By Paul Reidinger
The name "Anne Gingrass" carries a certain magic in San Francisco culinary circles, but it’s a name that will no longer do. Gingrass was the Spago-trained chef who, with her then-husband, David Gingrass, opened Postrio in 1989, as a prelude of sorts to launching their own place, Hawthorne Lane, six years later. Somewhere along the way, the marriage broke up not an unfamiliar story among restaurant couples and earlier this year Gingrass remarried. (She is now known as Anne Paik, according to the Web site of her Desiree café, www.desireecafe.com). Perhaps the hullabaloo associated with this large personal event contributed to the delay in opening her latest venture, Essencia. The new restaurant (in the onetime Pendragon Bakery space in Hayes Valley) was supposed to welcome its first guests on or about Valentine’s Day, but in fact the doors didn’t swing open until May.
One obvious question to ask is: was the wait worth it? The pretty easy answer there is yes. Less easy to answer is the question why Paik, long one of the great apostles of California cuisine, would open a Peruvian restaurant although, in fairness, it must be said that Essencia’s menu, indeed its gestalt, nods to California as much as to Peru. The place certainly has the modern, metro-California look; it’s surprisingly small, with only a dozen or so tables, and the interior design consists largely of wood floors, mocha paint, and a profusion of large plate-glass windows that look out onto the always bustling intersection of Hayes and Gough streets.
The appeal of Peruvian cooking to a California sensibility isn’t so mysterious, really. We are, either way, in the New World, on the shores of the Pacific, with mountains nearby and a mélange of human heritage Indian, European, and Asian on hand to stretch any parochial understandings of food. There are differences between the two Pacific states, of course: while California, when not mountainous, tends toward desert, Peru is junglier and more tropical and the home of besides potatoes various fruits (lucana, guanavana) that tend toward dessert. More anon.
But the similarities between the cousins are unmistakable too, and they are the foundation for much of Essencia’s menu. A fava bean salad ($11.50), for example, is a ritual of spring in these parts, and Essencia’s version, with its naps of frisée and its halved cherry tomatoes, could have come right from the kitchen at Hawthorne Lane except for a scattering of those big, ivory white Peruvian corn kernels that look like teeth. A filet of baked halibut ($23.50), embedded in a pad of chickpea purée, with a handful of whole fried chickpeas tossed over the top like buckshot, also seemed to have a distinct northern edge. (The accompanying sauce, of shrimp and clams, seemed almost classically French.) And a triple chicken sandwich ($11.75) "a kind of club," we were told by our informative and occasionally overinformative server had no discernable Peruvian angle at all. Its white bread, trimmed of crust, was like something from an English high tea, while its fillings (of white chicken meat, walnut paste, and avocado slices) could only be described as very tasty regardless of provenance.
Still, aficionados of Peruvian standards will not be disappointed. Of course there is ceviche, although at least one version, of kampachi ($12) a white-fleshed fish from the Hawaiian islands was presented to us carpaccio-style, the tissues of flesh laid out on the plate like skins on the floor of a cave dweller’s abode. More striking was the aji pepper sauce slathered over the top; it was the yellow color of French’s mustard and offered a sharp belt of pepper and acid up the nostrils. I liked it, but my companion thought it overwhelmed the delicate fish, and I saw her point.
Potatoes are less commonplace than on other Peruvian menus around town but are used to good effect. The potato and crab salad ($13.75) turned out to be a cross between a napoleon and a sandwich, with the crab meat forming a seam between two oval pads of yellow (and cold) mashed potatoes, which had been fearlessly spiked with cayenne and lime juice. We might have expected some kind of potato preparation with the pork medallions ($19.50), but instead the crusted roulades of meat were plated with tacu-tacu, a tasty legume and rice croquette made here with mashed golden lentils and finished with a sash of bacon. The plate also included a side garden of julienned red and yellow bell pepper.
For me the one irresistible Peruvian dessert is alfajores ($4.50), the butter cookies filled Oreo-style with dulce de leche (sugar caramelized in milk). Essencia’s cookies, to judge from their tender snap, are not only house made (with real butter) but baked daily, and there is a coconut variant to the dulce de leche a bit darker in color, with definite coconut perfume.
The sweets on the whole strike a light note. Peruvian tropical fruits figure in various mousses and flans, while the workaday but lovable orange turns up in thin rounds dusted with cinnamon and overlaid like a poker hand on a plate of madeleines ($7). There is a globe of vanilla ice cream too, just to keep everybody happy. And for a quasi<\d>petits fours fix, how about a selection of candies ($7), including burnt caramels, nougat, and flavored almonds, from the Miette shop just down the block?
Essencia’s high pedigree suggests that it will grow, somewhere, somehow, but for the moment a big part of the restaurant’s charm is its smallness. And the choicest seats in the house could be at the trapezoidal table for two behind the entryway. It’s the restaurant’s equivalent of the newlyweds’ suite.*
Lunch, Mon.Sat., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.Sat., 510 p.m.
401 Gough, SF
Beer and wine