In many major U.S. cities, the most visible Peruvian cultural imports are those poncho-draped guys with the pan flutes. But Chicago is home to a significant Peruvian population that supports at least nine endemic restaurants—some very good. So anyone with knowledge of them can be forgiven for initially viewing the landing of Peruvian star chef Gastón Acurio and his pan-Peruvian Tanta with the same skepticism that greeted (and chased out) carpetbagging celebs like Laurent Tourondel who plant their brands without bothering to figure out what Chicagoans seek out or, more importantly, need in their restaurants.
Acurio is the man behind an imperial 30-some restaurants worldwide, positioning himself as the international ambassador for a wildly syncretic cuisine that prognosticators have begun to claim will supplant the foraged food of Scandinavia as the Next Big Thing. That's not without merit. Peruvian food is the result of a stew of influences, from indigenous Andeans, Spanish colonizers, and Chinese, Japanese, and Italian immigrants, that's had hundreds of years to mature into legitimacy. It was fusion before fusion was cool—and then uncool.
But then Acurio's target audience isn't his expatriate countrymen, or even intrepid eaters unafraid to venture deep into Chicago's neighborhoods. So if you take his mission seriously, it seems cagey that he would touch down in River North, where risk comes to get hammered and slur the lyrics to "Blurred Lines." The neighborhood needs Tanta's sampler of the keystones of Peruvian cuisine, with its variety of ceviches (here spelled cebiches), street food skewers, pollo a la brasa, hearty meatcentric entrees, and its heavy representation of Nikkei cuisine—the food developed by Japanese immigrants who began arriving in Peru in the late 19th century.
The potato came from the Andes, so there's a lot of that on the menu too, most notably in the form of causitas: cold, bite-size, nigiri-like cylinders of whipped potato, lime, and aji amarillo chile paste, topped with raw seafood and one of the creamy chile-based sauces that brighten many of these dishes. Over half the menu consists of one-bite items like these, or dishes that are easily shareable for two or more, such as the skewered anticuchos, like grilled octopus with fried sweet potato, creamy kalamata olive sauce, and the minty herb known as huacatay. Or more recognizably, steaklike slabs of grilled beef heart dabbed with chimichurri, sprinkled with fat Andean corn kernels, and served with nuggets of crispy-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the inside fried potato.
Tanta's ceviches alone put it in a class by itself, each a distinct rendition of the form, each intensely acidic, but seasoned and brightly colored with a variety of flavors, like a catch-of-the-day squid-shrimp mixture bathed in lime and red rocoto pepper, or a distinctly Japanese-style tuna with avocado and tamarind, or, most extravagantly, the "power," with uni, crab, scallop, and oysters, the softer creatures in the mix balanced out with snappy oversize kernels of Peruvian corn, or choclo. Some diners might have trouble distinguishing between these and another category called tiraditos, in which the fish are sliced sashimi style and dressed in similarly acidic but more fulsome sauces. One evening a special scallop version, bathing in creamy aji amarillo, was garnished with crunchy corn kernels and bites of sweet potato that had the textural strength to stand up to the powerful acidity.
A subset of these dishes falls under the category leche de tigre, or "milk of the tiger," typically the remnant of ceviche's citrus, lime, and chile marinade, used as a hangover curative—here they're served in rocks glasses with their own small portion of seafood. But all of these dishes are heavy on the liquid, and so likable they almost beg for something starchy to soak them up. A side of the house's buttery white rice tossed with choclo—served with the pollo a la brasa—would do the trick.
Tanta offers tastings of most of these smaller bites, which is a smart way to go if you expect to explore any of the larger dishes, especially—and I strongly urge this—the chaufa aeropuerto, Peru's answer to fried rice: an ample portion of pork fried rice topped with a shrimp omelet in a stone bowl. It's tossed at the table so the crispy bits of rice that stick to the bottom of the bowl amalgamate with the rest, producing a textural magic only found in the most skillfully prepared Korean dolsot bibimbap or Spanish paella.
The Chinese impact on Peru is also evident in dishes like lomo saltado, strips of tender beef, onions, and tomatoes, stir-fried and topped with thick-cut fries, and again with paiche, an Amazonian river fish given a (mildy) sweet-and-sour treatment.
Peru's cultural diversity is less obvious, but no less satisfying, in hearty stews like the shrimp and potato chowder chupe, or carapulcra, a fatty, rib-sticking platter of rehydrated sun-dried potatoes and luscious bone-in pork belly, nearly cassoulet-like in its richness. Or the country's most accessible culinary export, rotisserie chicken: pollo a la brasa is at the bottom of the menu, almost as an afterthought, but it's juicy and succulent, one of the best versions in town, served with three different sauces, a side of stewy white beans, a generous portion of roasted potatoes, salad, and rice. It's a complete family-style meal that in itself deserves an outing.
A number of pisco-based cocktails headline a mostly intriguing list, well executed for a high-volume bar. It's worthy of exploration, but steer clear of the classic pisco sour—whatever they're using for egg white smells as sulfurous as a natural gas leak. And desserts are a little less consistently admirable. While orbs of toasted quinoa ooze molten chocolate alongside a gently perfumed tea-lime-lemongrass ice cream, and fresh, hot pumpkin-sweet potato fritters are the boutique doughnut the city's been waiting for, a cheese-based ice cream is too crystallized, and the flavor of an oatmeal-topped purple corn and quince pie doesn't match the intensity of its vivid color—or nearly anything else that comes out of the kitchen.
Even with the breadth and diversity of this menu, folks who know Peruvian food might find themselves wondering, "Where's the cuy?" Maybe Acurio will introduce roasted guinea pig in his next venture. For now Tanta is a place that deserves multiple visits before one can properly appreciate the extent of its powers. But one meal alone should be all it takes to convince anyone that it's one of the most exciting and eye-opening new restaurants of the year.