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.
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