A culinary journey to another country is always exciting, especially when you only have to drive to Pikesville, where the new Inka Grill Fusion promises an exploration of Peruvian foods.
The menu, in the capable hands of executive chef Michael Ciuffardi Macky, teases adventurous palates with items like tiradito, Peru's version of seviche (which is also on the menu); causas, potato terrines; and the national beef dish, lomo saltado.
We arrived at the restaurant ready to embrace these dishes and more. The menu also lists mainstream offerings like mussels and garlic shrimp for appetizers; pastas, salmon and beef short ribs for entrees; and a selection of sushi rolls.
And while the food mostly lived up to our expectations, there was a big stumbling block in our experience — our server.
We were hoping to have a knowledgeable guide who could help us tour the menu. Instead, our waiter did everything he could to derail our quest and send us scrambling to the nearest Taco Bell.
Wrong orders were delivered, questions were flippantly dismissed, and we still have no idea why he told the kitchen to cook the steak well done in our lomo saltado.
The tough strips of beef marred the aromatic saute of onions, tomatoes and cilantro, though the plate came with adequate fries and rice.
Our server also couldn't remember the name of the light, airy bread brought to the table and didn't seem interested in finding out. It tasted like a delicious popover.
Maybe he was trying to be helpful, but he questioned whether we really wanted to order the beef-heart skewers, a popular Peruvian street food. We persevered with good results.
The seasoned kebabs, called anticucho de corazon, were tender and flavorful and arrived on a bed of Peruvian corn with giant kernels the size of hazelnuts in a hot skillet.
We also started with the tiradito chalaco, a pretty plate with white fish sliced sashimi style and marinated in lime juice. It was draped with an aji amarillo cream, a sauce named after the eponymous fiery pepper, and sprinkled with diced tomatoes and onions for a bold beginning.
We were curious about the causas, described on the menu as "whipped potatoes topped with various choices served cold." We settled on the causa limena with chicken.
It was a lovely dish in taste and color. Three round stacks sat on a long white plate, showcasing each creamy yellow potato base, topped with a light chicken salad and micro greens and anchored in mild yellow and purple sauces.
On a midweek evening, the 60-seat dining room and the bar area by the front entrance were packed. The drink menu offers wine, beer (including local RavenBeer) and specialty South American cocktails like a pisco sour and caipirinha to get you in the spirit.
A picturesque mural of a village in muted colors takes up one wall. The furnishings are casual, although the restaurant layout reminded me of its predecessor, Mari Luna Latin Grill.
In addition to the lomo saltado entree, we tried the chargrilled chicken breast marinated with cilantro and garlic. The two tender fillets with sear marks were plump and juicy, a feast for $15.
The dish came with a choice of two sides. We really liked the spaghetti ala Huancaina, which is similar to macaroni and cheese except with long strands of cheesy noodles. Our other side, choclo andino, featured more of the monster corn.
We were hoping to finish our meal with the mazamorra morada, a Peruvian purple corn pudding, but the kitchen was out of it and the arroz con leche (rice pudding).
Instead, they offered a trio of desserts on a plate: flan, alfajor (a delicate cookie made from cornstarch) and tres leches de cafe (a coffee-enhanced three-milks cake). They were excellent endings that were easily shared.
We completed our culinary trip to Peru on a good note. But the restaurant should make more of an effort to promote its dishes and explain to diners just what native treasures it has to offer.
Inka Grill Fusion
Rating: ✭✭ 1/2
Where: 1010 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville
Contact: 443-898-8713, inkagrillfusion.com
Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$15; entrees, $12-$45 (paella for two)
Noise/TVs: The tango music on the sound system was a pleasant backdrop in the busy dining room, where conversations were easy to hold; four TVs.
Service: Our waiter tried to be genial, but he couldn't cover up his numerous mistakes.
Parking: Lot behind the restaurant and street parking.
Special diets: Alert the chef to any dietary needs.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭]