Even in this economy, there are celebrations and times to splurge. Still, you want to feel your money was well-spent and worth the pinching elsewhere to make it happen.
Chifa Restaurant, the 4-week-old addition to Jose Garces' stable of small plate restaurants riffing on Latin flavors, looks as though it is up to the challenge.
Chifa is named for an authentic cuisine in Peru and was created by Cantonese immigrants using Latin ingredients to make dishes of their homeland.
Garces, who has three other restaurants in the city, describes his chef de cuisine Chad Williams as indispensable. The two traveled with the kitchen team to Peru so everyone experienced this regional cuisine firsthand.
While you are perusing Chifa's menu you'll be treated to puffy fried cheese rolls with spicy guava butter. You'll need the sustenance to pick and choose in nine categories as well as some specials. If choice is too overwhelming, a $65 tasting menu picks a rotating monthly sampling of 10 dishes that includes a dessert.
The ceviches are an ideal place to start. They are divided into tiraditos (a Peruvian version that is thinly sliced raw fish) and mixtos (commonly found in Peru and Ecuador, they can contain fish, but are mainly prepared with shellfish).
The Hiramasa ($10) was the more recognizable ceviche style, but much more complex with aromatic ginger and strips of what we were told was sweet potato.
The Peruvian ($9) featured corvina fish, and was a fine example of how Garces composes textures in a substantial way. The side of corn nuts were a great bar snack contrast to the sweet, delicate fish.
The Duck Ceviche ($12) was another example of Garces' style. When the waitress described it as duck confit with cherry puree and toasted brioche, we thought, "OK, now he is going too far with the play on ingredients."
But not so, the flavors and textures were in perfect balance.
According to Garces the Chicken Wings ($9) took 16 trials to elevate this bar food to the tender chicken bites that were stuffed and basted in a true Cantonese flavored glaze of sesame oil, chile, soy and lime. It was worth the effort.
In the Dim Sum category we raved about the Pork Belly Buns ($8). These were perfectly steamed and tender buns stuffed with hoisin-flavored pork belly.
The Duck Noodles ($11) displayed an amazing dried mushroom earthiness and the broth was perfumed and clean in flavor. Tender slices of mid-rare Muscovy duck breast garnished the top.
If there were two dishes that demonstrated what Chifa as interpreted by Garces is all about it would be the Desayuno ($8.50) and the Chaufa Rice ($9).
The Desayuno (which means breakfast) is based in Garces' childhood because his mother would make the arepa masa corn cake almost every day. The spin is to stuff it with oxtail, an element that Garces believes is misunderstood, and top it with a poached egg. You would think the egg yolk and the oxtail would be too rich, but it was decadently perfect.
The Chaufa Rice ($9) sums up the traditional Peruvian/Asian blend. This marries the two flavor systems (chorizo, mango, seafood/soy, edamame, five-spice) very well and had a hotpot feel to it.
Desserts are made in-house by Ann Giles and continue the fusion riff. I was skeptical, but the Green Tea and Melon Cake ($8) worked, although I think some might find the frosting overwhelms the cake. Not a good ying and yang, as one taster commented. However, the deconstructed root beer float ($8) surprised us with a house-made fresh root beer and arroz con leche ice cream.
On the whole service was excellent. I was very impressed by one server's command of the menu, understanding of the concept (key for a menu like that) and grasp of the wine. However, there were missteps at other times with another server. While that is par for the course with such a young restaurant, I hope everyone will get up to speed quickly.
The wine list is well-priced and intelligently aligned with the food.
While it is very big on South American wineries, there is also a smart focus on Alsatian/German bottles that pair beautifully with Asian flavors.
The cocktail menu is well conceived and extends the play on flavors. For example, the classic sidecar morphed into a refreshing blend of Courvoisier, black tea and orange juice ($12).
One caveat - the offerings of small plates to share is my favorite way to dine, but you can wind up with sticker shock at the end of the meal. And it would be so easy to say, "We'll have another plate of Pork Buns." Don't let your stomach fool your wallet.