Praise the South American culinary gods: Los Angeles’ most celebrated modern Peruvian chef is cooking like his old self again.
Last October, Ricardo Zarate was removed from his post as chef-owner of Picca, Mo-Chica and Paiche. (Mo-Chica and Paiche shuttered and Picca still serves Zarate’s food with little hint of the chef’s touch.) Without the Lima-born chef's progressive ceviches, tiraditos, chaufas and deconstructed versions of traditional dishes, L.A. was left with only Picca and a handful of family-owned, old-school joints in the way of Peruvian options.
So it was with great excitement that I ate a Zarate meal at the debut night of Once, the chef’s new pop-up series that's taking over Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at Santa Monica tapas bar Santinos.
Named after the Spanish word for “eleven” (it’s pronounced “on-seh”), Once has a menu that features 11 à la carte dishes nightly, divided into sections such as “greens,” “seafood” and “meat.” Some are riffs on dishes previously found at Zarate's restaurants; others have names that are recognizable from your average Peruvian restaurant. But everything at Once feels entirely new.
“This is Ricardo raw,” our server said before taking our order for ceviche criollo crocante and ensalada rustica. “He wants you to feel like you’re dining in his own home, eating the food his mother would have served.”
The setting is intimate enough to feel like someone’s dining room, but Once is definitely not serving Zarate’s mother’s salad. Nor is it putting out the ceviche, chaufa or lomo saltado that Peruvians might eat at home. Instead, Zarate takes the Asian influence pervasive in Peruvian cooking and combines it with the Asian influence pervasive in Los Angeles food — and adds flourishes of Southern, Spanish and Italian to tie it all together.
The salad uses pickled farmers market vegetables, crispy quinoa, burrata and avocado mousse to form a colorful circle of textures, and is drizzled with red-wine vinaigrette spiked with rocoto, the beloved Peruvian pepper. The ceviche is a heap of sea bass tossed in a ginger-kissed leche de tigre and topped with calamari rings battered in cornmeal like a proper Louisiana fish fry (under the pile are salty-sweet leaves of yuyo seaweed). Arroz chaufa, Chinese-style Peruvian fried rice, gets reimagined as paella. Perhaps a nod to his latest gig as consulting chef at Smoke.oil.salt, the so-called chaufa paella is served in a cast-iron skillet with scallops, black tiger prawns and Chinese sausage.
Peru’s signature dish, lomo saltado, gets the most interesting Zarate update so far. Normally an easy sell for the American palate, it’s essentially a beef stir fry with french fries in it. At Once, it gets a filet mignon upgrade (and $32 price tag) and loses the tacky French fry bit in exchange for roasted fingerling potatoes, braised cipollini onions and roasted tomatoes. Surrounding the meat and veggies is a mix of salty soy sauce and sweet tomato coulis, a juice that begs to be swirled by meat and then soaked up by bread. Perched on top, as in a Korean bibimbap, is a fried egg.
Throughout the meal, Zarate emerges from the kitchen to talk to every diner, something that became a rarity after the original Mo-Chica at tiny Mercado la Paloma became a citywide, three-restaurant enterprise.
According to our server (all the waitstaff used to work with Zarate at Paiche), Once’s menu will change as the chef gets feedback from diners and creates new takes on his childhood favorites. And as for when the pop-up will end? For now, Zarate is telling his Once crew: “Until they kick us out.”