Friday, March 19, 2010

Chavin Peruvian Bistro

The advent of spring marks a turning point in the lives of many people, most notably, those who live in regions of the country where they actually experience a change of seasons. Stamford is no different. That could explain why, on the eve of the first day of spring, volumes of people were out wandering the streets on the cusp of downtown Stamford. True, it was still technically winter and the official onset of the Vernal Equinox was still eighteen hours away at 1:32 p.m. EDT, but it’s that sense of anticipation that brings people out.

It was the same with me and my husband since we had planned—all week long—to make Friday the day to finally try a relatively new Peruvian restaurant in Stamford. We had only seen Chavin from the outside, but there was something about that slightly quirky blinking “OPEN” sign that intrigued us, even if it did border on being cheesy.

We were assured by telephone just a few minutes before going out that, yes, they were indeed open, but as we walked inside, I had my doubts. There was no one in sight. An electronic bell chimed above the door as we entered, but no one immediately came out to greet us, and all kinds of stupid thoughts were running through my head (they were being burglarized in the back and were, at that very moment, being bound and gagged by the perpetrators; everyone had fallen asleep; the entire staff decided to walk out in protest, etc.). To make matters more suspicious, there wasn’t a single customer in sight.

I looked at Maarten as he craned his neck to try and see all the way towards the back of the restaurant. We got nothin’. We were about to turn around and leave when a gentleman rushed from the back like he was going to tackle us at the ankles if we dared to depart the premises.

“Two for dinner?” he asked hopefully.

We nodded, had our choice of seating preferences (since, after all, we weren’t in danger of sitting on anyone else’s lap), and hoped and prayed this would be a meal worth eating. The lighting inside Chavin was very low; I’m talking serious-romantic-mood-lighting low, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to read the menu without my glasses and a flood light.

Eventually, we managed to see our menus, and were rewarded with some rather spectacular descriptions of the dishes. While we decided what our starters would be, the waiter brought a complimentary tiny bowl of fried corn and jalapeno dipping sauce that was so spicy hot it nearly burnt a hole in the tip of my tongue. Yeah, it was good.

I ordered a glass of 2007 Weingut Groiss Gruner Veltliner, which I had never tried before and which turned out to be an excellent choice. The wine was smooth and was lacking in an abundance of acidity which can sometimes make for a mouth-puckering aftertaste. I think I’ll add this varietal to my list of wines to favor.

It didn’t take long for me to decide on an appetizer. As soon as I realized scallops and cheese were an integral part of the same dish, my mind was made up. I selected the Conchitas a la Parmesana. Maarten chose the Choclo Con Queso, a dish that he had never before tried. We were both fairly excited to discover what the food at Chavin tasted like, especially given that neither of us had ever had the pleasure of dining on Peruvian cuisine before.

While we awaited the arrival of our starters, I glanced around the restaurant. Chavin is not a very large place, but I loved the use of color which lent a festive feel to the room. I surely didn’t feel as if I was sitting in a restaurant in Stamford, but rather I had been magically transported miles away to an unfamiliar but friendly place. One wall was painted a vibrant violet hue, and on other walls were brightly colored cloth shawls.

We had arrived at Chavin relatively early, 7:45 p.m. on a Friday night, so in retrospect we should not have been too surprised that we were the only people there, especially given the culture’s affinity for having dinner a little later than most Americans tend to. However, before long, the dining room’s tables were slowly filling with others as hungry as we were for a delicious Peruvian meal.

Our appetizers arrived in short order and the aromas were enough to make me whimper with delight. I could almost taste how wonderful the food would be before I took my first bite. And if it is true what the mysterious ‘they’ say about people eating with their eyes, I was practically full just from ogling my plate. Circling the stark white dinnerware were six tiny scallops centered on individual shells enveloped by a thick blanket of parmesan cheese and baked to perfection. I wish I could have eaten the shells, too, but because they were made of hard plastic, I thought wiser. I did, however, dig into the scallops and parmesan. With a slightly salty taste—but not so briny that it’s a lingering distraction in the mouth—the cheese’s texture was strangely similar to meat in its chewiness. Although the scallops were rather small, they weren’t the least bit rubbery, and whether eaten alone or with the parmesan, the flavor was distinctly enjoyable.

The Choclo con Queso that Maarten ordered was slightly shocking to me at first glance. I had never seen such large, plump kernels of corn still attached to the cob and I wondered silently how in the world they managed to grow something that looked like it was on steroids. While my husband seemed to enjoy the corn, I was not as keen on it as he was. However, we both enjoyed the very subtle, light flavor of the Peruvian cow’s milk cheese, which had a somewhat fleshy texture and was similar, in some ways, to Halloumi which squeaks on the teeth when you bite into it. The taste was so tantalizingly delicate, in fact, that it was almost—but not quite—devoid of any real flavor at all.

So far, things were shaping up rather nicely for our first Peruvian meal, and I was relieved that we hadn’t left before experiencing it. But by this point, my taste buds were on a serious code-red level of high alert. Too often a restaurant will whip up a magnificent appetizer but then, sadly, fall far short of my expectations with the entrée . . . or vice versa.

Ironically, we didn’t have long to wait to find out just how good—or how bad—the remainder of the meal would be. No sooner had the waiter picked up the discarded appetizer plates when another waiter brought out the much-anticipated main course. Once again, the aroma was almost enough to induce me to close my eyes, levitate off the ground, and float through the air right along with the enticing plume of smoke coming off the dishes.

The Saltado de Pollo that Maarten ordered was almost too beautiful to eat. The riot of colors bursting from the white plate created an appealing blend that was appetizing as anything I had seen in a long time. This Asian-influenced triumph of stir-fried chicken sautéed with olive oil, soy sauce, onions and tomatoes could have stood from the table and taken a bow and I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. And the entire mountain of food was served over French fries, which is classic Peruvian. Of course, I had to sample it, and believe me when I tell you it tasted every bit as delectable as it looked. The chicken was infused with invigorating flavors and was extremely tender and juicy. Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of the addition of the fries, but Maarten thought everything worked together splendidly.
My dish, the Pollo a la Parilla, did strike a modicum of fear in me initially. The grilled chicken, which was marinated in a ‘special’ sauce (said sauce being a mystery to me and one that the kitchen has kept as a well-guarded secret) was a bit flatter than I imagined it to be. Guess that’s what I get for having an imagination. Honestly, it looked like it would taste like a cross between char-grilled cardboard and death on a platter.
It’s a damn good thing looks can, indeed, be deceiving.
That flat, down-trodden butterflied piece of poultry was impeccably tender, bursting with flavor, and retained an astonishing amount of juiciness and moistness that was unexpected for such a thinly pounded cut of meat. The crispy outer edge, which was leaner than the center, held even more flavor than the rest of the chicken. The pollo a la parillo was so pleasant, I almost didn’t need the rice, which, by the by, was yummy in its own right.

Not only was I enjoying my food and, occasionally reaching across the table with my fork to enjoy Maarten’s as well, I was secretly craving the plates of other diners. There were all manner of appetizing dishes coming from the kitchen and I wished I could sample each one of them. And just looking at the menu is enough to induce fits of salivating madness.

As of late, my husband and I have been begging off of after-dinner desserts in a bid to retain our slim and svelte physiques. However, that tiny little voice of reason tucked in the recesses of my subconscious told me I would be remiss if I failed to at least try something . . . just this once. So putting all shame aside and mentally making a note to do forty extra minutes of cardio at my next workout, we each ordered the Alfajor, a Peruvian cookie with dulce de leche.

I will sum it up in one word: Mmmmm.

My apologies to readers of this blog; we tore into our cookies so quickly, I never had a chance to take pictures. Each treat consisted of two soft cookies with confectioners sugar on top and a thin layer of dulce de leche in the center. So simple, yet so spectacular. If I could have distracted the waiter long enough to sneak into the kitchen and pilfer all of the cookies, I surely would have. Yes, they were that good.

What a surprising and extraordinary experience. My first Peruvian meal definitely would not be my last. And a return trip to Chavin is all but guaranteed; they helped to seal the deal with their mouth-watering food that not only put a smile on my face but, if it’s possible, in my tummy.

It Chavin recommended? Absolutely! If you are a lover of ethnic food (and even for those who aren’t) you’ll find this charming little restaurant well worth the trip.

Is Chavin a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? Chavin is affordably priced, with nothing on the menu over $19.00 (Pescado Frelleno de Camarones). Appetizers range from a mere $5.00 (Tamales) to $15.00 (Shrimp Ceviche). Along with the beef, chicken and fish & seafood dishes, they serve a small selection of vegetarian dishes as well.

What about atmosphere and ambience? Although the music is a little loud at times, and the tile floor wreaks havoc on the acoustics which, with a full house would make it nearly impossible not to shout to be heard, Chavin has a comfortable and cheerful feel. It’s a charming space with lots of appeal. But I do wish they would get rid of that flashing “Open” sign out front.

NOTE: To see a more modest version of a review of Chavin, please read my Fairfield County Restaurant Examiner column (which, due to restrictions on, I was only able to attribute full star values to as opposed to the 4½ forks given here).

Chavin Peruvian Bistro
21 Atlantic Street
Stamford, CT 06901
(203) 359-9639

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