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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Peruvian Menu Offers Rich Flavor and Variety

Curiosity should be enough to bring you to La Rosa Nautica. The food and atmosphere will bring you back.

June 27, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Wow, this soda tastes like bubble gum," exclaimed our 10-year-old nephew, taking one more massive gulp from his glass of pale yellow Inca cola.

Our Peruvian-born waiter shrugged. "I've never tasted bubble gum," he said.

Cloyingly sweet and oddly medicinal, Inca cola may be an acquired taste--but the cooking of Peru is not. You can try it at La Rosa Nautica, an Encino restaurant identifiable by a blue neon sign reading "Peruvian International Cuisine."

Peru is a country with both high mountains and a long seacoast, so the cooking varies greatly from region to region. One of the coastal foods is ceviche, that marinated seafood appetizer Americans think of as Mexican, though it actually originated in Peru. That fact alone should make you curious about the cuisine of the ancient land that gave the world potatoes.

Outside the capital, where rice is quite popular, potatoes and yuca root are the usual starches. La Rosa Nautica does wonders with these humble tubers. Papa a la Huancaina, perhaps Peru's most famous dish, is an appetizer of potatoes smothered in a grainy cheese sauce. Chunks of deep-fried cassava (yuca frita) make a deliciously starchy side dish.

You couldn't come to a Peruvian restaurant without having ceviche mixto: marinated raw snapper, squid, shrimp and octopus served on a grand platter. Be patient. I had always thought that the fish was marinated in lime juice well in advance of serving, but the waiter set me straight. He insists that the best ceviche is marinated to order, about 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

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Well, it works for me, because this is a wonderful dish, just made to be consumed with the accompanying salsa criolla (chopped onions, parsley and tomatoes seasoned with vinegar). Mix the salsa into the fish and add dashes of aji, a spicy paste made from garlic, cilantro and chiles that is at once refreshing and powerful. This "appetizer" easily serves three.

As for papa a la huancaina, La Rosa Nautica's version is the best I've ever tasted. The rich, piquant sauce on the potatoes is made from cheese, cream, powdered green chiles, olive oil and--the secret ingredient--crushed saltine crackers. We didn't leave a scrap.

Main dishes come with big mounds of rice and are rather hearty. The very good--and very filling--seco de carne con frijoles turns out to be two enormous chunks of tender stewed beef in a pea and onion gravy. I had high hopes for aji de gallina, which the menu describes as shredded chicken in a cream walnut Parmesan sauce. But I'd describe the dish as a floury pink sauce laden with shreds of gristly chicken, seemingly undistinguished by any nut or cheese flavors.

But it was reasonably steady going from there. Pescado a la chorrillana is fresh red snapper smothered with sauteed onions and stewed tomatoes, while camaron al mojo de ajo is an appealing plate of little shrimps in a corn starch based garlic sauce. Lima's Chinese community has contributed to the development of arroz chaufa de mariscos, essentially seafood fried rice (chaufa is a Hispanicization of chow fun) made with shrimp, squid, octopus and tiny Mexican mussels. If only fried rice in a Chinese restaurant were this dependable.

On weekdays, you pretty much have the run of the restaurant's outdoor patio, unless there are a couple of people playing backgammon. Inside, where the dining room has a tile floor and the walls are plastered with framed photos of Miraflores, Lima's beach area, there is no one at all, not a soul.

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Don't expect to have La Rosa Nautica to yourself on weekends, though. On Friday and Saturday evenings, it's crowded with fans of live salsa music, and on Sunday afternoons, haunting Peruvian music featuring the reedy Andean flute known as the sampona is played outdoors in the patio. Weekends are also when you can eat the thick shrimp chowder known as chupe de camarones, a steamy bowl of shrimp, potatoes, rice and cream.

Luckily, the homemade Peruvian desserts are available all week. One is a heavily caramelized flan, another the rolled caramel-cream butter cake known as pionono and still another--the restaurant's best dessert--is homemade cherimoya ice cream, made with a healthy dose of that succulent, earthy tropical fruit.

DETAILS

* WHAT: La Rosa Nautica.

* WHERE: 15627 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

* WHEN: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $22-$33.

* CALL: (818) 981-1555.

* FYI: Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards.

* SUGGESTED DISHES: papa a la Huancaina, $4; ceviche mixto, $9.50; seco de carne con frijoles, $7.95; arroz chaufa de mariscos, $8.95.

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