Fussy Fusion

Limón still delights, but at the new Circolo, Nuevo Latino seems old

My education in Peruvian food was carried out, most enjoyably, at two modest restaurants in Los Angeles, one on the west side (but only just), one on the east side (ditto), separated by some 10 miles but sharing certain similarities: Both were in small strip malls and both featured large portions of tasty food at reasonable prices. At El Pollo Inka, you ate papas a la huancaina, firm slices of boiled potato in bland cheese sauce, followed by delicious rotisserie chicken, washed down with chicha morada, a sweet drink made from purple corn. At Mario's Peruvian & Seafood, you ate raw seafood bathed in citrus juices and amped with chilies to make firm seviches, followed by boiled mussels with onions, fried fish fillets, and tomato-y fish stews and sautés. Both restaurants were very popular and relentlessly unchic.

Here in San Francisco, I recently traveled to the 2-year-old Limón, a restaurant that identifies itself as Peruvian-Nuevo Latino, as research. Executive chef/owner Martin Castillo, who created Limón with the help of practically his entire family (mom Luz; sister Ana and her husband, Aldo; and his brother chefs Antonio and Eduardo -- veterans, like Martin, of such famous S.F. restaurant kitchens as Rubicon and Aqua), was opening a fancy new place called Circolo, and I figured I should taste the food at his more humble spot in the Mission, where it is still a bit surprising to find pricey, ambitious restaurants steps away from thrift stores and taquerias.

Limón is on the small side (about 40 seats available at closely packed tables in two minimally decorated but chic storefront rooms, painted in acidic citrus tones), and it is completely full on this Sunday night. I get a table for four, set against the window of the first and smaller room, with a clear view into the hot, bustling open kitchen. I peruse the menu while waiting for Garrett and Hannah: Here are chicha morada (I immediately order a glass), papas a la huancaina, three different seviches, and a fish stew identified as "Peruvian bouillabaisse," among other interesting items. The prices are not all that much higher than at the Peruvian places I once frequented. I feel at home (even though there is no rotisserie chicken).

Circolo's stylish, somewhat hard-edged 
space.
Anthony Pidgeon
Circolo's stylish, somewhat hard-edged space.

Location Info

Map

Circolo

500 Florida
San Francisco, CA 94110

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights

Details

Limón
Chicha morada $3
Papas a la huancaina $5.25
Calamares fritos $8.25
Chuleton Carlitos $15.25

Circolo
Plantain soufflé $9
Seafood trio $19
Coconut flan $9

Limón, 3316 17th St. (at Mission), 252-0918. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday until 10:30 p.m. Open Saturday from noon to 10:30 p.m., Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 33, 49. Noise level: moderate to high.

Circolo, 500 Florida (at Mariposa), 553-8560. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Monday through Wednesday from 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday until 11 p.m. Limited lounge menu available Monday through Wednesday from 5 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult during the day, easy at night. Muni: 27. Noise level: moderate to high.

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When my guests arrive, they are as stylish as the setting, Garrett in a bright-green sweater dotted with tiny bright-blue marlins, which doesn't look ironic but witty and colorful, and Hannah, whom I remembered as a long-haired beauty, now sporting a crop as short as Maria Falconetti's in The Passion of Joan of Arc. They came to play, however, and we swiftly order starters of calamares fritos, seviche, and (of course) my favorite potato dish. The fried calamari, a mountainous heap, is divine: Its pale batter is thin and crackling, unexpectedly sprinkled with sesame seeds, and the chipotle aioli alongside is smoky as well as garlicky. The papas, too, have an extra kick -- the thick, silky cheese sauce blanketing the cold sliced potatoes is heated with aji amarillo chili powder. The seviche Limón platter -- halibut, shrimp, octopus, calamari, and mussels in the shell, dressed with floods of lime juice -- is garnished with steamed yam and crunchy parched kernels of corn.

We continue with chuleton Carlitos, a massive, thick pork chop served over a tasty hash of cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms, and bacon -- yum -- and the nightly fish special, gently cooked wild salmon napped with a colorful sofrito of onions and peppers. I ask our waiter to help me choose between the bouillabaisse and a grilled fillet of lamb served with plantains and something I'd never seen before called tacu-tacu (described as a rice and lentil cake), but he steers me instead toward the churrasco ala parilla, a beautiful grilled rib-eye steak accompanied by roasted purple potatoes, grilled asparagus, a parsley-and-garlic chimichurri relish, and mustard sauce. I give in to meat hunger and enjoy every bite (until I give up, taking half of the 12-ounce chunk home). The entrees taste less familiarly Peruvian than our first courses: This is sophisticated modern cooking, with Latin accents.

Our desserts are similarly cosmopolitan -- good, but not as exciting as what came before. Chocolate bandido is a flourless chocolate cake served with a ball of dulce de leche ice cream; budin de durazno is peach bread pudding with warm caramel sauce; and the helado (ice cream) de lucuma (a tart Peruvian fruit) disappointingly tastes like nothing at all.

But the sweets are the only real disappointment of the evening, leaving me with high hopes for my dinner with Ruby at Circolo, where Martin and Antonio Castillo have devised a menu of what they call Nuevo Latino-Asian cuisine. (The talent joining them in the kitchen includes veterans of Sol y Luna, Aqua, and Asia de Cuba.) Circolo has taken over the two-story space that was once Gordon's House of Fine Eats, and its ambitions include live music on the weekends, dancing in a separate room, and a lounge that serves food until 1 a.m.

A good dinner will suffice for us, however. We head over for our 9:15 reservation after seeing the gripping Heir to an Execution, a documentary about the Rosenbergs by their granddaughter Ivy Meeropol, at the Jewish Film Festival. Ruby, whose dream is to open a restaurant of her own someday, is a sponge. She's impressed by the stylish, somewhat hard-edged space (the lounge separated from the dining room by a rippling curtain of metallic mesh, the big bar backed with a wall of colored light that subtly changes from blue to green and back again). She wants to know how it's different from the previous décor; I note that the long banquettes have disappeared, replaced by neat rows of tables and chairs, for a less intimate feeling. On this Wednesday night, the place is not even half full and doesn't have the electric feeling that Gordon's did when it was in full swing.

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