THE DINING REPORT –  A Second Look at del Inti

CLOSED

This was a private event, not a Restaurant Roulette dinner, but a return to a restaurant we had visited earlier this year.

Every once in awhile something good comes my way because I labor over this blog, usually free food or even a free meal. In this vein, I was recently invited for an introductory meal at del Inti, the introducing in this case to a new chef coming on board to supplement the efforts of del Inti owner/chep Ignacio Del Solar. As the dinner was billed as being mainly for jounalists, I was a bit confused why I was invited, as I’m just a schmoe with a blog, but as the woman who was doing the inviting to this event kindly explained to me, del Inti had remembered the review I had posted on the blog concerning our dinner that had taken place there early in 2009, and as it was relatively extensive, decided to pencil me in. So although I felt somewhat like a critic impostor, I thanked Stephanie Hughes-Pratt heartily, and marked down on my calendar the date for the proposed lunch. Due to an lack of bodies able to attend, the lunch was changed to a dinner about a week later, all the better for me I thought, because who cares about free lunch when they can have free dinner!! (So says the glutton in me!)

So it was early on an absolutely freezing cold December Wednesday that I made my way to del Inti on Alberta, expecting a horde of journalists to hob nob with and feel like an impostor around (I was apprehensive, because I’m actually just a shy gal.) I was the first to arrive, and was shown to our table for, drumroll please, four. About five minutes in I was informed we would be a riotous group of three, as the WW woman had the H1N1 virus, or something dubious like that, and that made me glad she was not so gluttonous as myself, considering she had put hers and others physical well being over free fine dining restaurant food (that would be a tough choice for me.) It did make me wonder about the brain capacity of other keyboard bashers around town though, how could you decline an all encompassing free meal from a really decent restaurant, especially one that serves the always unique food of Peru? What’s wrong with you chuckleheads? (Not that I know what that is, but it doesn’t sound like the brightest thing to be.) But as Stephanie H.P. noted, oh well, more food for us!!

The excellent Sean introduced himself as the waiter for the evening (sorry Sean, I know it could also be Shaun, or Shawn, sorry I didn’t ask which) and did his best to entertain me until the other parties arrived. I had shown up about five minutes early and the others were a few moments late (children issues) in varying degrees. Sean gave me a sample menu and explained more to me about the food of Peru, most of which I did not know, especially about the different peppers, the different kinds of corn we would find in the dishes, and how ceviche is actually prepared (to be honest, I’d never really thought about it. It’s not something you tend to whip up at home.)

Eventually Blythe arrived, a reporter for the local Alameda newspaper, and not too long afterward, our “hostess, dining companion” Stephanie, who had been wrangling wee tots and was running behind schedule. We all ordered some nice glasses of wine, met Erin Del Solar, Stephanie’s friend and co-owner of del Inti (also a trained chef) and were told that the food would be a variety of the chef’s choices from various sections of the menu, if that was okay with us. We were also told that if something really struck our fancy on the menu that we could request that, but none of us went in this direction, as you usually can’t go wrong when the kitchen is peddling a selection of what they consider to be their best dishes.

Some slices of a very good olive bread were brought, and then the parade of ceviches began. As I have not been to Andina since the early days of RR, I’m not sure how many ceviches they have on their menu, but most places I know that have ceviche only have one or two, so I thought it was pretty impressive that del Inti has five fish preparations listed on their ceviche menu. We were brought three in close order, Tradicional. Mixto, and Pulpo Nikkei. Sean had explained that the Tradicional would feature whatever suitable fish was fresh and available, it this case Hebi, a white fish from Hawaii that is similar to Snapper. The Tradicional  also featured red onions, aji, cilantro, choclo (pepper) yams, and leche de tigre. Although ceviche is one of those food I’ve discovered relatively late in life, as it wasn’t something you saw too much in Portland until about 10 years ago, I’ve decided I like it, and this certainly seemed as good as any ceviche I’ve had. I was especially looking forward to the Mixto, as a couple of people had ordered it when we had the RR dinner at del Inti and said it was exceptional, and quite spicy. Mixto is described on the menu as being a conglomeration of Hebi, Octopus, Shrimp, Mussels, red onion, aji, cilantro, rocoto, and leche de tigre. Sean had explained that the rocoto was a spicier pepper than the choclo, and that would be what would give this particular ceviche its extra bite, as well as it’s red color. Also very good, especially with the range of seafood.

The third ceviche, Pulpo Nikkei, is supposedly a somewhat hard sell at del Inti, as people here seem somewhat wary of octopus. This is one of the dishes with that strange Japanese influence that is pervasive in Peru. because of all the Japanese immigrants there. Some

one asked someone (Blythe perhaps inquired) what caused so many people from Japan to move to Peru, especially with the incredibly obvious clashes in culture and environment, but no one seemed to know why it happened. Whatever caused this melding of Peruvian and Japanese, this was actually my personal favorites of the ceviches, the sliced Octopus, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, fried won ton and nikkei leche de tigre providing a wonderful contrast of pepper and sesame oil, both toning down the pervasive flavor of the other into a lovely blend of flavors.

Next we were presented with the Ensalada de Quinoa, a circular disk of quinoa, botija olives, corn, queso fresco, beets, aji amarillo vinaigrette and arugula. Although I know quinoa is supposed to be really good for you, I tend to steer clear of it at home, as most prepartions can be quite bland. This was delicious though, the olives, corn (some of it fried crispy), and cheese all creating interesting flavor accents. I would have quinoa at least once a week if it always tasted like this. Next up was Causa Limena, a delicious molded seafood salad of potato mashed with lime, aji amarillo, layered with avocado and olive oil poached albacore. All three of us raved over this delicate little composition (could it be because it contained aioli?) certainly my favorite dish of the evening and something I hope to be able to go back to del Inti soon to re-experience. So distinctive and pleasing to the palate.

Especially as Stephanie and Blythe kept pushing the end portion of each dish in my direction (I need to have that flashing forehead sign that says piggie removed) I was starting to feel a bit food saturated, but there was much more to follow. The next dish to make it to our table was Sudado de Almejas, the rather unusual combination of clams and yuca (actually steamed manilla clams in “Chicha de Jora,” cilantro and aji amarillo with fried yuca.) I have no idea what Chicha de Jora is, but the clam broth seemed really garlic oriented, and the fried yuca light, crispy and a nice contrast.

Next up, entrees, like we really needed any. The Seco de Cordero is described as “cilantro-braised lamb shoulder with canary beans and salsa criolla.” As I have mentioned time and time again, lamb is nothing I would ever order on my own, it basically has to be hoisted upon me before I will eat any, but in this case it was mild, tender, and hearty, and the canary beans, similar to navy beans, made a nice accompaniment. The dish actually reminded me somewhat of a cassoulet.

The second entree was also a hearty dish, the Hanger Steak Saltado, the main course I had selected at del Inti earlier in the year. What makes this particular beef dish rich and unusual is another Asian touch, soy sauce. The menu description mentions “stir-fried steak, onions, roma tomatoes, fried potatoes, and soy sauce glaze, served with rice.” As is often the case, the soy sauce gives the meat and vegetables a very robust flavor, but although the description sounds stew like, all the ingredients maintain their individual integrity, as there isn’t any gloppy gravy. I also found the fact that rice is served on the side of this dish interesting, as most cultures tend to avoid adding rice to a dish that contains potatoes. The rice went fine though under both entrees.

As Stephanie seems practically a member of the del Inti family, she was quite insistent that both Ignacio Del Solar and new chef Jose Luis de Cossio make appearances at our table, so we got to hear quite a lot about the dishes we were being served from Ignacio and what had brought Jose Luis over from Andina (increased artistic freedom and a more relaxed, friendly atmosphere.) Both men cited their backgrounds in Lima as major influences on their vision of how Peruvian food should be prepared, and both stressed the fact that they enjoyed cooking in a Northwest restaurant that integrated fresh, organic ingredients whenever possible. Although very shy at first, Jose Luis warmed up in a hurry and seemed genuinely excited to be plying his trade at this friendly but stylish Alberta Street restaurant with his old friend Ignacio (although their association cannot be too ancient, as neither man is anything but youngish.)

Right before I was ready to explode we were brought a superior molten chocolate lava cake with caramel sauce and filling, a lovely, complex end to our lovely, complex meal. As everyone at del Inti was so nice and informative, from Sean to Erin to Ignacio to Jose Luis to their extended family, Stephanie, I was glad that the food was so delicious and intriguing, and I could write so many good things about my meal there. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my previous RR dinner there, I did, but I think del Inti has come into its prime since then, no doubt aided by the acquisition of Jose Luis, and it really helps to be able to try so many different dishes, especially those that are favorites of the staff. So thank you, del Inti, for having me, I hope to return soon, and I already know the various items I will insist on ordering next time to create an extra special dining experience. Thanks also to my dining companions, they made for a fun meal.

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