"This is like nothing I've ever tasted," I blurted out as I sampled the greenish huacatay sauce that had been set on my table at Piqueo, the new Peruvian restaurant launched by Mezzanotte chef-owner Gerry Sarmiento and his wife, Adriana.
There was a suggestion of mint, a trill of cilantro, and an undertone of one of those variously colored Peruvian chiles I am forever mixing up. But the mint wasn't the straightforward kind; this Andean 'black mint," Tagetes minute, was deeper and duskier than that, and caught up with the cilantro twinge, buoyed by the chile heat, its flavor just kept spiraling into new territory.
That's the kind of thing that keeps me going after all these years as a food writer. Just when I think I can't face another piece of pork belly, or when I dread the sight of another high-tech soil cavorting down my plate, along comes something like Piqueo's huacatay sauce that reawakens my joy in the game.
So do dishes like Gerry Sarmiento's brilliant cast-iron skillful of charred carrots, their sweetness thrown into relief by all that unapologetic carbon and the tang of the balsamic vinaigrette that has near-caramelized in the bottom of the pan. A disk of sharp, salty-tart goat cheese on top provided just the right contrast, to my surprise.
I should have known. I've always liked the work of this self-taught chef and who was once a software executive at Compaq/Hewlett Packard. I loved his spaghetti Amatriciana and his superior version of the everybody-does-it butternut squash ravioli at pretty, crimson-walled Mezzanotte, not to mention the interesting and affordable wines he always made it a point to serve, by the bottle and even the glass.
I loved his take on Spanish tapas at Capriccio, the restaurant he started on Jones Road and then sold (it is still going strong under the same name) when the back-and-forth between two far-flung Cypress area locations grew too taxing. So I was excited to see what he would do with a Peruvian tapas concept of "piqueos," or small plates, at a restaurant just a hop away from Mezzanotte in the same upscale strip center.
There's a lot of promise here, although I was surprised to see the whole back page of the menu devoted to conventional entrees. I wish some of the meat dishes Sarmiento does so well found their way into smaller, piqueo-size portions. Aji de gallina; lomo (filet strips) in various guises; short ribs...I wish I didn't have to commit to a large portion to sample them. But I suppose with a relatively traditional suburban audience, a slate of traditionally portioned main dishes is the safest way to go. And I was cheered to see that the lomo saltado came in empanada form, too.
Aside from those glorious carrots, the piqeuo I liked best was the Causa with crabmeat, a wildly good species of exotic potato salad with a rough mashed texture and bright sparkles of flavor throughout: lime, aji amarillo chile, rocoto chile and mild avocado sauces, with a topknot of fried sweet potato filaments to cap it off. I was so crazy about the dish that I took note of the fact that the little flakes of crab were not at their absolute freshest, and then proceeded to cheerfully clean my plate. (There's a chicken version I'll try on another visit.)
I liked the unrepentantly tart, limey effect of the mussels on the half shell with red onion, rocoto peppers and big soft kernels of the white Peruvian corn called choclo. But I was considerably less taken with the Ceviche de Pescado, which involved fresh flounder cut so thickly the hunks seemed awkward to eat. It didn't help that the fish had been marinated so long it had taken on a cottony texture in places.
So beguiled was I by the huacatay dip that I ordered the night's special of a substantial strip steak that was served with its pan glaze mixed with huacatay sauce. The effect was quite lovely, although I could have stood even more huacatay in the mix. ( I ended up sneaking some in from the leftover dip plate on the table.)
Bonus points to the staff for splitting the steak for me and my dining companion (there's a $4 split charge), and then throwing in an extra little tower of potato gratin (another wildly good potato dish) just to be nice.
Good South American wines, some of which were new to me, at decent prices were right in the Sarmiento mold. So were the glowing pomegranate-hued walls, which gave everything in the pleasant-looking, unstuffy dining room a warm tint. Even warmer? The service.
I can't wait to go back and eat my way through the menu.
(Piqueo, 13215 Grant Road, Cypress. 281-404-4190. Dinner only: Monday--Thursday, 5 p.m--9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 p.m.--10 p.m.)