Ever since Ricardo Zarate opened Mo-Chica at Mercado La Paloma in April 2009, he’s slowly been building momentum. The Lima native spent more than a year working two jobs, executive chef of Mo-Chica by day and executive chef of Venice’s Wabi-Sabi by night. He eventually earned enough money to be able to maintain a single focus, and motivated by a partnership with front-of-house counterpart Stephane Bombet, started thinking expansion. A second Mo-Chica is a possibility, but first, they plan to open a contemporary anticucho, ceviche, causa and cocktail concept called Picca above freshly minted Sotto, probably by May. All the while, Zarate has hosted monthly $45 tasting dinners on Thursday nights, which simultaneously serve as parties and proving grounds for new creations. February 3 was no exception, as food and music lovers piled into the spacious USC-adjacent market for the 17th six-course meal, this time with bossa nova pairings.
Increasingly notorious blogger/saxophonist Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA (pictured at left) was part of the Cachaca Nova trio, which provided musical accompaniment for three sets throughout the night. With Peruvian food, Brazlian and Mexican musicians, this was true Latin fusion.
The meal eventually came with a complimentary (adult) beverage. Some people couldn’t wait, opting for the fermented purple corn drink called Chicha Morada to start the meal. My pick was a refreshing Cebada ($2), iced barley tea with ginger and herbs.
Papa Rellena wasn’t much to look at, and could probably use cosmetic surgery, but the Peruvian stuffed potato balls contained fairly flavorful bits of tiger prawn and touted black mint sauce (huacatay). This dish is likely headed for Picca, though Zarate did say he still has to trim his initial menu from 70 items to 35.
Pisco Sour is Peru’s national cocktail, built around grape-based spirit and shaken with lime juice, egg whites and simple syrup until frothy. This version was dusted with (too much) cinnamon and tasted pretty good, but overpowered the pisco.
Lenguado was probably my favorite dish of the night, a flaky, spice-crusted filet of Alaskan halibut plated with aji Amarillo walnut cream sauce and roasted tomatoes. My only complaint with this dish is that there was no rice or bread available to soak up residual sauce.
If anything, at this point of the meal, there was too much Arroz Con Pato. The Peruvian-style duck confit with chewy meat and an herbaceous sauce appeared on a bed of risotto-like cilantro rice. The flavor was good – hell, it’s duck cooked in its own fat – but after a quarter-bird, it got to be too much of the same thing.
It’s been interesting to see the progression of Zarate’s cooking, from the early days of Mo-Chica to Hatchi, back to Mo-Chica, and soon enough, beyond. His cooking continues to evolve in different, and in many cases, more interesting and modern ways.