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.