Chifa Review: Do You Peru?

Chifa is Jose Garces’s fourth Latin-inspired tapas restaurant in Philadelphia, but he manages to stay innovative

Before Jose Garces, Philadelphia rejected tapas. The pay-more-eat-less ethos of small plates ran contrary to our culinary common sense, and Spanish dishes were a bit out of Philadelphia’s French-or-Italian comfort zone. But Amada’s 2005 debut marked a sea change; though the servings were indeed small and checks did seem high, the plates’ outsize flavor made up for the portions, and the glamorous scene, all dark wood and white gauze, was worth the price of admission.
By the time Tinto, Garces’s second restaurant, opened a year later, diners had a relationship with the chef. We trusted him with our palates and our pocketbooks, knowing that dinner at Tinto was as close to Spain’s Basque region as many of us would ever get. Distrito, new last year in University City, takes us on a romp through Mexico City via the chef’s trademark gourmet small plates. And now we’re off to Peru with Chifa, Garces’s fourth Philadelphia eatery, near Washington Square. The food is a fresh fusion of Latin-American, Asian and European influences, an international parade of ingredients inspired by Peru’s melting-pot cuisine. It’s Garces’s most exotic menu yet, with dozens of unfamiliar words describing dishes whose layers of flavor are more complex than those at his other restaurants.
It’s a good thing the fleet of black-clad servers is up to the task of teaching. I thoroughly researched the menu before my first visit, and on each trip, I played a round of stump-the-server. What’s “medai”? “That’s butterfish.” How about “shimaji”? “Japanese horse mackerel.” “Tacu tacu”? “A traditional Peruvian bean cake.” I asked dozens of questions during my visits, and only once did a waiter beat a path back to the kitchen for more information. These smart, polished servers embody the ever-expanding Garces brand, a brand whose bedrock is innovative flavors and flawless cooking. In the past few years, Garces has raised the bar for restaurants while steadily broadening the city’s culinary horizons. Chifa manages to be a very novel addition to the scene while adhering strictly to Garces’s formula for success, starting with the food, which is a cross-cultural thrill ride.
The dim-sum-style pork belly buns are required eating at Chifa. These too-good-to-miss buns sandwich fragrant morsels of succulent meat and a tart slaw within slightly sweet bread so cloud-like, it seems to evaporate on the tongue. The grilled Spanish octopus plate is another revelation. The octopus is dense and smoky and served with tacu tacu, fried patties of rice, beans and bacon that are crisp to the bite but yield to a rich, smooth interior. The rack of lamb, redolent of garlic, ginger and star anise, is another sublime dish. The accompanying mound of creamy, risotto-like quinoa (a Peruvian grain) stops just short of stealing the show.
Garces has set the bar for himself so high that it’s impossible for every dish to live up to the flavor nirvana we’ve come to expect. At Chifa, I ate my way through the entire traditional ceviche menu looking for one raw fish preparation that matched the spunk of the hamachi-and-habanero version served across town at Distrito. The fact that Chifa’s ceviches are served ice-cold on frosty glass plates didn’t help; these temperatures muted the creative flavor combinations and full expression of texture. The medai and hiramasa (Australian king fish) both tasted like the volume had been turned down; my palate never found the tart citrus that gives ceviche its characteristic zing. The chu-toro delivered none of the velvety mouthfeel I expected — a pretty big letdown at $5 a bite.
Considering the economic climate, value is a bigger issue than when Garces’s other restaurants opened. And there are a number of dishes at Chifa that, while delicious, are dramatically overpriced. A small bowl of doughy noodles in a chili-infused cream topped with a few small chunks of lobster meat costs $14. A side of wild mushrooms under puff pastry fills only half the tiny ramekin in which it’s served and costs $12. But there are good values as well — like the $22 half chicken with house-made hot sauce. Its moist meat and flavorful, crisp skin make it feel like a bargain. Careful, informed ordering makes all the difference.
For most diners, the sojourn to Peru will be worth the price. After all, it’s not just the lobster meat or wild mushrooms you’ll really be paying for, anyway. As at Garces’s other restaurants, a meal at Chifa is a night out, a form of entertainment, an infusion of world culture, a culinary education, something to brag about the following day. The chef has earned our admiration and our trust. Under his direction, we’ll happily taste things we’ve never heard of before and pay for the privilege. And as long as the food stays this good and the restaurant is this much fun, we’ll follow him to whatever corner of the world he goes next.           

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