When Renzo Macchiavello closed his eponymous food court café in Irvine last year, foodies all over Orange County went into mourning. While unadventurous office drones ate his sandwiches, spread with thick green salsa de ají, those in the know ate ceviche and parihuela.
Well, Renzo has resurfaced, cooking in the evenings at the restaurant at the recently remodeled Hotel Huntington Beach. You can see the chafing dishes used for the hotel breakfast along the side wall of the sparsely decorated room (frankly, it looks like the dining room at an assisted-living facility); his restaurant, Muelle, is open only for dinner. We sat down, ordered pisco sour and pisco mules (the pisco sour is better, like a thick slushie of alcohol and lime), and tried desperately to choose from the menu.
Renzo came over to help us out; having ascertained that we weren't new to Peruvian food, he made some recommendations, and then headed back into the kitchen to cook them.
This is excellent cooking; his tiradito, ordered spicy--why else would you bother?--came with thin slices of raw fish swimming in a thin orange sauce that burned twice: once with the acid of lime juice and then again with the searing capsaicin of ají amarillo, one Peru's native chiles. This is ceviche reduced to its most elemental--no onions are used in a tiradito--and the sauce set off the sweetness of the fish. The crunchy cancha (parched corn), enormous, pale nubs of choclo (fresh corn) and camote (sweet potato). These are as essential to the dish as the fish; without them, there would be no balance to the intensity of the sauce.
We ordered pescado a lo macho, sea bass topped with scallops, calamari and shrimp, all swimming in a moreish sauce made of various kinds of chile, tomatoes, and, I'd swear, shrimp stock or shells. The fish was outstanding, cooked just to flakiness; the calamari was neither rubbery nor mushy, and the scallops were just as good.The sauce, though, was so good we emptied an entire plate of bread swiping the last dregs off the plate.
We only ordered the lomo saltado because Renzo recommended it; so many places serve overcooked, tough beef with mushy potatoes and tomatoes so abused that their skin hangs off in folds that I was leery about ordering it at a new place. Not at Muelle; this beef was high-quality and cooked perfectly medium-rare, with onions that just started to char at the edges, French fries that retained their crispiness even long after service, and tomatoes thrown in at the last second so they just started to soften. This is the best lomo saltado I have ever had; better than Mo-Chica, better than the mom-and-pop fixed-menu places in North Hollywood, better than anywhere I ever ate in Paterson, New Jersey, the largest Peruvian expat community in the U.S.
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Defeated by an enormous meal, we managed two small alfajores, made by Renzo's (non-Peruvian) wife, who'd never made an alfajor in her life until Renzo talked about them.
The most astonishing part of this meal was the price: an appetizer, two large main courses, and three cocktails came to $60 before tip. You can't eat Peruvian food this good anywhere else in Orange County for prices like this. Go now and fill up that dining room... and if you don't know what Peruvian food is, read this, this, and this.
Muelle Peruvian Cantina, inside the Hotel Huntington Beach, 7667 Center Ave. (just off the 405 and Beach), Huntington Beach; 714-891-0123; muellehb.com.