Eating at Paiche, the new Marina del Rey restaurant from Ricardo Zarate, is an exceedingly cheery experience. The entire enterprise is engineered to lift your spirits: the sea blue–on-aqua color scheme; the fresh-faced waiters; the fruity cocktails; the bright, fun-first food. It's a cheerleader of a restaurant, the prettiest, most popular girl in school — or at least the prettiest, most uplifting business in this big-box shopping district, across the street from a DSW and a block from Barnes & Noble.
It's a long way from the Mercado La Paloma food court in South Central, where Zarate opened his first restaurant, to the shiny new building that houses Paiche. It's hard to imagine a starker contrast in feel and spirit than between the two locations: The Mercado's homey jumble of stalls and retailers feels worlds away from Paiche's slick ocean theme, curved cocktail bar, open kitchen and brilliant blue panels hanging from the ceiling.
Paiche, named after an Amazonian fish that's featured on the menu, is Zarate's third restaurant, following Mo-Chica, which moved from the Mercado to its new downtown location last year, and Picca, his upscale, small-plates place on one of the nicer stretches of Pico Boulevard.
The chef is riding a wave of excitement surrounding his modern, fresh take on Peruvian food, which culminated in 2011 with a Food & Wine Best New Chef award.
Zarate bills Paiche as a "Peruvian izakaya," and the tanned, attractive servers practically burst with energy as they explain what that means: small plates for sharing, designed to pair well with cocktails, with both Peruvian and Japanese influences.
Of course Peru and Japan have a long-standing historical connection, with a wave of Japanese immigration to Peru beginning in the 1800s. As a result, the cuisines of the two nations have long intermingled, both in Peru and Los Angeles (here most famously at the restaurants of Nobu Matsuhisa). Zarate himself started out working in Japanese restaurants, as a dishwasher and then habachi chef at a London Benihana, and then at much more prestigious restaurants and hotel groups in London and L.A.
There's a sense that, at Paiche, he is trying to achieve a lot of things — to translate the pub culture of Japan into a coastal Southern California restaurant through the lens of a bold Peruvian palate.
It's most successful as a swanky SoCal restaurant — one that, at its best, offers a next-generation vision of what "coastal" means. It's a place where the food can be as creative and engaging as the music is festive and the breeze is warm, while the airy, vibrant blue-and-driftwood–colored space is a boon to a neighborhood with few decent dining options.
Cocktails, created by Deysi Alvarez, are unabashedly beach-centric: Pert, full of citrus and tropical elements, they're a refreshingly grown-up vision of what fruit-heavy drinks can accomplish. Yes, the Maracuya Caipirinha is full of passion fruit and lime and cane syrup, but it's fresh passion fruit — sweet and sour and delicious.
There are more cerebral drinks, too, like the Bernard DeVoto (presumably named after the author, and also known as the Master of Intoxication), made with tequila reposado, Calvados, yellow chartreuse and Benedictine. Even a complex drink like this, however, has an unabashedly sunny edge.
As much as the idea here is very much a cultural mash-up, my favorite dishes were pretty solidly Peruvian: the namesake fish sliced thin in an aji amarillo lemon vinaigrette, topped with a grounding sweet potato mousse; a tender leg of duck confit over pallares tacu tacu, a Peruvian lima bean mash, with a sauce made from the bright flavors used in ceviche.
Here, as with all his restaurants, Zarate is best when he takes his native cuisine and plays with it. Arroz con conchas negras, a rice dish made black with "black shells," adds uni and blood clams to the mix for a deeply flavored dish, both comforting and beguiling, the dark heart of seafood.
But there is much that seems overwrought, dishes taken one step too far, ideas that are clever but don't quite work. The best example of this are the "sashimi-style" ceviches, a hybrid in which high-quality fish is cut sashimi style, then served bathed in a pool of leche de tigre. The sauce in this concentration, rather than mixed evenly in chopped seafood, is stunningly intense — so intense that it completely outshines the fish. It's frustrating to approach the bright yellow sauce, the carefully placed garnishes, the pristine kampachi or yellowtail, and then not be able to taste the fish at all.
And some things veer too far toward fusion for fusion's sake: wagyu beef lightly seared and thinly sliced, sitting in aji amarillo? Fine. But topped with black truffle and drizzled with Parmesan sauce, it's a step (or two) too far.
I don't want to be a spoilsport, and sometimes overwrought can be a carousing good time. Is shrimp toast piled high with uni and drizzled with rocoto honey a ridiculous piling-on of ocean funk and crispy oil and syrupy sweetness? Yes. Does that make me any less inclined to shove it in my face with gusto? Not one bit. And with the lobster fried rice, the trace of late night–flavored grease, of drunken Chinese takeout, is part of what gives it its charm, the rest coming from the large chunks of bouncy seafood and slivers of cleansing pickled radish. It's food meant to fortify you for more booze, and food meant to become part of the party.
What's more disappointing is when Zarate's formidable cooking talents are on display but then eclipsed, the dish tarted up like a prom queen with too much makeup. It's hard to cook quinoa right, to get it to an edible point of tenderness while still retaining its toasty crunch. Yet while the texture in the quinoa alverjitas risotto is masterful, the flavor is too cheesy and salty and heavy. It can't help but obscure the fantastically cooked quinoa and the freshness of the English peas.
And then there's the feel of the place, which caused some disagreement in the ranks. One friend thought it felt like a restaurant that might be in a stylish hotel in San Francisco; I felt like it was one step from an upscale chain. Is this the beginning of Zarate packaging his talent for the masses? Perhaps. Does it matter? Probably not.
Paiche is a fun, colorful restaurant serving highly creative food in a neighborhood that sorely needs more options. It has neither the L.A.-specific attitude of downtown's Mo-Chica nor the precise cooking and energetic elegance of Picca, which at its best can be one of the most sensational restaurants in town.
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But even without the charms of its siblings, there's no reason to worry about Paiche. The homecoming queen always does just fine.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PAICHE | 2 stars | 13488 Maxella Ave., Marina del Rey | (310) 893-6100 | paichela.com | Daily, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. | Plates to share, $8-$19 (one entree-sized plate, $38) | Full bar | Free lot parking