You might reasonably think that there's some sort of Peruvian roast-chicken empire taking shape in the Hartford region. First there was Piolin on New Britain Avenue, near Trinity College, then came Piolin Jr. (an offshoot) in East Hartford. Now comes Piolin II, on Franklin Avenue in the South End. (In the meantime, the powerhouse Piolin name seems to take no prisoners, since Goal, a wonderful soccer-themed Peruvian place also on Franklin closed its doors this spring.) Hartford has more very good Peruvian restaurants than many cities twice its size. And the craze for Peruvian roast chicken, not to mention the Peruvian brandy called pisco (see our cover story), is only growing.
Long-time Hartford restaurant explorers will note that Piolin II is housed on the spot where Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan lived before it relocated to West Hartford. (After that, an ill-fated but likable pan-Caribbean restaurant called Citra operated there for a spell.) The restaurant is in the first floor of what looks like an old apartment building. Patrons walk up the main stairs into the building, finding themselves in a mini hallway, from which there's another proper entrance into the restaurant. The dining area is horseshoe-shaped, with a narrow area at the back that leads to another more secluded strip of booths. Pictures of famous Peruvian crooners and images of traditional Andean life adorn the walls.
There's not much indicating that Lima is a pulsing metropolis and that Peruvian cuisine has taken on world-class status. That's not really anything new; the legendary chef and cookbook author Auguste Escoffier famously said that Peruvian food is one of the great cuisines of the world. He may have been years ahead of the curve, but now everyone else is apparently catching on. The Peruvian superstar chef Gaston Acurio is set to open a high-end Peruvian restaurant (on the spot of Table, restaurateur Danny Meyer's only failed venture), in New York City. Expect the profile of Peruvian cuisine in the U.S. to take a big jump once that happens.
Hartford's Peruvian restaurants aren't aiming for the same culinary stratosphere perhaps. But they're very good and worth checking out all the same. Peruvian food is known for — in addition to roast chicken — ceviche, which is raw fish and seafood cured in citrus juice. Those expecting something super-delicate like sushi or carpaccio, will be overwhelmed by the way that Piolin II turns nominally raw seafood into a hefty and filling platter, with cilantro, red onion and jalapeno adding flavor and a bite of heat. Then there are the pieces of snack-like roasted corn, sweet potato and an ear of huge-kernaled corn (fittingly called maiz gigante) that are served along side the fish.
Oddly enough, the roast chicken, for which Peruvian restaurants are deservedly famous, wasn't on offer at Piolin II when we stopped in. Our waiter said that since the other Piolin on New Britain was relatively nearby, presumably people would go there for the chicken. I'm not sure about that logic, but we found other items on the menu out of necessity.
A plate of anticuchos — grilled beef heart — was very steak-like. Salty, with that pronounced protein flavor (but none of the more acidic edge) that you get from organ meat. On top of the piece that sat in the middle of the plate was a bright green dab of chimichurri sauce (the very green herb-and-garlic sauce that is a staple of South American meat-eating).
While we're tallying all of the strengths of Peruvian cuisine, let's add a knack for peppery sauces to the list. At Piolin II, you'll get served a pale green aji sauce, which is made with jalapenos and cilantro and lettuce. This often comes with slices of bread, but — not knowing where to and where not to put it — I've put it on fries and roast chicken and enjoyed it. When we asked for some other hot sauces we were brought a ramekin of something about the thickness of apple sauce, that was a shade lighter than the color of a red pepper. This was a nicely balanced hot sauce. Not a jolt of vinegary heat, but more of a slow surprise.
Sudado de pescado was a mild soup-like fish stew made with tilapia. An order of tacu tacu con mariscos was a hefty plate of seafood and rice with a crab leg stuck in the middle and more a small pool of yet another tasty, thick and herby sauce.
Lisa had a glass of chicha morada, a perfume-y purple corn drink that is sweet and dusted with a hint of cinnamon. Fans of Peruvian "pop" culture can also taste Inca Cola, something like a cross between cream soda and bubblegum.
Piolin II is a welcome addition to, or expansion of, the Peruvian restaurant scene here. It's slightly more formal and perhaps conducive to a sit-down blow-out meal, both in terms of the atmosphere and the scope of the menu. If you want to get a jump on a working familiarity with Peruvian cuisine before it becomes the next next big thing, Piolin II is a good starting point. (Head up to New Britain Avenue if you want the roasted chicken.)
360 Franklin Ave., Hartford, 296-2062
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun