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Around the World 

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
While working as a translator in the oil fields of Kazakhstan, my friend Olga, who is Russian, was witness to a peculiar ritual. Among the Kazakhs, whose hearts are said to be wide open, like the steppe, business is often a social rite and hospitality of paramount importance, so when honored guests -- say, American oil executives -- visited the homes of government officials, a special dish would often be prepared for these esteemed visitors. For example: a whole, boiled sheep's head.

Of course, the choice of entree would come as no surprise to the American executives, who had been briefed beforehand on local cuisine and the importance of not refusing such an honor. Many considered their stint in Kazakhstan the adventure of a lifetime, and therefore would smile, offer thanks, and dig in, sampling what are, according to local custom, the best parts of the head: the eyes, brain, and ears. Unfortunately, dear Olechka can't describe this delicacy further, since she, a mere translator, was never invited to partake. In fact, her five years on the Kirghiz Steppe proved a bit tedious from a dietary point of view, a result not so much of the native cuisine but the fact that both the food and the chefs at her isolated desert refinery were flown in from, of all places, England.

But now Olga is in San Francisco, where the best of the world's cuisines can be prepared with the freshest ingredients and unforgiving competition tends to bury lesser eateries. And since five years of frozen English food have left her looking a bit thin, I decided to treat her to something different: Spanish-Peruvian. Our destination, Fina Estampa, was recommended by the father of a very discriminating Peruvian I know, who, according to one rumor, actually hand traps the shrimp and octopus for his seviche, a dish said to be the very best in the world. Of course, I would have rather had him cook us dinner, but since he doesn't usually invite strangers into his home, Olga and I made our way to Van Ness.

The funny thing about Fina Estampa is that it looks like three restaurants. The Stone Age entrance leads to a Space Age-metallic, red-and-blue neon bar, while the dining room itself leans more toward Spanish Baroque. A soft Latin soundtrack (and live piano on weekends) cascades through displays of Peruvian crafts before getting lost amidst high ceilings and a gorgeously wrought, wood chandelier.

As is fitting -- Peruvian is a complex cuisine that, over the centuries, has incorporated Incan, Spanish, African, Chinese, French, Italian, and Argentine elements -- Fina Estampa's menu is quite large, and is divided into sections for tapas, platos fuertes (hearty plates), and seafood. Olga is a picky eater, so I didn't think she'd be too hep on the anticuchos ($4.95) -- kebabs of marinated beef heart, invented by Peru's African slaves. But all the same, things looked promising as we ordered two glasses of not-so-smooth Marques Riscal ($5.50, but a carafe of the house red, for $10, is a better choice) and the one beverage we simply had to try: an electric yellow, vaguely lemon-tasting can of Inca Kola ($1.75).

Appetizers dawn brightly at Fina Estampa, where dishes range from rich-and-hearty to eye-puckeringly-piquant and are often imbued with fiery aji panca chile sauce. The seviche mixto ($9.50) -- a towering heap of whitefish, prawns, mussels, squid, and onions, marinated in lemon juice (as opposed to lime) and aji -- cut through all illusions, producing a tang so sharp we could feel it in our fingertips.

Between two rellenas ($6.95) in the tapas section of the menu, the causa rellena (a well-formed ball of chilled mashed potatoes, filled with chicken salad) proved a pretty little package, while the palta rellena (avocado stuffed with shrimp salad) was a bit unwieldy, the shrimp salad far too heavy on mayonnaise. The ensalada de pulpo ($7.95) -- marinated octopus with bell peppers -- was likewise swimming in olive oil, though the tang of the dish rendered it worthwhile nonetheless, especially if, like me, you seize every opportunity to ingest the delectable, eight-legged cephalopod also known as devilfish.

Welcome to the paragraph in which I say Fina Estampa isn't the most polished restaurant. Though I still consider it worth visiting, overwhelming spiciness can destroy complexity, some dishes fall flat, and ingredients don't always seem as fresh as they might be. After I abandoned my wine in favor of a more interesting pisco sour (Peruvian brandy, lemon juice, sugar, bitters, and egg white, $5) we moved on to entrees, which, though a bit of a letdown, did prove filling, because most were accompanied by a thick slice of potato and a side of white rice interspersed with corn.

Our favorite was the pollo a la Fina Estampa ($10.95) -- a broiled, boneless chicken breast and thigh, the skin still on, touched by a light aji panca marinade. The chicken was greasy, but in a savory, unapologetic, lip-smacking sort of way, and a slab of fresh tomato bathed in pepper and vinegar cleansed away the excess oiliness. Another interesting selection was the cangrejo relleno ($12.95) -- a crab shell stuffed with prawns, crab, and scallops, gratined with a slightly grainy (but blessedly rich) butter, white wine, garlic, and Parmesan sauce.

If you're a fan of saltados -- a sort of stir-fry invented by Chinese Peruvians -- the saltado de vegetales with shiitake mushrooms ($10.95) may prove worthwhile, though the mélange of tomatoes, bell peppers, celery, french fries, and onions may also resemble something you'd whip up at home. If, on the other hand, you gravitate toward all things macho, you should try the pescado a lo macho ($12.50), a pan-fried fish smothered in a rich, tomato-based sauté of bay scallops, mussels, and calamari. Of course, this item did have one problem when we visited -- the lack of a pan-fried fish. Which seems an odd thing to omit, but, like I said, Fina Estampa isn't the most polished restaurant.

We tried only one Spanish dish, a traditional paella valenciana ($13.95): mussels, clams, shrimp, chicken, and sausage over saffron rice, served in shallow, black, two-handled pan. The paella seemed bland compared to its Peruvian counterparts, but got better with each bite. In the end, though, it didn't satisfy, just like every other goddamned worthless restaurant-made paella I've ever eaten. This is because, as everyone knows, the best paella in the world is made by my father, although 20 years of tinkering (the addition of tomato broth and basmati rice, in particular) has so bastardized the dish it now resembles a saffron-infused cioppino.

We finished with two very spare desserts: a flan ($2.50) that was adequate and no more, like most flans, and delightful pair of alfajores ($1.50), powdered-sugar-dusted Peruvian cookies with a layer of rich, brown dough sandwiched between them. Nothing spectacular, but nothing to weigh us down, either, leaving room for a nightcap and tall tales at my favorite near-Tenderloin Irish bar, Mulligan's.

If you like the soundtrack from Trainspotting, you'll undoubtedly feel at home at 1176 Sutter St. (at Polk), where that particular CD has been featured on the jukebox at least once every time I've visited. Mulligan's didn't used to have Absolut mandrin, but now it does, and, realizing I'd missed my daily dose of vitamin Q (quinine), I ordered a pair -- with tonic, of course -- then guided wise Olya to the back of the room and begged her to ply me with more stories of Central Asia. Which she did, and as the mandrin flowed the conversation turned inevitably to Russia. There, as you may know, they also drink vodka -- unflavored, straight up, downing it in a frantic gulp like the medicine it once was. You simply can't get the good stuff here, Olga told me, but she said she was nonetheless taken by this sweeter, more sippable version.

Or at least I think that's what she said, since, every so often, the stereo at Mulligan's is cranked to a volume that rattles the follicles right out of your scalp. When our hearing returned, I told her this was simply Mulligan's style. Actually, though, I imagine no explanation was needed, because, as mentioned above, Olga has traveled quite a bit, and seen remarkable phenomena -- or at least, phenomena more remarkable than anything a Tendernob Irish bar could produce.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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