This Peruvian hot spot has gone through several changes -- but its dishes remain brightly seasoned and eminently shareable
DINE In our epoch of wood-fired chic, gas-fired sounds, well, ordinary. If you have a barbecue at home, it's more than likely gas-fired. Gas is cleaner, cheaper, and lights instantly, at the push of a button, without fuss. It's the barbecue equivalent of an automatic transmission. Charcoal, on the other hand — to say nothing of actual wood — is a balky and oversensitive stick shift: tricky to start and unpredictable once started. If you lay too hot a fire, you're stuck; you can't just turn a dial (or downshift) to tame the inferno. Yet, just as a manual tranny is more absorbing and fun to drive than an automatic, charcoal and wood do impart character to food that gas doesn't. They're worth the trouble, provided it's someone else's trouble.
In this sense, it isn't a huge surprise that restaurants have been touting their wood- or charcoal-burning bona fides, their grills and pizza ovens. They're in a much stronger position to stoke the necessary apparatus, and there is presumably strong and steady demand from a public that has largely abandoned charcoal for gas in their home barbies. What does come as a bit of a surprise is that a fairly high-profile restaurant — one bearing the magic name of Limon, as in, Limon Rotisserie — makes a conspicuous display of its brasa, the gas-fired rotisserie on which dozens of chickens are, at any given moment, being roasted in the Peruvian style. It looks like a modern version of one of Mark Twain's riverboat steamers, with jumping blue flames and the birds turning as if on a paddlewheel.
The evolution of the Limon franchise has been among the more stirring in recent memory. Martin Castillo opened the original Limon in 2002 in a modest 17th Street space now occupied by Maverick. A few years later it moved to grander digs in the heart of the Valencia corridor, with prices and tone rising accordingly. Limon Rotisserie isn't exactly a throwback, but it does restore roast chicken to pride of place.
And the chicken is really splendid — a reminder of how good this most modest of birds can be if seasoned and cooked with care. A half-bird costs just $9.95 (including two sides) and arrived with crisp skin and cooked-through flesh that was still juicy. The juiciness surely had to do in part with the marinade, whose undisclosed ingredients had to include lemon and garlic, along with (I'm guessing now) cumin and paprika. Nothing about the bird seemed complex or exotic yet the result was sublime. Roast chicken is underrated; if done right, it's simple, elegant, and memorable.
If the sides don't make quite the same splash, they do offer variety, including fries in several forms (potato, yucca, sweet potato), tacu-tacu (wonderful rice-and-beans croquettes), and vegetales salteados (basically a quick sauté of green and yellow-wax beans).
Outside of the rotisserie, there is a wealth of ceviches, including a version with red snapper (pescado, $9.75), another with whitefish, calamari, and tiger shrimp (mixto, $9.75), and a soupy cocktail of seafood dice ($4.75) served in a heavy highball glass. All the ceviches are made with what the menu calls leche de tigre, a citrus-based marinade; yet despite this implication of acid, I found them all too salty. And if I find it too salty, it must really be salty. A little sugar (maybe from orange juice) might have helped pull the marinade into better trim and more complexity.
The restaurant's menu scheme stresses shareability, so the kitchen turns out a wealth of small plates. Notable was the seco de costillas ($8.95), boneless flaps of braised (beef) short rib in a sauce dotted with carrots and peas, like beef Burgundy, but with huacatay (a pungent Peruvian herb) and cilantro. Then there was jalea ($9.75), a kind of relative of fritto misto, with batter-fried calamari rings and shrimp with salsa criolla and huacatay tartar sauce.
Despite a certain perfunctory quality, the dessert menu does offer a stellar possibility: the chocolate bandido ($7.25), a warm chocolate cake with brandy sauce and crème anglaise. The simplicity is deceptive and wise, because the chocolate is an engulfing experience, texturally somewhere between cake and fudge and of a singular intensity, like dark sexual heat. When you have chocolate like this, you really don't care if the pastry chef has scattered some berries on the plate or made artful doodles with mint cream. No: you're a fastball pitcher, you bring the heat. Let the batter worry about getting some wood on it.
Daily: noon–10:30 p.m.
1001 S. Van Ness, SF
Beer and wine