Gasping for Breath Through An Andean Range of Cuisine

Andina, does any restaurant get more requests to go there than this place? Not with the legions of people who have passed through this dining group.IMG_1863 Although the requests might now cease and desist for awhile, it was rare when I had a dinner and someone didn’t mention, “what about Andina?” “I’ve always wanted to go to Andina” or the ever present, “Ooh, I love Andina.” Peruvian cooking really is one of the most fascinating cuisines on the planet, such unusual ingredients and preparations, and of course when people think of Peruvian Cuisine, they think of that flagship of Portland Peruvian Cooking, Andina.

Restaurant Roulette had actually visited Andina before, way back in 2006 as it’s third dinner ever, and I remember our group of seven was quite enthusiastic that evening, and enjoyed what they had, although I myself did a bit of thrashing around trying to decide what to order. IMG_1853Thanks to another Peruvian place in Portland, however, del Inti, I have learned a good deal about the food of Peru in the interim, and saw all kinds of things I was interested in ordering on the Andina menu during our group’s second visit. As it happens though, Andina is never the cheapest place in town (Pearl, need I say more) so I had to limit myself to a couple of dishes and taste as much of other people’s food as I could this evening.

For some odd reason, the stars were twirling and the planets were aligning or some such celestial mumbo jumbo, so it just happened that the regular 3 week rotation for our dinner landed right on my birthday. Usually when my birthday arrives I end up spending the evening at home gnawing on days old leftovers or some such pitiful faire, but this year I dined amongst a group of 11 at one of Portland’s most successful and interesting restaurants, so who could complain about that?IMG_1878 What I could complain about, however, was that I had caught a charming virus many days earlier, and while my head was somewhat clear of the excess fluids that had plaguing me for days and I wasn’t doing an excess of coughing, this delightful malady had settled itself in my lungs and I couldn’t really talk without gasping for breath. Ten people to chat with, and I spend the whole dinner trying to get enough air, big fun!

Originally our reservation was for eight, and I had called Andina a couple of times to increase the table size, and one of these notations had become lost. Because of this, the last time I had called to alter the table size Andina said they would gladly do that, but that we would have to move to one of the private dining rooms (downstairs?) IMG_1870These private rooms are always a mixed bag, although you can often hear better, the isolation sometimes cuts you off from the restaurant’s flavor, and people tend to enjoy the flavor and style of Andina’s main dining room. Because of this, I had an made an extremely polite protest to the person taking the last reservation, especially because the problem was due to one of their staff forgetting to make the second change, but I want to mention that Andina heard my plea and moved the other large party elsewhere, giving us the prime seating in the dining room instead.IMG_1866 I was very pleased with their follow-through in this area, and with much of their customer service over this long dinner, and could not help but notice that over the intervening years since I have dined there, Andina has transitioned into an absolutely first class restaurant.

I certainly felt pretty idiotic when I arrived inside the Andina, I had made such great time on my drive to the Pearl and found a parking place almost in front of the restaurant, so consequently had spent about 10 minutes just sitting in my car, not wanting to be the only one of our group to have arrived so early.IMG_1860 My reason for feeling foolish, already six of our group had arrived and were seated, and I was almost tardy, even at 10 minutes or so early. Because of this I didn’t get my usual prime spot towards the center of the table, and was actually at one end where I missed over half the conversation and 80% of the comments on the food. So although I know it may be hard to believe, this entry could be even more dim and detailess than usual, as I was shut away from so much of the activity this evening. I did say at least once sentence to everyone at the table though, on this particular evening the chairs being filled by Michael, Andrea, Gina, Liz, Sam, Heidi, Julian, Jody, David, and newcomer Patty. Patty was great, I got the impression she was very food and dining savvy, and two of her favorite restaurants these days are both from John Gorham, Tasty N Sons and Toro Bravo (I know David would be disappointed if I didn’t mention Toro Bravo yet again, so there you go.)

Obviously, although Andina is a fun and festive place, it’s really all about the food.IMG_1874 And since they have an incredibly long list of small plates, many, many different Peruvian dishes were making the rounds at our table this Fall evening. I know I missed hearing what a few were, but here’s what I saw and can remember …

Esparragos Peruanos – Fresh asparagus brushed with olive oil and grilled
A little cold when someone shoved it in my direction, but still good.IMG_1867

Tortilla De Patata Y Alioli De Aji Amarillo – spanish style potato fritatta with aji Amarillo aioli

Yuca Rellana – cheese-stuffed yuca with an aji Amarillo and cheese sauce.
Poor Andrea ordered this then was too full to have more than a bite by the time it arrived. I thought the bite(s) I had yummy.

Pimiento Piquillo Relleno – paquillo peppers stuffed with cheese, quinoa and Serrano ham.
David ordered this (???) and I thought it was one of the better things I tasted.

Empanadas Caseras De Carne – flaky pastry filled with slow-cooked beef, raisins, and Botija olives.
This came down the table a couple of times (another item that Andrea could not make it through) and someone commented on the fact that it was almost dessert-like, maybe because of the raisins. complex and tasty.

Quesos Artesanos Con Membrillo assorted artisanal cheeses with quince jam

Musciame De Atun – cured tuna loin with garlic oil and avocado-tomato salsa criolla.
People were questioning whether tuna really had “loins” but whatever part of the tuna this  was, it was delicious. David also had high-praise for the avocado-tomato salsa criolla, sort of a molded salad affair.

CAUSAS (molded potatoes and fillings)
Solterito – green bean and cheese salad IMG_1857
Mixta Nikkei – spicy tuna, crab salad, and crispy shrimp
This is one of the dishes I would never had known to order had the owner of del Inti not prepared it as part of a tasting menu at his restaurant. One of my favorites, this seafood, potatoes, and aioli like mixture creating a delicious, creamy seafood salad with lovely presentational qualities.

Choices were Traditional (featuring the fish of the day); Mixed Seafood (shrimp, mussels, scallops, octopus and fish); Mango and Shrimp (green mango, passionfruit and prawns); and Japanese Tuna.
I missed all the comments, but always a favorite Peruvian dish.

IMG_1868Guinea Hen Stewed in a Banana Leaf with Quinoa.
Jody had this, and it was a wonderful presentation. It was so cute, when you opened up the banana leaf there was some foodstuff shaped like a heart attached to the drumstick. Jody said it was very good.

Novo-Andean Main Course –IMG_1869
Adobo De Cerdo – Pork Tenderlion quickly braised the the Arequipa style with butternut squash and gorgonzola ravioli, green apple, and a tamarillo-rocoto sauce.
Although it came looking a bit like small and fancy food, it was so rich I became incredibly full about halfway through. Very good and unusual, the combination of the somewhat spicy meat and the moderately sweet ravioli. Patty commented on the amazing complexity of the sauce.

Traditional Peruvian Main Courses –
Seco a la Norte & Nacutea – An old family recipe, lamb shank slow-cooked in the traditional Northern Peruvian style with cilantro, black beer, aji Amarillo, onions and garlic, served with a bean stew and salsa criolla.IMG_1864
Michael kept kindly trying to share some of this with me, but as per usual, unless I have almost no choice, I just don’t do lamb (and I was so food over-loaded I was about to do a Hindenberg anyway. Michael, Patty, and David all had high prise for this lamb dish.

Hongos Saltado – Wild mountain mushrooms wok-fried with onions, tomatoes, soy sauce, garlic, and aji, served with Yukon Gold pappas fritas and garlic rice.
Saltado is a common preparation you find in Peruvian Restaurants, most often with beef, and is distinctive because of the soy sauce base.IMG_1871 This is one of those dishes, like some of the Neikki seafood preparations that reflect the influence of Japanese immigration into Peruvian cuisine. Sam ordered this, and I had a bite, and as always, the first thing I noticed was that distinctive, rich soy sauce flavor.

Plato De Crema – three pots of creme brulee each highlighting a distinct Peruvian flavor.
One was ginger, one was mango, but I immediately forgot the third. Good, with a very crackly crust, but way too much of a good thing when you are about to explode.

Sorbet O Helado Del Dia – House-made Gelato of the Day.
IMG_1877Our dear friend Liz, who almost always goes for broke and orders something really unusual, was attempting to order really healthy on this evening, and had consumed some rather bland fish and none of the other really tasty items floating around the table. Consequently, she said this dessert was the best thing she had eaten all night.

Authentic Peruvian Truffles.
Sam had some of these and tried to share, but almost everyone was over-stuffed, especially with the addition of the free caramel cookies (and those chorizo chasers.)

Except for having a women’s room that’s too small and hard to get to (largely because of the hoarding masses in the bar that you have to fight your way through to get there) its really hard to think of any missteps by Andina at all this evening. IMG_1879They came through with a table in the dining room, the service was excellent to a fault, the staff was friendly, especially the “hostess” (someone thought she’s the owner’s mother) a sweet woman who visited our table to have a nice chat about our group. In addition, at the end of our meal, they were willing to break up the check any way (and as many ways) as we wanted it, which is always nice with the bigger groups. They offer bread without charging, and free caramel filled cookies at the end (David’s comment – whew, really sweet. I could use a chorizo chaser! Poor, strange David.)

Before I got to Andina this evening, I had decided because of current economic realities (there’s nothing like a surprise, mandatory $1100 car repair!) I needed to keep my spending down, hopefully avoiding ordering drink and dessert. Naturally, because it was a big, festive group, I wavered a bit, and decided to get a Mojito, which to be honest, wasn’t overly good, too many large, straw jamming hunks of mint. I was going to stand firm on dessert though (especially as I was stuffed like an oinker) but when I stated this fact, a birdy sitting next to me (okay, not a birdy, but she can probably examine a birdy) said that if I didn’t order dessert someone else was going to order it for me, implying some party or other was furnishing me with a birthday dessert. So although I really felt a tad like hurling, and even though hardly anyone was having dessert (thank you Liz and Sam for not leaving me twisting in the wind) when the waiter turned his dessert pad toward me, I said I would have the Trio of Creme Brulees. (That’s right, if you’re too full for one dessert, have three!!)

Anyway, it turned out it was Andina who was kindly furnishing me with the birthday treat, so they brought that out all decked out with candle and festive birthday writing across the plate in chocolate, and everyone sang Happy Birthday to me, and I was incredibly embarrassed and wanted to crawl under the table to hide, but feared open toed footwear!IMG_1876 So that was really nice, although I wish that Andina would have brought extra spoons, as I really would have liked to have hoisted some of this dessert off on others, as I really was feeling about to blow. Of course, if David had tried a taste, he probably would have wanted a chorizo chaser, so maybe it’s better that didn’t happen.

When it was evident that this year’s RR dinner was going to fall on my birthday, I spent a good deal of time trying to decide where best to have this particular dinner. Many of my favorite places are too hard to get into, not necessarily our group’s cup of tea, or we have visited them too recently to do another dinner already. Since it had been mentioned so many times over the last few months, I had added Andina to the list of places to go again awhile ago, and while I would not have chosen it if it was just me and a couple of people going out to celebrate my birthday, on this night it seemed like I had made the best choice possible. The restaurant performed exceptionally, the food was wonderful and intriguing, and I think almost everyone had a good time. Now, if I had just figured out how to reverse that pesky aging process that tends to go hand in hand with birthday dinners, the night would have been a total success.