It was only a matter of time before a Peruvian chef concept landed on our doorstep. Earlier, I blogged about the seemingly endless attention on Peruvian food and Limeño chefs. It’s probably premature to declare Peruvian food as the next it cuisine without also considering how vigorously the Peruvian culinary community has promoted it. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing going on. Probably no one has spread the gospel of Peruvian cuisine more visibly than Gastón Acurio, the chef behind Lima’s premier fine dining restaurant, Astrid y Gastón, which was recently ranked No. 14 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (surpassing Chicago’s pride, Alinea). Acurio is also behind several other restaurants in Lima, ranging from the sexy cebichería, La Mar, to the more casual, Tanta. Astutely, Acurio didn’t wait to be discovered, but replicated his flagship, Astrid y Gastón, in several other international cities, including Madrid, where European-centric “list-makers” would be more likely to discover it. (Lima chef Virgilio Martinez is even more flagrant in this regard, opening Lima London right at the home base of the announcement of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.)
Acurio has developed chains for his other Lima restaurants, La Mar and Tanta. There are two versions of La Mar in the U.S. in San Francisco and New York City. Acurio announced last year that Chicago would be his target for his third U.S. restaurant, but it wouldn’t be another La Mar (too inland? too carniverous?), but Tanta. I ate at two different Tantas in Lima, which is itself a chain there. Tanta was the sort of place where you seated yourself, the tables were bespecked with flecks of sugar and crumbs from previous diners, and you had to flag your tuxedoed waiter for service. When I heard that Tanta Chicago was opening, I was puzzled that anyone would take the trouble to open a U.S. version of these fairly indistinct cafes.
Tanta Chicago soft-opened last week, and it turns out that, aesthetically, Tanta Chicago is quite different from its Lima cousins, but very similar to most mid-priced River North restaurants. Tanta Chicago seems more Nellcôte than Lima. In all respects, Tanta seems like it’s running through the mid-scale, River North playbook with the obligatory bar, cocktail menu, dark lighting, and throbbing music.
But I wouldn’t discount Tanta Chicago as just another trendy restaurant or bar meant to appeal to the Eisenhower/Edens daytrippers or tourists (go to Siena Tavern for that). I also wouldn’t discount it as another half-baked celeb-chef import. I was surprised at how smoothly this operation was running only a few days in. Putting Jesus Delgado from La Mar San Francisco in charge as chef de cuisine removed any illusion that Acurio would be in the kitchen; also, there aren’t enough significant differences between Tanta and La Mar that the kitchen is testing and rolling out brand new dishes. It feels more authentic, permanent and earnest than other recent openings.
The menu at Tanta is a primer of sorts as to Peruvian cuisine minus any extensive exploration of the sub-cuisines (though Japanese Nikkei and Chinese Chifa are represented briefly). Also absent is the use of the exotic Peruvian pantry, such as Andean fruits like lucuma or seafood like Amazonian snails (no doubt due to their unavailability here). Quinoa figures prominently on the menu, but is trendy almost to the point of obliterating the crop entirely, so diners won’t necessarily connect the existence of quinoa on Tanta’s menu with its history as an essential Peruvian peasant food. Paiche, though, will likely not be familiar to many diners.
I don’t think anyone at the table who went to Lima detected any marked flavor disparity between the ceviches at Tanta Chicago and those served in cebicherias in Lima (except the superior seafood quality there, no doubt), and the leche de tigre (or tiger’s milk, the classic Peruvian marinating liquid of fish juice, lime, onion and aji) is proudly used. Compared to the hilariously awful, MSG-laden Chifa we had in Lima at Acurio’s Chifa restaurant, Madam Tusan’s, the chaufa (Peruvian-Chinese fried rice) at Tanta was better conceived and carefully executed — the rice was served in a sizzling stone bowl, and a shrimp omelet on top denoted a playful fusion with other cuisines, as well as added a more chef-inspired component to traditional fried rice.
A “street food feast” included the ubiquitous Peruvian purple potatoes with boiled quail eggs in a straightforward tasting version of hauncaina, the cheese and aji amarillo sauce served over potatoes. Antichuchos were much better than those I’ve had stateside. Empanadas won’t convert you from those served elsewhere, but the classic Peruvian pollo a la brasa will.
I was skeptical about this dish — priced at $19 for a half chicken/$32 for a whole — knowing that D’Candela does such a great job with this dish at half the price. Also, brined chicken cooked on a rotisserie over charcoal is inherently a very homestyle dish that doesn’t easily lend itself to chef-tweaking. In fact, the D’Candela version seems downright fancy compared to those in Peru, where the dish’s formulaic aspects has made it a fast food chain staple. But my doubts were assuaged — Tanta’s version was meant to honor the simplicity of this dish with flawless execution. The accompanying ajis and rice and beans could easily serve six with some other shared dishes — at $32, this might be one of the least expensive and most filling dishes in River North. Same with the monstrous lamb shank for $28, which could readily feed four.
Other dishes, such as the lomo saltado, were good representations to the breadth of this cuisine, but not likely to convert anyone into a Peruvian food addict. It bears noting that, although you’re likely to get the most authentic Pisco Sour in town at Tanta, theirs were notably more acidic than the, ahem, many I drank in Lima. (I find that the extra acidity masks the flavor of the Pisco.) That’s an execution misstep I hope they correct.
I imagine that anyone who eats downtown or likes to try new restaurants will not be disappointed by Tanta Chicago. At this point, the reasonable prices and approachable environment, as well as the broad, appeals-to-everyone menu, will likely make a lot of people happy. I think the harshest criticisms of this place will come from the people who see Tanta Chicago as a price-inflated version of neighborhood joints that offer many of the exact same dishes. I raised this issue with the general manager (another Acurio vet) and he downplayed such concerns, citing how the neighborhood places were doing something different in serving homestyle versions of Peruvian food, and that Tanta was putting some twists on classic Peruvian dishes, and executing them at a different level. It’s true that they’re setting the bar higher. I think there’s always room for both. As with any imported chef restaurant concept (be it domestic or foreign), Chicago is more hesitant than other cities to embrace concepts that are not homegrown. But I think Acurio’s concept with Tanta is flexible and, dare I say it, humble enough, not to offend most Chicago skeptics.