By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
If I had to choose the two things I love most about my friends Vincenzo and Alexandra, I suppose I'd select the following: 1) They're a happily married couple and exude the comfortable, satisfied aura of people who've found their ideal mates, and 2) Like many residents of this fair city, they're foodies, which means that every time we get together the conversation inevitably turns to the joys of adobo short ribs and tender oxtails, the truly fabulous specials at Caffe Macaroni, the finer points of margarita-making, the complete and utter wonderfulness of breaking bread with friends, and then the subject with which I can personally overwhelm any conversation -- namely, what does it take to open a successful eatery amid the unforgivingly competitive San Francisco restaurant scene?
My thoughts on the matter run as follows: It takes a lot of guts even to try. Then it takes money, of course, and the right location, the right concept for that location, and a clever -- or at least non-cringe-inducing -- name. It takes competent service (preferably splendid), good food (preferably excellent), reasonable prices, tasty libations, pleasant ambience, and -- a huge one for many -- immaculate bathrooms. It takes a dogged persistence, and consistency (for regular customers), plus either foot traffic or a draw -- or both, ideally. To earn this critic's approval, adequate stemware is key. Finally, and most importantly, it takes a certain intangible that speaks of a love of all things culinary, of a house where hospitality is the rule. It's a vibe, in other words, as unmistakable as rain, and I was feeling it quite thoroughly at Destino.
Set on the relatively tranquil stretch of Upper Market surrounded by the Lower Haight, Hayes Valley, the Castro, and the Mission, Destino would appear to have found its niche. It's billed as a "Nuevo Latino Bistro" -- Nuevo Latino being the potentially risky fusion of Spanish, Central American, and South American cuisines with European techniques. The mix adds up to a chic, homey spot where traditional Peruvian dishes meet a tasteful style of innovation.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: South of Market
Cebiche a la Peruana $9
Arepas with goat cheese $7.50
Blue nose sea bass $17.50
Beer-braised duck $17.50
Latino Lover cake $5.25
Inca Kola $2
Cavas de Chacras syrah $22
As I stepped into Destino, it was hard not to think that the place is decorated exactly how it should be. Warm, burnt-orange walls fill a cozy dining room with a hearthlike glow, while slow-burning icon candles, a small oil lamp at each table, tremendous mirrors, and a gorgeous, multiarmed chandelier strike notes ranging from baroque to modern. At 8 p.m. on a Monday, the crowd was sparse, conjuring images of the last Nuevo Latino place I reviewed (Che), which was pretty good when I visited in January yet has since closed. I sipped a grapey, sweet, white sangria as I waited for Vincenzo and Alexandra, who brought the customer count into the double digits.
Things started quite splendidly. Our table bore a plate of sliced baguettes and a tingling/fiery aji amarillo (Peruvian for "yellow pepper") sauce; the music -- Latin, of course -- was lively, but non-intrusive; and our waiter may well have been Superman (more on that later). Even the short, affordable wine list bespoke a class operation, yielding an impressive Argentine Cavas de Chacras syrah -- dry, earthy, and gorgeously well rounded, with undertones of tobacco and cool evening wind. Since she'd never succumbed to the pleasures of "the golden carbonated beverage," Alexandra simply had to try an Inca Kola, an electric green brew that tastes vaguely of cream soda. She claimed not to like it at first, but was chugging it with wild abandon by evening's end.
Peru is definitely in the house at Destino. Like similar versions at either of the two Fina Estampas, Destino's cebiche a la Peruana proved one of the few dishes in this city more electrifying than my own supra-piquant Five Tang Soup (patent pending). Tender, lime-cured whitefish and red onions burned exquisitely under a dusting of aji amarillo, while roasted corn kernels provided the ideal counterpart, overcoming the seviche's razor-sharp acidity with a dry, smoky pop.
Colombian arepas provided our first taste of Destino's style of fusion -- crisp cornmeal biscuits filled with a mild goat cheese, then served with a chunky corn and tomato salsa. Since the arepas themselves were a bit dry, a more liquefied salsa might have been in order. Still, they were good, as were the empanadas rellenas -- small pastries stuffed with rich, savory minced pork loin, served with a sweet cinnamon dipping sauce and spaghettilike ropes of shredded, cinnamon-dusted chayote, a mild, gourdlike squash popular among Mayans, Aztecs, myself, and, from what I've seen thus far, Vincenzo and Alexandra.
The anticuchos were the highlight, though, particularly for Vincenzo. If somehow a person walked into Destino and began eating anticuchos without knowing what they were, that person might imagine they were enjoying kebabs of tender, flavorful, slightly citrusy marinated beef -- and they'd be right. Except that anticuchos are made from beef heart, suffused with the pungent savor that characterizes so many fine organ meats (a leg of lamb version is also available). A side of french fries and corn on the cob rounded out the plate, although the finest combination was a bite of anticuchos followed by a sip of Argentine syrah.