It's no secret that boutique hotels rely on more than room amenities and mini-bars stocked with premium products. Big budget restaurateurs sign on to properties, and sometimes the restaurant's buildup surpasses that of the hotel.
In the case of the Catahoula Hotel, a polished space tucked on a side street in the Central Business District, the Pisco Bar lives up to the hype. Food and Beverage Director Nathan Dalton built a bar program around pisco, the grape-based South American liquor, and drinks go well beyond the familiar pisco sour. The refreshing chilcano, made with ginger beer, is a great summertime drink.
The restaurant, on the other hand, has a way to go. The menu is limited in size and feels like an afterthought, though the hotel's management has indicated that a larger, more sophisticated set-up is in the works. In the meantime, there is no table service, and diners order at the bar from a short menu of appetizers and small plates.
Starters include a beautiful palta rellena — avocado and Gulf shrimp nestled in a bowl of lettuce tossed with bright pink radish slices and ribbons of red bell pepper and carrots. Also good is the gazpacho, a silky, sweet soup with glistening olive oil slicks on the surface that tastes like it was pumped full of sun-kissed tomatoes and red bell peppers.
Pisco finds its way across the bar and into the butifarra sandwich — a spirit-marinated roasted pork medley that fills a dense, flour-dusted roll. The kitchen folds in butter lettuce, pickled radishes, onions, mayonnaise and salsa criollo, a tart mixture of thinly shaved red onions and sweet red peppers doused with lime juice and aji amarillo, Peru's powerhouse hot pepper.
Potatoes, a pillar of the South American cuisine, feature strongly, forming the back-bone of a list of causas — cold mashed potato cakes traditionally topped with hard-boiled eggs and olives. Here, the kitchen offers six versions, using them as the base for a bounty of fresh and colorful ingredients. While I wasn't impressed with the cakes (I couldn't get over the mental image of eating leftover cold mashed potatoes the day after a major holiday), it's the delicate arrangements crowning the mash that demonstrate the kitchen's creative flair.
Bright crimson tomato confit is topped with thin ribbons of red and green bell peppers and thinly sliced pickled red onions, while another version packs on shiitake mushrooms and avocado slices slathered in a light pink crema de rocoto, a decadent sauce made with onions, red rocoto peppers, lime juice and olive oil.
Traditional Peruvian ceviche features thick wedges of sweet potatoes and puffed corn kernels, and the versions here adhere to that model. A Gulf tuna mix features citrusy chunks of the fish tossed with seaweed strips, chewy corn kernels, canchita (puffed corn bits) and cilantro — a colorful combination of flavors and texture. Best of all, though, is the leche de tigre pooled in the bowl at the end. For an extra $4, servers will add the juices to a shot of pisco — quite possibly the world's best hangover cure.
Some items fall flat. On one occasion, the fish in the ceviche was tough and gummy, and the guacamole appetizer was overly spicy and arrived with stale tortilla chips.
Though the menu needs some fine-tuning, there's a solid foundation here for a good primer on Peruvian cuisine.