It seemed a while ago everyone was trumpeting the new trend of Peruvian food, with places like Destino, then Limon and Mochica dotting various neighborhoods around the city, along with places like Mi Lindo Peru and Karamanduka, two Peruvian outposts I have yet to visit. Perhaps wave two has started, with even more openings, like Inka's in the Outer Mission, Piqueo's in Bernal, and now ~ESSENCIA~ cropping up in Hayes Valley. What is definitely going to differentiate Essencia from the pack, however, is its Cali approach, thanks to Anne Gingrass, formerly of Postrio, Hawthorne Lane, and Desirée, who is the executive chef and a partner in the restaurant. Gingrass has partnered with Carmen and Juan Cespedes, who are from Lima.
The menu borders on compact, but then again, the space is not exactly what I'd call sprawling--the two jive well together. It's a corner space, with tall windows that look out onto busy Gough Street, with well-heeled shoppers strolling by on Hayes or opera-goers hustling off to a performance. (So for the record, this is not the place to dine if you are trying to have a clandestine din din with your lover--you'll be practically on display like a "lady" in Amsterdam's Red Light District.)
The room has a "native modern" look, with gleaming acacia wood tables, patterned banquettes, and I hate to insult the artist, but the enormous painting on the wall with the bounding deer is just not right. Is it a coincidence the leaf-patterned lampshades remind me of the upholstery on the old Hawthorne Lane banquettes? Perhaps.
To the vittles! The menu begins with three different ceviches--my pal and I started with the kampachi topped with a creamy hot yellow pepper sauce ($12). The first thing I noticed is the menu only has a few Peruvian terms on it, so what would be an aji amarillo sauce elsewhere is called a hot yellow pepper sauce here. Personally, I think San Francisco diners are cosmopolitan and curious enough to want to know the authentic names for dishes and ingredients, but then again, I understand the contemporary California perspective of the menu.
Anyway, back to that ceviche--it might be a little heavy on the sauce for some, but what a sauce it was, kicky and smooth, made with evaporated milk, lime juice, and ginger. There was more than enough to enjoy it with the accompanying salad of frisee, cucumber, yam, and giant corn.
We then proceeded to the skewers of grilled beef hearts ($7), always a fave of mine--these were cooked a la plancha, with a tangy cabernet vinegar sauce and a side of bell peppers with a hit of lime. How primal: BEEF HEARTS! You could really note the quality of the beef in this dish (from Marin Sun Farms), versus some of the less than stellar beef you tend to get at the more hole-in-the-wall/mom and pop joints.
The chilled artichoke stuffed with quinoa salad ($12) was refreshing and had swell flavor, but the 'choke had some definitively tough leaves going on. I did love the frizzled shallots and pool of huacatay sauce, which they actually call parsley on the menu--huacatay is known as Peruvian black mint, a tangy herb that I want to get to know better. Why, hello.
My friend went for the pork medallion "tacu tacu" ($19.50), a total extravaganza of flavor. The three breaded pork medallions are made of pork shoulder cooked with spices and pureed onion, and come topped with a quail egg and meow, bacon, plus there's a scoop of lentils, and a mash of golden lentils that was almost like a dal. The entire spread was hearty, savory, and my friend ate every single gosh-darned bite. Pork has that effect on people.
I went for the chicken with pecans, coarsely shredded Parmesan, and that yellow pepper sauce ($23.50). While it came with a side of rice kept hot in a little Le Creuset casserole, this was the kind of dish I would have preferred to share instead of sit down to all by my lonesome--it was rather rich.
The menu includes some classics, like lomo saltado ($26.75), plus a leg of lamb ($25), and pure to Peruvian form, three seafood dishes, including a traditional chowder I was curious about. Oh, and feel free to ask for the house-made hot sauce if you want a little extra zing. (You like it hot, doncha?)
For dessert, the orange pisco Madeleines with homemade vanilla ice cream ($7) were the clear winner (yay pisco), although the delicate alfajores ($4.5) with their surprise filling of caramel and coconut were also tasty. I think some folks may be challenged by the dense lucuma flan ($6.50)--while authentic, it's not like the silky custardy flans we tend to expect.
The wines pair well with all this zesty food, with a number of choices from Spain and Argentina. We liked all the wines we drank, and the by-the-glass prices are also friendly, with most hitting at $7-$8 a glass. Our server, for what she lacked in finesse on small points (like pouring the very very end of a bottle of wine in my glass until it was completely vertical over my glass), she made up for in enthusiasm. Everyone here is quite friendly and nice, in fact.
I have been curious about lunch, to wit, the roast pork loin sandwich ($11.35). (Are you surprised?) Speaking of the lunch menu, it has a number of tasty-sounding sandwiches that, while veering a bit from the Peruvian provenance (triple turkey and walnut salad with avocado?), if I was looking for a spot in the neighborhood for a bite, this place would be a good candidate. Also some soups and large salads are available too, like sea bass with a smoked paprika vinaigrette and escarole ($13). Throw in some outdoor seating and heaters, and Essencia is well poised to add some much-needed sabor to the Hayes Valley dining scene.
401 Gough St.
Cross: Hayes St.
San Francisco, CA 94102