Three-month-old Tanta, in River North, is easily Chicago's most accomplished Peruvian restaurant, elevating the cuisine — a melting pot that claims Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, African and ancient Incan influences — to the level of fine dining.
Gaston Acurio, the internationally renowned chef who owns Tanta, has made this elevation his life's work. He operates more than 30 Peruvian restaurant in 12 countries, including Astrid y Gaston, his world-class restaurant in Lima, Peru (currently No. 14 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list; for purposes of comparison, Alinea is No. 15). Factor in his 20 cookbooks and media appearances, and it's fair to view Acurio as his nation's culinary prophet.
To be clear, Tanta is not comparable to Alinea; it's no Astrid y Gaston. It's a casual, approachable concept, much like his La Mar restaurant in San Francisco. Tanta is essentially Peruvian 101, a restaurant that provides a very enjoyable introduction to the cuisine — aided by knowledgeable service and enhanced by a strong beverage program — in a lively (occasionally too lively) atmosphere.
Tanta is not a place in which to contemplate the joys of the Peruvian table. It's a noisy, festive place for light bites and good times.
The menu evokes the suitcase of a world traveler, the various categories of Peruvian cuisine arranged like luggage stickers on the single, oversize page. You'll find a boxed selection of cebiches (ceviches to you and me) at top center, a quartet of anticuchos (skewered street-food nibbles) at top right, Del Chifa (dishes reflecting Peru's Chinese influence) at lower right, and so on. The layout and terms are daunting initially, but servers are pretty good at demystifying the options.
The vast majority of the offerings are two- and three-bite dishes, so one can try anything, even the beef-heart anticuchos — quite good, especially with smears of lively mesa sauce — without investing one's taste buds too heavily.
Your first challenge might be differentiating among cebiches, tiraditos and leches de tigre (tiger's milks), as they all involve citrus-cured raw (or nearly raw) seafood. The differences are largely textural; the cebiches are coarsely diced, the tiraditos are sliced like sashimi and leches de tigre refers to a specific sauce (reputed to be a hangover cure) in which the fish and/or vegetables swim.
If you like ceviche but not cilantro, you may be happy at Tanta, where the herb is used only sparingly. If you're pepper-sensitive, you may not be as happy; the aji amarillo, a hot pepper, is used extensively, albeit judiciously.
A good way to start is with the cebiche tasting, a three-dish assortment of clasico (fluke with red onions and cilantro), nikei (tuna with tamarind and avocado) and mixto (the day's catch, nearly always mahi-mahi, with squid and shrimp). Then it's best to play culinary butterfly, touching lightly on the menu subdivisions. Try one of the causitas, mashed potatoes with various toppings; the clasica, with crab, avocado and egg, is especially good. Niguiris, Peru's take on nigiri sushi, are two-piece protein-on-rice bites; I recommend the criollo, tuna topped with a circle of fried squid and a dab of aji amarillo sauce, and the pobre, richly flavored wagyu skirt steak with quail egg and ponzu sauce. The octopus anticucho, served off the skewer with thick chimichurri, olive sauce and fried garlic, might be the best appetizer in the bunch.
Soon enough, you'll want to move to the more substantial courses — there's only so much lime marinade and Peruvian corn I can embrace at one sitting — and there is good news there: The mains tend to be complex, deeply flavored and delicious. There is paiche, a farm-raised Amazon River fish, its firm white flesh perched over yuca-bacon mash with a red onion and tomato sauce; and adobo de ternera, slow-cooked marinated veal cheeks. Chicharron, a frequently offered special, combines pork belly and ribs in a tart Peruvian barbecue sauce, supported by kabocha puree.
The signature entree, the one that gets its own menu box, is the pollo a la brasa, a roasted chicken that's brined for 24 hours and marinated in garlic, vinegar, oregano, wine — and even a little Coca-Cola. What emerges from the oven is a crispy-skinned treat, available in whole- and half-bird options, and it arrives with simmered white beans, arroz con choclo (sushi rice studded with those oversize Peruvian corn niblets) and three pepper sauces of ascending potency. It's a terrific dish and makes a fine leftover, if you're debating between the half and whole order.
Side dishes worth your attention include the chaufa aeropuerto, a fried-rice dish with pork and a mighty hit of garlic; and the huancaina, Peruvian fingerlings with purple olives, bathed in a creamy, sneaky-spicy sauce that gives the dish its name (the full name is papas a la huancaina).
Desserts are simple and fun. Las trufas de chocolate are little round warm-chocolate bombs with a toasted-quinoa coating and lemon grass ice cream to the side; and I particularly like the mazamorra crumble, a sort of concentrated mixed-fruit tart with an oat and almond crust.
The dining room is noisy with conversation and color, including the multicolor chalk recipes and specials posted over the bar and the Peruvian-inspired artwork (by Chicago muralist Jeff Zimmerman) on the far wall.
I have a feeling that Tanta is going to be around for a while. Long enough, I hope, to vary its small-plate offerings more, and long enough to get to summer, when the restaurant plans to open a rooftop cafe.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.Tanta
118 W. Grand Ave., 312-222-9700
Tribune rating: 2 stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Entrees $22-$53
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.