Chifa Review: Do You Peru?

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

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.