Mystery Meat Dinner at Picca- Los Angeles

Done are the days of murder mystery dinners where diners sit through complex plots of set-ups, betrayals and killings woven through appetizers and entrees, and sift through side dishes of problem solving hints for an entertaining evening of detective work.  We’re not so interested in the whodunit anymore- the question being asked at Picca this season is ‘What is it’?   To kick off Picca’s new Sunday dinner hours, LA’s most beloved Chef Ricardo Zarate hosted a Mystery Meat Dinner, a 6 course meal of mystery animal parts served in his signature Peruvian style.  ‘What is it?’ was the only question that the normally kind and helpful Picca staff were refusing to answer that evening, tight-lipped and dismissive until the very end of the meal when the menu was revealed only to those adventurous diners who came to sate their curious appetites.

Course 1

Hint: Bite sized portions of white meat, moist and tender inside with a bold spicy char on its crust, revealing little tiny edible bones inside, leading me to believe that it was rattlesnake, and for another diner guinea pig.  It was a juicy cut of meat, very light with no gaminess or heaviness- like chicken, perhaps alligator- paired with Zarate’s aji amarillo salsa, a creamy huancaina rustica so full of flavor and vigor, paired with a brightly acidic beet salad.

What is it?

Culito de pollo a la brasa (chicken butt)

Course 2

Hint: Dark rich braised meat with an intense bold flavor, a hint of iron within the tender fibers that succumbed effortlessly to the fork, its intensity balanced by the tart onion and cilantro topping, perched on a creamy barley risotto that had a distinct delightful give to its texture.  It tasted and felt like braised oxtail but that would’ve make it too easy for a mystery meat dinner.  On the other side of the plate, Zarate served a crostini of similar dark moist meat mixed with spicy chorizo and topped with scallions.  Were they different cuts of the same animal, or two completely different mystery meats?  The servers would only smirk and shrug their shoulders to such inquiries, refusing to spill the beans until the menu reveal.

What is it?

Alpaca two ways: alpaca stew with barley risotto, alpaca and chorizo crostini

Course 3

Hint: Finally, a recognizable form of tubular connective tissue, cuts of obvious intestine braised to exquisite tenderness, marinated in anticucho sauce and seared ever so slightly to seal in those wonderful spicy and acidic flavors into each bite.  The surprising showstopper of this course was the potatoes, a juxtaposition of crispy crunchy thick potato skin to the soft, moist and buttery flesh within, dressed with a rocoto sauce so spicy that it brought me to tears- tears of joy.

What is it?

Choncholin: braised intestine marinated in anticucho sauce

Course 4

Hint: There is no mistaking a good cut of offal, and the distinct pentagonal lattice of honeycomb tripe in the homey stew was an easily solved mystery for this detective.  A touch of turmeric gave this hearty potato and tripe stew a beautiful golden hue and an earthy aroma, warming every cell in my body with each satisfying bite.  Zarate must have braised the tripe all day, for each cut was as tender as the potatoes, simply melting in my mouth with the ease of butter.  That evening’s cau-cau was dressed with jalapeño salsa and cumin yogurt, but I much prefer the traditional preparation of piquant chimichurri that Zarate has done before.

What is it?

Cau-cau: Peruvian potato and tripe stew

Course 5

Hint: As an offal aficionado, course 5 was another easy mystery for this private investigator to solve.  Spongy dark iron-rich cuts of meat with small hollow airways couldn’t be anything other than beef lung, prepared in a comforting stew with tender potatoes and giant kernels of Peruvian mote (corn).  On this particularly chilly evening, this nourishing and wholesome stew was a most welcome dish to savor, down to the very last morsel of lung.

What is it?

Chanfainita: beef lung stew

Course 6

Hint: Although Zarate is famous for his anticuchos, ceviches and arroz con pollo, I have always loved his desserts, and this was no exception.  Thick tender cuts of stewed apples and quince in a vivid purple glaze were spooned over a creamy rice pudding with a heavy dusting of cinnamon on top.  It tasted like chica morada, a beverage staple on Mo-Chica’s menu made from purple corn (maiz morada), and we soon discovered that this mazamorra morada dessert was made from the same ingredient.  Just as I was relishing this beautiful dessert, something bitter, intensely sour and splintery got caught between my teeth.  It was an inch long sliver of fine dark brown fibers.  It was an insect leg.

What is it?

Chapulines (Oaxacan grasshoppers), mazzamora morada

A mystery meat dinner themed around exotic animal meats and unorthodox cuts of offal may be off-putting for some, but with Chef Zarate as its chef and host, it was exactly the reason why I rearranged my work schedule on that Sunday evening to make it a priority.  Zarate is an experienced chef with these proteins and knows how to work his magic with these exotic flavor profiles, using bold Peruvian spices and salsas to brighten each dish.  The huancaina rustica that augmented the chicken, the rustic anticucho sauce seared onto the choncholin and the satisfying liquid of stewed cau-cau at this Mystery Meat Dinner made for my favorite meal by Chef Zarate to date.  The choncholin, in particular, swept me off my feet with its smokey flavors and beautifully prepared potatoes.

Now, suddenly, I was plagued with a bigger mystery- ‘Will I ever see these dishes again?’ You must put these on the menu at Picca, I demanded, to which Zarate hinted, with a knowing smile, that these may make a regular appearance on the menu at his upcoming new restaurant, Mo-Chica on Seven.  With that final mystery solved, all was well again in the land of Picca.

Picca

9575 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035.

Tel: 310 277 0133

Random trivia: According to local myth, once you try chapulines in Oaxaca, you will never leave.  This probably means that once you sample Oaxaca’s extraordinary cuisine, then you take a piece of Oaxaca with you and you will return again.

Mo-Chica, Japan fundraising tasting dinner

Here in Los Angeles, we love and support our local chefs.  We especially adore our local chefs who not only cook amazing food, but also give to charitable causes.  In the midst of a whirlwind start to 2011 with a restaurant relocation, a restaurant opening and a well deserved Food & Wine Best New Chef 2011 award, Chef Ricardo Zarate still finds time to give to charity.  He recently made a guest appearance at Fraiche for the kick off of Rustic Mondays with Chef Benjamin Bailly, where proceeds went to Operation USA.  Last month he held a fundraising dinner at his flagship restaurant Mo-Chica in downtown LA, where his Japanese business partner coordinated a charity to support Japan.

One Thursday of each month, Zarate hosts a multi-course tasting dinner at Mo-Chica for $35, what I consider to be the best deal in America.  His menus are well thought out and executed perfectly, every tasting offering a different combination of delicious dishes with his signature style of understated beauty and elegance that reflects his training in Japanese cuisine.  Last month he donated $10 from every $45 tasting menu to Japan charity, with Street Gourmet LA‘s Bill Esparza and his bossa nova trio Cachaca Nova providing live musical entertainment for the night.  Out of all of the tasting dinners that I have attended at Mo-Chica, this was the stand out; every beautiful plate was fully infused with his generous heart and charitable intention.

YUQUITAS CON POLLO
stuffed yuccas, manchego cheese, crispy chicken, rocoto sauce

Little bite-sized deep fried snacks were not only adorable but delectable, dipped in the savory rocoto pepper sauce that added a subtle kick of flavor.  Everybody enjoyed the playfulness of this satisfying appetizer- what is there not to like about deep fried crispy cheese and chicken, and getting to lick your fingers at the end?

TIRADITO
scallops strips, spicy lemon dressing, salsa criolla

One of my favorite dishes of the evening was the tender and delicate scallops tiradito, thinly sliced with a drizzle of magnificent spicy lemon dressing, salsa criolla and a garnish of microgreens.  An elegant dish with a perfect balance of acidity and spice, almost too beautiful to be eating in a downtown LA food court, yet this is exactly the allure of Chef Zarate’s popular joint.

CHILCANO
Peruvian cocktail, ginger juice, ginger ale, pisco brandy

Chef Zarate’s favorite cocktail, the Chilcano, got a modern twist with ginger juice to add extra zing to the refreshing drink.

SUDADO
sea bass, tomato stew , crab meat, roasted tomatoes, garbanzos

My other memorable dish of the evening was the perfectly cooked tender cut of sea bass, a glorious mound of moist flesh with crispy crackling skin, mounted on a base of tomato and garbanzo stew with a generous topping of crab meat.  Seafood never tasted this good, with a hint of smokiness in the rich tomato broth that accented but didn’t overshadow the amazing piece of fish.

CHICHARRON
Peruvian-style crispy pork belly, black mint sauce

The final savory course was a hearty serving of crispy pork belly, fully injected with juicy pork fat and delightful pork belly essence.  The surface was cooked to a nice crisp while the interior remained moist and fatty.  Served on a bed of creamy bean purée, it was the piquant black mint sauce that brought all of the flavors and elements together for ultimate deliciousness.

ALFAJOR
Classic Peruvian dessert made of dulce de leche, shortbread

Spain, where alfajores originated, and all other Latin American countries have their own version of alfajores, and Chef Zarate’s Peruvian style alfajor was made by layering crumbly square shortbread cookies with dulce de leche.  I’m impartial to soft chewy Argentine alfajores, but Mo-Chica’s rendition, made by Zarate’s new Spanish pastry chef who will be creating sweets for Picca, was equally scrumptious.

The evening was completely packed with satisfied happy diners who thoroughly enjoyed Zarate’s most successful tasting dinner event yet, while Bill Esparza and crew were rocking the house with contemporary takes on bossa nova classics like So Danco Samba and One Note Samba.  This tasting dinner was days before the big announcement of Zarate’s win for Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2011, and for all of those lucky diners who were able to attend the dinner, we got a good taste of exactly why.  Thank you Chef Zarate for donating to support Japan.

Mo-chica

3655 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90007

(213) 747-2141

Mo-Chica will relocate to its new grand location soon

Picca Peru

9575 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Picca will be opening in the upstairs ex-Test Kitchen space in May 2011

Random trivia: Did you know that an alfajor, which is a traditional Arabic confection, finds it word derivative from an Arabic word for honeycomb?  They are traditionally made with honey, almonds, hazelnuts, sugar, flour, breadcrumbs and natural spices.