Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Best Bites #1-Picca Peck of Perfect Plates

I had a rather long love affair with a fish the other night. We made lusty eye contact with each other several times across an electric humming restaurant. This whole fish, lets call him “Branzino,” stretched out atop an openwork grate, which sat about a foot above the orange choreography of a troupe of well-attended flames. And for at least 45 minutes “Branzino” sizzled and smoked and melted its way through its metamorphosis, scandalously in full view of myself, and everyone else in the restaurant for that matter. And when it was set at last in the center of our table, we welcomed it as a beloved object of affection with whom we had had a 45 minute affair with, and then proceeded to eat every last protein ounce.

To eat at Picca Peru is to fall in love-that is undeniable. The inappropriate part is just how many times you will fall during the course of a single meal.

Let me get the inelegant and clunky part out of the way first, and then we can discuss the creamy poetry of a Peruvian pumpkin stew, or the importance of employing genius repeatedly when building a sauce.

SO: The meal I ate at Picca is without question the best meal I have eaten in L.A. And my #1 Best Bite IS: Every single bite of food you will eat at Picca. Take THAT, Bite Club. And thank you, chef Ricardo Zarate!

Ok, now back to the burning beauty of it all. Picca will guide you lovingly out of your comfort zones, like a glittering butterfly that you are compelled to follow a bit deeper into the woods that you had intended. You will hear yourself say the words: “I’m not leaving until I taste the beef heart.” And when it is set before you in all its salty swagger, a thing which was a crucial part of another thing, and now will be a part of you, you will eat it as though it is made of pure life force, nevermind that it is one of the most concentratedly meaty bites you’ve ever chewed.

Despite its (well-deserved) reputation as a loudly vegan, fat-fearing, agave swilling temple to dietary wellness, Los Angeles does frequently treat itself to the richer, darker portions of the food guide pyramid. We protest the chopping of trees, (Hi, Daryl Hannah!) AND the banning of foie gras. You may come to L.A. for a yoga retreat and green juice, but you could just as easily be here for a short-rib mac andcheese grilled cheese sandwich, or a cupcake ice cream sandwich. Don’t fence us in! We are complex and versatile and hungry.

What was most surprising and appealing to me about Picca Peru, is that it relies on none of the shock-value-blue-ribbon-heart-disease components that we now collectively recognize as the luxurious showstoppers we find on our plates, and in our zeitgeist today. Bacon, marrow, foie gras, lardo. I love them too, but Picca lifts the curtain to reveal the colors shooting through the other side of the prism. Colors acid-tart, and ocean-salty, and full of sun and citrus.

"Picca" means "to nibble," and the magic of eating here is that each of the dozens and dozens of "nibbles" you have the potential to taste is perfected, and is wildly different from the last, and the next. The plates here are small, but still regrettably shareable, which got me closer and closer to my life-long dream of sitting down at a restaurant and ordering grandly, "I'll have one of Everything!" I may refuse to return to Picca until I'm in a position to do that. Just on principal.
Every dish is stunning and lovesick. The marine intensity of a self-padded scallop. The momentary smokiness of a chunk of black cod, before it goes sweet somehow, and then is gone forever-washed down with a neon green swallow of the Avocado Project Cocktail in your hand, in your mouth, in your stomach, in your life. A smooth cocktail made with fresh avocado, lime juice, agave, (heh heh) and white rum? Have this. Today.
In fact, most dishes here employ a bit of “Horse of A Different Color” technique. When given a bite of ceviche, don’t be surprised if you make 4 or 5 different faces, as you register each flavor as it blooms. A bite of one of the impeccable ceviches here will take you on a circuitous tour through smoky, spicy, zesty, and sweet, the whole time burstingly fresh, and leaves you feeling as though you have discovered a new line of tongue to brain communication. Uni shooters are a shot glass of creamy ocean, and every green glowing sauce and citrus segment to be found here literally vibrates with flavor, divined from juice, or smoke, or sea.

I am an idiot for open kitchens. Watching the machinery rush to grind and grasp behind the calm clock face is my kind of entertainment. But I must say, here it is a bit of the reverse. The glassed in kitchen is a nucleus of calm, as the  madness of people eating dinner thrashes buoyantly around it.

This calm, this mastery, this confidence contained behind transparent walls, is why our whole branzino arrived in a state of perfection. The lemon slices inside had basically melted into the fish, leaving behind its bright fingerprint on the fillets inside. And when we eventually parted ways with Picca, several delicious and dramatic hours later, we left behind a delicate fish skeleton and no trace of beef heart, like a lost and stranded hunting party living off the land, three starving days from cannibalism.

When driving across the country recently, I passed a huge sign as I crossed the border into Texas. It said: “NEW MEXICO: YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE LAND OF ENCHANTMENT.” How sad I thought, that they would rub it in your face like that! You are supposed to be welcomed into a new place, or encouraged to return again, not kicked in your departing derriere on the way out!

But should the state of New Mexico ever decide to retire that sign, I know a great place for it. Because when you finally find yourself exiting Picca, make no mistake, You Are Now Leaving The Land Of Enchantment.

Picca Peru
9575 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA

NOTE: The menu here is highly seasonal and always changing. For a festival of photographic record of these dishes, I found that Yelp! had a fantastic gallery. A word of caution, set aside an hour or two... ;)

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