I’ve long admired chef-owner Gerry Sarmiento and his wife, Adriana, for bringing serious food and wine to the far-northwest side of town, where ambitious upscale restaurants still are few and far between.
Sarmiento, a self-taught cook and former software executive, opened the Italian Mezzanotte in 2007 and followed it with the wonderful Capriccio tapas bar (which he has since sold) a few years later. His latest venture, Piqueo (pronounced pee-KAY-o), is focused on the flavors of Sarmiento’s homeland, Peru, which made me hopeful that it might be his best effort yet.
As much as I like certain dishes at Piqueo, however, it does not yet approach the levels of consistency I’ve found at Mezzanotte or the Sarmiento-era Capriccio. The highlights definitely rate a trip northwest for aficionados of Peruvian food. The low points — most notably a tendency to overcook meat items — are just a puzzlement coming from a kitchen that seems capable of better things.
Much better things, in fact. I don’t remember tasting anticuchos, the famous Peruvian beef-heart skewers, that I like more than the ones here. That dense heart meat came out rosy and rich and earthy, lifted by a slightly tart marinade. It was glorious.
So was one night’s special of nicely cooked New York strip steak served with a magical huacatay sauce, a creamy green potion named for the Peruvian “black mint” that makes it so distinctive. This tagetes minuta is an herb related to marigold, and it imparts an elusive duskiness along with its minty tones, edged with a slight cilantro-type pungency. Mixed with the pan juices, the huacatay made steak taste new.
You won’t have to order steak to taste the huacatay, though: a divided saucer of huacatay and golden aji amarillo sauce, made from the Peruvian chile of the same name, arrives at each table to use as bread dip or general add-on. The aji amarillo sauce is great in its own way, sunnier and rounder tasting than the huacatay, with a more insistent chile warmth.
Over a Diablo Sour cocktail, its Pisco (Peruvian grape brandy) infused with ruddier rocoto chile that brought all the flavors to attention, I reflected that one of the finer things about the recent Peruvian restaurant boomlet in Greater Houston is the introduction of previously unfamiliar chiles to the local palate.
It’s not just the big three Peruvian chiles, or ajis — rocoto, aji amarillo and limo — that make dishes click at Piqueo. One of my favorite items, the tenderly braised beef short ribs in cilantro sauce called Seco de Res, is buoyed by panca and marisol chiles that both warm and brighten the lush meat. A marinade of chicha de jora, the fermented corn beverage that dates back to the Incas (it’s a beer, really), gives the beef a tangy vibrato.
Such dishes set the bar high at Piqueo.
So do clever roasted carrots, charry and glazed in balsamic vinaigrette, with a natural sweetness set off by salty dabs of goat cheese. Or brandy-basted scallops capped with Parmesan and roasted just to satin smoothness. To say nothing of causa, the frisky Peruvian riff on potato salad, in which mayonnaise meets variously colored ajis to vibrant effect.
That’s why the kitchen’s fits and starts caught me by surprise here. Lomo saltado emerged on a recent evening with its defining strips of beef (here, it’s grilled filet mignon) cooked to a stringy, dry state, utterly thwarting its riveting meat glaze sparked with soy, vinegar and aji amarillo. Cooked properly, it would have been so easy to love.
So, too, would the Chicharron small plate involving hunks of pork that were cooked crisp without and desert-dry within. Salsa Criolla and flash-fried sweet potato couldn’t rescue them.
I was at a loss to imagine how flabby boiled papas huancaina pooled in watery, aji-tinted sauces even got out of the kitchen. Its contrast with the opulent version at Chuyos, the little Peruvian deli in League City, could not have been more painful.
Nor did I take to Piqueo’s version of aji de gallina, the Peruvian comfort-food dish of shredded chicken in a creamy sauce of ground walnuts and aji amarillo. It always sounds so good to me, but I’ve yet to encounter a version that seemed like anything more than an unfortunate casserole. Perhaps someday.
Still, there is so much to like here that my hope is the kitchen is just going through a rough patch.
A couple of dishes out of the Peruvian/Chinese fusion repertoire (an important strain of Peru’s cuisine) teetered right on the brink of persuasiveness. A wok-toss of linguini with soy, vinegar and aji amarillo might have been swell had the chicken strips that adorned it not been so dry, as if they had been cooked ahead and just added at the last minute. And a dramatic molded pile of gingery fried rice (Arroz Chaufa de Camaron) wove sesame, aji amarillo and panca chiles together with some inconsequential little shrimp fleshed out with a couple of much preferable jumbos. Fewer little guys and just one or two bigger shellfish would have improved matters.
But the Sarmientos are such earnest operators that I have hopes such blips will be corrected. They’ve already vastly improved the flounder ceviche by cutting the flounder more thinly and seeing that it doesn’t overmarinate.
They’ve instituted a user-friendly Tuesday night tapas menu, which offers many appealing dishes for only five bucks a small plate, including a lovely little papita rellena that is a mashed-potato ball stuffed with beef and golden raisins and basically flown to heaven.
The service is warm and attentive, a Sarmiento trademark; and the room, with its equally warm pomegranate glow, echoes the hues of Mezzanotte, which is just a few doors down in this relatively fancy strip center.
There are lots of interesting and moderately priced wines from South America and Spain, another signature move from Sarmiento, who has never succumbed to the temptation to only offer his suburban clientele the tired old tried-and-true. Just know that you may want to pass that nice red through an ice bucket before you drink it, because the restaurant lacks climate-controlled storage and, like so many Houston restaurants, serves its reds considerably above cellar temperatures.
It’s a small thing, but fixable, like most of the flaws I encountered here. Piqueo may only rate one star right now, and a wobbly one at that, but somewhere inside is a two-star restaurant trying to get out.
Piqueo Restaurante & Bar ★
13215 Grant, Cypress
Hours: L: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; D: 5-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Credit cards: all major
Prices: starters $6-$16; entrees $15-$31 (lunch $10 and up); $5 tapas night Tuesdays
Reservations: suggested; walk-ins welcome
Noise level: quiet to moderate
★ a good restaurant that we recommend.
★ ★ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
★ ★ ★ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
★ ★ ★ ★ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.