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Fussy Fusion 

Limón still delights, but at the new Circolo, Nuevo Latino seems old

Wednesday, Aug 18 2004
My education in Peruvian food was carried out, most enjoyably, at two modest restaurants in Los Angeles, one on the west side (but only just), one on the east side (ditto), separated by some 10 miles but sharing certain similarities: Both were in small strip malls and both featured large portions of tasty food at reasonable prices. At El Pollo Inka, you ate papas a la huancaina, firm slices of boiled potato in bland cheese sauce, followed by delicious rotisserie chicken, washed down with chicha morada, a sweet drink made from purple corn. At Mario's Peruvian & Seafood, you ate raw seafood bathed in citrus juices and amped with chilies to make firm seviches, followed by boiled mussels with onions, fried fish fillets, and tomato-y fish stews and sautés. Both restaurants were very popular and relentlessly unchic.

Here in San Francisco, I recently traveled to the 2-year-old Limón, a restaurant that identifies itself as Peruvian-Nuevo Latino, as research. Executive chef/owner Martin Castillo, who created Limón with the help of practically his entire family (mom Luz; sister Ana and her husband, Aldo; and his brother chefs Antonio and Eduardo -- veterans, like Martin, of such famous S.F. restaurant kitchens as Rubicon and Aqua), was opening a fancy new place called Circolo, and I figured I should taste the food at his more humble spot in the Mission, where it is still a bit surprising to find pricey, ambitious restaurants steps away from thrift stores and taquerias.

Limón is on the small side (about 40 seats available at closely packed tables in two minimally decorated but chic storefront rooms, painted in acidic citrus tones), and it is completely full on this Sunday night. I get a table for four, set against the window of the first and smaller room, with a clear view into the hot, bustling open kitchen. I peruse the menu while waiting for Garrett and Hannah: Here are chicha morada (I immediately order a glass), papas a la huancaina, three different seviches, and a fish stew identified as "Peruvian bouillabaisse," among other interesting items. The prices are not all that much higher than at the Peruvian places I once frequented. I feel at home (even though there is no rotisserie chicken).

When my guests arrive, they are as stylish as the setting, Garrett in a bright-green sweater dotted with tiny bright-blue marlins, which doesn't look ironic but witty and colorful, and Hannah, whom I remembered as a long-haired beauty, now sporting a crop as short as Maria Falconetti's in The Passion of Joan of Arc. They came to play, however, and we swiftly order starters of calamares fritos, seviche, and (of course) my favorite potato dish. The fried calamari, a mountainous heap, is divine: Its pale batter is thin and crackling, unexpectedly sprinkled with sesame seeds, and the chipotle aioli alongside is smoky as well as garlicky. The papas, too, have an extra kick -- the thick, silky cheese sauce blanketing the cold sliced potatoes is heated with aji amarillo chili powder. The seviche Limón platter -- halibut, shrimp, octopus, calamari, and mussels in the shell, dressed with floods of lime juice -- is garnished with steamed yam and crunchy parched kernels of corn.

We continue with chuleton Carlitos, a massive, thick pork chop served over a tasty hash of cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms, and bacon -- yum -- and the nightly fish special, gently cooked wild salmon napped with a colorful sofrito of onions and peppers. I ask our waiter to help me choose between the bouillabaisse and a grilled fillet of lamb served with plantains and something I'd never seen before called tacu-tacu (described as a rice and lentil cake), but he steers me instead toward the churrasco ala parilla, a beautiful grilled rib-eye steak accompanied by roasted purple potatoes, grilled asparagus, a parsley-and-garlic chimichurri relish, and mustard sauce. I give in to meat hunger and enjoy every bite (until I give up, taking half of the 12-ounce chunk home). The entrees taste less familiarly Peruvian than our first courses: This is sophisticated modern cooking, with Latin accents.

Our desserts are similarly cosmopolitan -- good, but not as exciting as what came before. Chocolate bandido is a flourless chocolate cake served with a ball of dulce de leche ice cream; budin de durazno is peach bread pudding with warm caramel sauce; and the helado (ice cream) de lucuma (a tart Peruvian fruit) disappointingly tastes like nothing at all.

But the sweets are the only real disappointment of the evening, leaving me with high hopes for my dinner with Ruby at Circolo, where Martin and Antonio Castillo have devised a menu of what they call Nuevo Latino-Asian cuisine. (The talent joining them in the kitchen includes veterans of Sol y Luna, Aqua, and Asia de Cuba.) Circolo has taken over the two-story space that was once Gordon's House of Fine Eats, and its ambitions include live music on the weekends, dancing in a separate room, and a lounge that serves food until 1 a.m.

A good dinner will suffice for us, however. We head over for our 9:15 reservation after seeing the gripping Heir to an Execution, a documentary about the Rosenbergs by their granddaughter Ivy Meeropol, at the Jewish Film Festival. Ruby, whose dream is to open a restaurant of her own someday, is a sponge. She's impressed by the stylish, somewhat hard-edged space (the lounge separated from the dining room by a rippling curtain of metallic mesh, the big bar backed with a wall of colored light that subtly changes from blue to green and back again). She wants to know how it's different from the previous décor; I note that the long banquettes have disappeared, replaced by neat rows of tables and chairs, for a less intimate feeling. On this Wednesday night, the place is not even half full and doesn't have the electric feeling that Gordon's did when it was in full swing.

The menu, however, has a splashy feel: We are drawn to two appetizer trios, one that allows you to choose three smaller versions of any of the eight starters and another that is a nightly changing selection of three seafood dishes (even though, at $19, they're roughly twice the price of the regular appetizers). I go for the stuffed Fresno chilies, eggplant pillow, and plantain soufflé; Ruby gets the seafood trio, this night featuring a spicy squid seviche, salmon tartare, and sushi. My platter is beautiful and generous -- three halved chilies piled with a firm stuffing of ground shrimp and pork, seasoned with ginger and black beans; a fat "pillow" of eggplant that spills forth wild mushroom risotto, shredded duck confit, and aji amarillo butter when you cut into it; and a cute little soufflé, puffing out of its tiny soufflé dish, that the server slices open and soaks with hot coconut sauce poured from a special jug.

The kitchen has worked very hard, but not to much effect. The eggplant doesn't come together -- it tastes bland -- though the hot little chilies are tasty enough (like good dim sum), and I find myself wondering if you'd really want more of either dish as a starter. I love the texture and elusive flavor of the soufflé, especially with the rich, oniony coconut sauce, but again it seems to me that a larger amount would be cloying. The seafood platter isn't much better -- white squid rings with red peppers and avocado; two boring, firm slices of California roll, as big as wagon wheels and as dull as can be; and a heap of fresh, sparkling salmon tartare, the best thing on the plate.

Rich follows rich: On my expensive ($29) surf-and-turf plate, I really enjoy only the tiny, succulent lobster tail, which I could have finished in two bites, but I make it last for five or six, dragging the morsels through a ramekin of melted butter. The thick slices of filet mignon are oddly coarse-grained and tasteless, dribbled with an unnecessary reduction, and the two short-rib ravioli propped up alongside them, as well as the fussy little bundles of green beans, make no sense at all to me. Nor does Ruby's huge braised lamb shank, sided with baby bok choy and purple potato chips, which looks beautiful, shiny and glazed, but tastes mushy and way too sweet. I'm surprised after the simpler, truer, much more satisfying dishes at Limón.

We quite enjoy the silky coconut flan with lychee-ginger granita that we share, but it's too little, too late.

I feel perplexed and even doubt my memory. Could the food really have been so disappointing? A little supper of tapas at Fonda, in Albany (1501 Solano, 510/559-9006), is the perfect reality check: The grilled skirt steak is juicy and full of flavor -- everything Circolo's filet mignon wasn't -- and the scallop seviche is so vibrantly spiced that it makes my face glow, pleasantly, from the heat. And we get superb fried squash flowers stuffed with ricotta and herbs in a pool of fresh tomato salsa with corn. This is what you want from Nuevo Latino cooking. Circolo is turning out tortured creations with much less flavor.

Soon after my visit to Circolo, I find out that Limón plans to move, within the month, to a new, larger space around the corner on Valencia. But the Castillos aren't abandoning the old space. Its new specialty? Rotisserie chicken.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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