Marcelo Abusada and Christian Momberg work the room at their Lafayette restaurant with an energy that's both awkward and aw-shucks endearing. Abusada, chef at the Patio, came from out of nowhere one night, lurching up to the table and into our conversation to ask how we'd liked everything. "Thank you for coming to my restaurant," he said into the uncomfortable silence he'd pried open. But before we could reply he was off to the next table, a big guy overwhelmed by his stiff chef's jacket.
Momberg, a thirty-year-old native of Chile, is the Patio's sole server most nights. He's boyish and well combed, more reticent than awkward. Despite their physical presence, these young guys have cojones. Both gave up what's considered money east of the Tunnel cheap, middle-of-the-road Italian to gamble on something new: tapas with a South American, mostly Peruvian, flavor. And they're doing it in a strip-mall space where the former tenant thrived on the very bruschetta-to-tiramisu formula Abusada and Momberg heaved into the dumpster. It's risky. They'll need every ounce of energy, nervous or otherwise, to pull it off.
The room faces sideways, a wall of windows staring out to the namesake patio, which meanders and is leafy at the edges. On recent chilly nights the heaterless patio was deserted, with tables that looked more like props for the owners' aspirations than seating options. There's a compact list of mostly Spanish and Chilean wines, and a good selection of South American beer in bottles. With any luck there'll be a full liquor license by the first week of January.
A dish like causa, one of about fifteen tapas choices on the Patio's menu, must feel like liberation to Abusada, the former chef and owner of Concord's Pasta Roma. The 29-year-old grew up in Peru, and his surprisingly refined version of this popular Lima appetizer eats like a tribute. Imagine a mashed potato terrine. That's causa: cold mashed Peruvian amarilla potatoes layered with all kinds of stuff, chicken, tuna, avocado. Abusada's is done chef-style, with layers of potato blended with lime and aji amarillo chiles, gently tamped into a drum-shaped timbale ring. There's crab salad between the layers, shreddy fibers glazed with mayo, and slices of hard-cooked egg. All tasty, but the glory of Abusada's causa lies in the sauce, a salty, tart, and luridly purple puree of Peruvian botija olives and lime juice. Abusada has squeeze-bottled it onto the plate in an exuberant Pollock-like spatter that's a declaration of independence: Freed from cranking out garlic bread and linguine Alfredo, he is laying down the love.
Abusada says his current focus is on Peru, Chile, and Argentina, and that the menu will work its way around the whole continent. But the inspiration for his best dishes is obvious. The chef pulls off Peruvian tastes as easily as purple-black, kalamata-like botijas settle into cancha, fried corn kernels, in the Patio's complimentary table munch. An authentic Peruvian spirit comes through in the chef's Spartan take on ceviche. It has a simple, neighborhood tavern feel rather than the sexy, intensively garnished silhouette of a place like Limon in San Francisco. No mango, no micro greens, no pomegranate seeds. Just a flat plate paved with ultra-thin shingles of sole steeped in lime juice, and spiked with a bit of garlic and aji amarillo chile, a scattering of cancha kernels. That was it. I liked its honesty: The success of the dish hinged entirely on the quality of the fish, which seemed delicate even under a blast of lime.
The best dishes here are the small ones, the cold and hot tapas that make up half the menu. Yuca y maduros, deep-fried hunks of yuca and plantain, were as straightforward as the ceviche, their huancaina sauce mild.
Pale yellow Peruvian huancaina is as ubiquitous here as ketchup at a burger joint, a smoothly blended mix of queso fresco, caramelized onions, garlic, and more of those aji amarillos. Aji chiles, either yellow or red, give Peruvian cooking duende, its little gloss of fire. Too bad Abusada thinks he has to muffle that duende for gringo Lafayette he starts with preserved ajis packed in water, then boils and drains them three times to squelch their heat. But a spicy burr would make his sauce shine even brighter.
That pale yellow huancaina comes with papas salvajes. They're fat, creamy-in-the-middle steak fries all powdery with pimenton (smoky Spanish paprika) and finely pulverized herbs. On one visit the herbs dominated the taste; on another the pimenton did.
Empanadas de queso and empanadas de camarón, cheese- and cheese-and-shrimp-filled turnovers, respectively, were both likable, with crisp, ruffled edges and mildly unctuous fillings. Antichucos de carne y chorizo, grilled skewers of flank steak and chorizo, were simple and intensely meaty. Grilled mushroom skewers, champiñones al ajo, offered more nuance. Juicy and plump, they breathed a dark mushroom perfume, and their garlicky chimichurri sauce, a stiff parsley-and-shallot pesto, made them shimmer.
But choros a la chalaca represented one of the kitchen's biggest, blackest marks: Abusada's preference for humongous greenlip mussels. In this dish they're steamed and cooled, served on the half shell under thick drifts of salsa criolla, a chunky, fresh-tomato salsa tangy with lime juice. Mussels this big miss what's good about mussels: softness, even delicacy. Small, fleshy bites sighing tide-pool freshness. Even when they're not overcooked, as they were here, greenlips are coarse and fleshy, with a strip of connective muscle that chews like a rubber gasket. Anything that looks this frankly anatomical has strayed into the realm of TMI.
Greenlips marred a couple of the Patio's large plates, dishes the menu categorizes as segundos. Paella de mariscos is Peruvian-style paella, shiny and borderline soupy. The flavor was warm with saffron and risotto-rich, and its plump shrimp and flecks of fish were fresh. But the mussels were buzz killers especially overcooked to the point of stiff, as these were. They were slightly less bad in pescado a lo macho, if only because they were easier to avoid. Pieces of tender calamari and tilapia dredged and fried escabeche-style lurked underneath the half-shell greenlips, everything washed in a thin, tomato-laced seafood sauce that tasted delicious.
Churrasco, one of the sandwiches the menu calls bocadillos, was disappointing, a chewy piece of ribeye on an ordinary supermarket French roll pressed flat on the grill. The slab of grilled ribeye in bife a la parilla was disappointing, too, but only because its chimichurri sauce tasted tired. The herb pesto contained flecks of shallot that seemed like they'd hung out in the fridge overnight.
If only more dishes at the Patio showed the easy exuberance of Abusada's causa. He may be playing it too Pasta Roma, aiming too much for the middle, fearing that his customers won't like anything too unusual. I'd like to see him cross greenlip mussels off his seafood order sheet, stop boiling the sting out of his chiles, and dig deeper into his roots. He and Momberg took a chance on the tapas concept in Lafayette; it's time for Abusada to bring his cojones into the kitchen.
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