Food

6 Things to Look For at José Andrés’s China Chilcano (Photos)

A lobster tank, plenty of pisco, and Peruvian sushi come to Penn Quarter.
China Chilcano brings Peruvian flavors and vibrant decor to Penn Quarter. Photographs by Andrew Propp.

The winter’s biggest restaurant opening is here: José Andrés debuts China Chilcano, his first Peruvian eatery. The Penn Quarter spot embraces Peru’s many culinary influences—Chinese, Japanese, Spanish—and in Andrés-ian fashion runs with them to create an energetic and playful concept, with a few surprises thrown in. Here’s what to expect.

There’s dim sum.

Chinese laborers, many of Cantonese descent, played a large role in influencing Peruvian cooking. The resulting hybrid cuisine is called Chifa, and variations of it pop up across the menu. More traditional Chinese dishes include a selection of dim sum dumplings and pot stickers, or hand-rolled rice noodles in an aromatic pork-and-chicken broth. A selection of chaufa—fried rice dishes—plays with a mix of flavors such as chaufa Cubana, in which the grains are sautéed with garlic, fried eggs, bacon, and tomato sauce.

And sushi-like “causagiris.”

Another big influence came from 19th-century Japanese immigrants, who embraced Peru’s coastline and access to fresh seafood as well as native vegetables and chilies. Take a seat at the raw bar to see Nikkei, Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, in action. Former Sushi-Ko chef Koji Terrano teamed up with Think Food Group for the restaurant, and may be spotted behind the bar making ceviches, sashimi, and “causagiri.” The latter looks like nigiri sushi, but instead of rice, raw and cooked fish is served on a platform of puréed potato and aji amarillo chilies, similar to causa potato dishes found throughout Peru.

The Elements dining area is more serene than the vibrant Marketplace, with plenty of wood.

Guinea pig could be on the menu.

The menu also includes a number of dishes one might think of as more traditionally Peruvian, such as flavored ice pops brought tableside in portable coolers, as street vendors in Lima would serve them. Think Food Group chef Rubén García, director of research and development for Andrés’s empire, says he’s hoping to recreate one of the country’s iconic dishes: cuy, or guinea pig. So far, sourcing fresh meat has been problematic—culinary guineas are different than their fluffy pet-shop brethren—though a solution is near. A farm in Maryland is awaiting permits, and the team plans to jump on the local cuy when they’re available.

The best table overlooks a seafood tank.

Anyone who wants to gaze at their lobster before digging into the wok-cooked crustacean with black-pepper sauce can request the six-seat table next to a 300-gallon seafood tank, which holds live langosta and other water-dwellers for the kitchen. Another perk: The table is one of several outfitted with retro-style lazy Susans, which makes sharing the tapas-size plates easier. All that said, “best” is a bit subjective when it comes to seating. The restaurant is divided into three stylized areas: a funky Marketplace, the wood-heavy Elements, and Heaven, which in Andrés’s vision is a ceviche bar. Each offers interesting perches, like our second favorite, a sunken, Japanese-style table beneath a billowing red lantern.

Ancient peoples inspired the lighting.

Swirling neon light fixtures run through the Marketplace section, modeled after Peru’s Nazca Lines. The designs found on Nazca Desert plateaus are thought to be made by people of the ancient Nazca culture in order to communicate with the gods—good for aesthetic affect, and as a date-time conversation piece.

Pisco abounds.

Though the full collection of pisco brandy is still in the works, the bar hopes to build the biggest selection in the United States. Rare piscos are already available; ask for El Inquebrantable, a small-batch producer that only makes 200 bottles per year. More familiar sips include pisco sours, pisco muddled with fresh fruit, and pisco punch. There’s also a strong selection of South American wines and unusual Peruvian beers, including Cumbres, a red-corn brew new to the United States.

China Chilcano. 418 Seventh St., NW; 202-783-0941. Soft opening Monday, January 5, at 4; official opening Wednesday, January 7. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 11; Friday and Saturday 4 to midnight; Sunday and Monday 4 to 10. Lunch and brunch coming in February.

The eclectic Marketplace is lit by red neon lights designed after Nazca Lines.

Many of the design elements are inspired by working Peruvian markets.

Many of the benches are scattered with colorful pillows.
The bar aims to eventually stock the largest collection of piscos in the country.

The menu mixes Chinese-Peruvian dishes, called Chifa, with Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, or Nikkei.

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Anna Spiegel
Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.