I love trying new restaurants, and I love to eat interesting food. Lucky for me, DC has a pretty good restaurant scene, and the king of that scene would be José Andrés. He has so many delicious restaurants in the city, and I’ve visited nearly all of them (Barmini still eludes me). I also have a history of seeing him in various restaurants (or walking near them) – outside Jaleo, inside Oyamel. And on Wednesday night when the boy and I went out for dinner, I spotted Mr. Andrés sitting, talking and eating with a colleague, and was able to point him out to the boy, just as Mr. Andrés left at the beginning of the dinner rush. Since most of his restaurants are centrally located, he probably walks among them all fairly often, but it’s still a thrill to see a DC celebrity out and about. And since that’s really the only kind of celebrity I ever see, I’ll take it.
So – on to the review. We chose China Chilcano because it was close to the theater we’d be attending later, and neither of us had been before, which is not surprising since our server informed us as we sat down that it opened just about a year ago. It’s a fusion restaurant, but one that’s based in history, which makes a lot of sense to me. It’s also small plates, which is a signature Andrés thing to do, since he is a Spaniard, and his first big restaurant successes were tapas.
But you’re here for the food too, right? Let’s get to it. The menu is a little confusing to read. It assumed familiarity with dim sum dishes, which is not something I have, so a few of the items on the menu were right out just because I didn’t know what they were. Yes, I could ask, but isn’t the point of the menu to give you an idea of what you’re eating? One should not have to google the name of an item just to figure out what kind of dish it is. Our server (David) told us that 2-3 dishes is normal for the small plates style, so we ordered a few across the menu.
(Oh, and apologies right now for the super yellow pictures – as you can maybe see from the feature photo, the restaurant is lit with yellow neon lights, so everything has a golden glow, whether you want it to or not. And since I’m not a fan of flash – especially in restaurants – you’ll have to excuse me.)
The meal started out with cancha – small, partially popped corn in the vein of corn nuts, but fancy. The boy wasn’t a fan – “too mealy” was his comment – but as someone who was tricked by Whole Foods into trying and LOVING quicos, I was totally on board. I ate probably 3/4 of the bowl, and it was the perfect starter to get you in the mood without filling you up. I also ordered a Chilcano, and it was tart and delicious, and especially nice while eating all my salty canchas. More pisco drinks, please!
Next up was BBQ Eel Nigiri. The boy accidentally asked for 2 orders of this, but it wasn’t a big deal, because they were super delicious. The eel was smoky, and whatever the little blob on the top was tasted bright and added a zing as you ate. I probably could have eaten about six more of these, but we had other food coming.
Next up was the Ceviche Nikkei. Ceviche can be a little intimidating if you think about it – uncooked chopped fish? Whose only real “cooking” preparation is the lemon juice that (hopefully) kills any germs? It’s actually not so scary if you consider it as the Latin American version of sushi – it’s just got a little extra garnish. This one had nice chunks of avocado and jicama in addition to the tuna, and it was so tasty. As you can see in the picture, there was a lot of sauce action going on, which may have been my only complaint, but otherwise, delicious.
Next to our table was Lengua de Pato, or duck tongue. I know – you’re probably making crazy eyes at your screen right now, or else wondering how much tongue there is on a duck to eat. The boy felt the same way and made similar comments to me. But growing up in a family where we ate lots of interesting cuts and types of meat, I was intrigued, and convinced the boy that really, it wouldn’t be a lot, and it would be an adventure. And it was SUCH a good choice. The lengua (originally served on a skewer that I removed quickly before realizing I ought to take a picture) was both fatty and crispy with sweet little gooseberries that melted on your tongue. The little stack of potatoes that accompanied it was salty and perfectly satisfying. It feels weird to say I would go back and order batches and batches of duck tongue, but I probably would.
And this is where my food photos end, because we were in a hurry, and I was distracted by the deliciousness of the next two dishes. Aeropuerto – basically vegetable fried rice – was very good, but not super exciting. I think the restaurant knew this, because as we ate, I spotted a carrot (or one of 20 vegetables that claim to be in the dish) cut into the shape of an airplane, which is super cute considering “aeropuerto” is spanish for “airport”. The boy jokily zoomed that bite into his mouth for a landing.
Our final dish of the evening was Lomo Saltado, which is basically super yummy steak. Guys, this was SO SO good. And since it was the end of our meal, it capped things off perfectly. The meat was extra flavorful, and the marinade just soaked into all the other parts of the dish, including sliced peppers that just sang in my mouth.
We sort of inhaled our food at this point since we were nearly late for the theater, but when we figured out we could pay using the OpenTable app, it made the payment process a lot faster. We had an interesting conversation with David about the state of restaurants – he thinks that with the rise of gig economy services like Uber, that a lot more things will be customer controlled – like ordering through iPads at restaurant (he mentioned one at Reagan Airport that does this now). I’d recently listened to a podcast with the host of Bar Rescue, and he decried that same idea – the point of restaurants being that people go out to eat partly to have that easy, human interaction with restaurant staff, and taking that away makes the experience somehow less. David seemed to think it was a good idea – I’m not sure. Anyone else out there with an opinion?
So – final review time. I’m not going to give stars, because starting from scratch on this website doesn’t really make that easy – what if I rate it too high or too low compared to other experiences, and the entire scale is biased? No, I think it comes down to two questions: did I enjoy the experience, and would I go back? The first was a yes (if you didn’t get that by now, I haven’t expressed myself appropriately), with the caveat that it was a bit on the expensive side. The small plates restaurants really get you with pricing, because while they tell you to order 2-3 plates per person, the pricing on those plates does not correlate to pricing on one large entree at another restaurant. But would I go back? In a heartbeat. This place has “replayability” – there were so many things on the menu that looked good, and so many combinations that it would feel like a new and different restaurant every time. And with a solid first visit, I look forward to when we return.