas and bits of bell pepper offered contrast and depth, and sliced onions dusted with our good friend aji amarillo added just the right amount of zing.
Unfortunately, I took extreme issue with our third selection -- quinoa risotto -- the result, in my opinion, of a newfangled cooking style meeting a gratuitous vegetarian entree. For those not familiar with quinoa, it's a high-protein, couscouslike grain. Normally, risotto is based on another grain -- rice -- which is sautéed in butter, then slowly infused with stock until it takes on a rich, creamy consistency. I doubted the quinoa was sautéed in or infused with anything, since it was quite dry and flavorless -- a side dish at best. Grilled chanterelle and portobello mushrooms proved equally lifeless, a lemon-dill sauce added little, and the only worthwhile taste in the dish came from slices of lightly marinated, grilled chayote, which wasn't enough to carry a whole plate.
Then came the married couple moment: As I returned from a smoke break, I found Alexandra and Vincenzo grinning coyly, almost guiltily, for no apparent reason. Had Alexandra secretly purchased a case of Inca Kola? Did Vincenzo have a beef heart in his backpack? Or were they just happy? Regardless, it was a sweet slice of life, and sadly, dessert didn't live up to it.
Pumpkin doughnuts drizzled with a thin, honey-molasses sauce tasted bland and a tad oily, while a "Latino Lover" sponge cake filled with white chocolate mousse, then coated with bitter dark chocolate, wasn't nearly as good as it sounded. A Madeira, port, or sherry seemed a wiser choice, especially when our bill came accompanied by three miniature alfajores (picture a shortbread-based Peruvian Oreo with a chocolate filling). They were so excellent that I'll request a whole plate of alfajores when I return to Destino, a place that, minor kinks notwithstanding, seems poised to stick around for a long time to come.