[ review ]
In 1943, the Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong visited Washington as a guest of the U.S. State Department. After tiring of formal visits with "gray-haired people all day," he went with an American colleague to a Chinese restaurant. What he found there astonished him.
Tuxedoed Cantonese waiters served nonsense dishes like chop suey, nonexistent in China, while a Southern European emcee presided over "a troupe of half-naked women doing Spanish dances" to jazz music. This gave way to Cuban folk songs. "It was called a Chinese restaurant," Xiaotong wrote, "but, except for the overdone and offensive Chinese décor, nothing made me feel the slightest at home."
On their way out, his friend asked him what he thought. "What could I say? 'Truly bold! A young culture!'" the scholar replied. The grace with which he wrapped that compliment around an uncharitable criticism mirrored a deeper ambiguity Xiaotong felt about this dynamic country, upon which tradition weighed so lightly. "Here, people are so bold, daring and willing to experiment," he wrote, "that they become rushed, careless and superficial."
Xiaotong died in 2005, the same year Jose Garces opened his first restaurant, Amada, in Philadelphia. What distinguished Amada — and his sophomore effort, Tinto — was the fidelity with which Garces renders the Spanish small plates he serves in both places. For smoked almonds he uses Spain's marcona subspecies. His olives are arbequinas, believed to have originated in Catalonia. Among the peppers at Basque-centric Tinto are guindillas, which are typical of the territory's Spanish side, and espelettes, which are cultivated on the French portion.
After expanding his palette — and restaurant empire — with the haute taqueria Distrito last year, Garces set to work on what is without doubt his most ambitious venture yet. Called Chifa (CHEE-fah), after the generic term for "Chinese restaurant" in Peru, it is a mouth-watering ride from first cocktail to the last crumb of dessert. It is also the rare kind of restaurant that demands evaluation not just as a culinary enterprise but as a cultural and political statement.
Perhaps "merits" is a better word than "demands," for the latter suggests a pompousness that doesn't describe Chifa, helmed by chef de cuisine Chad Williams, at all. My servers displayed a virtually encyclopedic command of a menu whose breadth verges on the intimidating, but never did that mastery come off as condescension. Their touch was as comfortable as the back room's deep, pillow-stuffed banquettes, and as lighthearted as the birdcage candle fixtures whose understated Orientalist symbolism plays wry counterpoint to walls drenched in intense Chinese vermillion.
Yet despite its décor, Chifa is not a "Chinese" restaurant. The sign on the storefront advertises "Comidas Latinas." But this is not your father's Latin-American joint, either. What makes Chifa different and significant is the way it explodes the totalitarian (if essentially harmless) illusion that underlies most "ethnic food" in the United States. In its name and its menu, Chifa explicitly acknowledges the contributions of a cultural minority to the cuisine of modern-day Peru. (By contrast, try to imagine a Turkish restaurant offering Kurdish specialties — or, for that matter, a German one featuring the Turkish kebabs now omnipresent in Berlin.)
When Cantonese immigrants started coming to Lima in the late 19th century, they imported culinary traditions that have both thrived in chifas and also worked their way into mainstream cooking, as native chefs adopted ingredients like ginger and techniques like stir-frying. It is this polyglot legacy Garces honors and amplifies, presenting the broad and multicultural continuum of contemporary Peru with his customary faithfulness to the source material.
The ceviches alone are worth the substantial price of admission. An emulsion of rocoto peppers — the favored species to complement raw fish in Peru — gave a husky depth to shimaji (horse mackerel), whose luscious oiliness had more than enough flavor to hold its own in a mixture of pickled mangoes and sesame. On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, hiramasa (an amberjack with a far lighter profile) came in sashimi-style slices whose fine grain glistened like citrus segments on the edge of a hand-blown glass bowl filled with an almost effervescent pineapple-orange-mustard soup that I would have gladly drunk out of a highball.
But that would have meant parting with my Manhattan, which married spicy rye whiskey and the sweet aroma of Chinese five-spice powder with far more finesse than the shotgun wedding it might have been in less expert hands. Chifa's pisco sour was top-notch, too.
On the Cantonese end of the spectrum, standouts included a wickedly tasty pork belly bun flavored with hoisin and pickled daikon, and duck wontons in a thin broth whose aggressive aromatics gave way to surprisingly delicate flavor balance.
If Garces sees himself in part as a kind of cultural curator — the purpose of his preparatory trips to Lima, Cuzco and Hong Kong, he told me last year, was to "see what we can uncover, and just bring that information back" — he balances his preservationist impulse with a disciplined creativity. So he dresses his bluefin tuna ceviche with kecap manis, the Indonesian condiment from whose name the English ketchup is derived. Fresh-pulled rice noodles carry an upscale carbonara of lobster, bacon and perfect little peas, with some added rocoto pepper to breathe a little fire into a (slightly over-rich) cream sauce. A scrumptious dish titled "desayuno" sandwiches oxtail between an arepa and an over-easy egg in a play on a Western breakfast.
Not every small plate works as well as that last one. The fried rice with scallops, chorizo and diced mango was plenty tasty, but there are better ways to spend $9 than on a half-portion of fried rice. Same goes for congee, which is essentially a peasant porridge (though this one has veal cheeks). And the butter content of my quinoa, which needs none, was as jarring as Tibetan yak butter tea (which, trust me, is even harder to swallow than it sounds).
But dessert dissolved those criticisms. A spire of coconut meringue rising between a passion-fruit parfait and coconut sorbet was as intensely flavored as it was light. Chocolate ganache and sweet-cream ice cream topped with hazelnut brittle got a stimulating jolt from an audaciously bitter espresso granita.
Beginning to end, Chifa is a mark of how far we have come since Xiaotong was mystified by fresh chao mian noodles "deep-fried and then baked dry to serve to foreigners." There is nothing rushed or superficial about Garces' latest project, but a lot that is bold and daring.
707 Chestnut St., 215-925-5555, chifarestaurant.com.
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 5-10 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 5 p.m.-mid.
Ceviches, $9-$16; smaller plates, $6-$15; noodles, larger plates, specialties, $9-$55.
Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible.