In a rare moment and blip in the universe, Diva #1 arrived early to an event, which often scares Diva #2. The Divas decided to squeeze in a 5 à 7 at the lovely Baldwin Barmacie right across the street from where their dinner reservation was held. We had been to Baldwin before, but seriously, who hasn’t? But after years of abusing the bar, Diva #1 had taken a break to tarnish her reputation in other bars in the city. But we came back, like the good girls that we are, and were quickly reminded of the chic atmosphere, fabulous ambiance and why we loved Baldwin in the first place. Sure it was a Monday night, and we usually take Monday and Tuesday to recover from 5 days of drinking but when in Rome…
Diva #2 ordered her traditional Hendrick’s and tonic but Diva #1 wanted to experiment and fell in love with their Bloody Dirty Martini, a combination of Diva #1’s favourite cocktails: a Bloody Caesar and a martini. This drink was designed for Diva #1, made with vodka, spiced, clamato and olive juice. It was potent, fabulous and she really didn’t want to stop at one. Of course Diva #1 substituted the vodka for gin to perfect this cocktail, she always has to change something on the menu, she is a woman who knows what she wants. We left our 5 à 7 and went down Laurier to Callao restaurant.
Before being invited to the opening night of Callao, we had never tried Peruvian food. We knew that it meant a lot of fish, which we adore, but we didn’t know exactly what to expect. The Divas adore trying new cuisines so we were quite excited when we were invited to Callao’s media opening night. Chef Mario Navarrete Jr made us feel right at home with the restaurant’s atmosphere, particularly the cozy dinner table in the back that looked like it was taken from someone’s home, right next to the open kitchen. Patrons who sit there will feel like they have their own personal chef, looking into the open kitchen while enjoying their food.
We were eating in the main dining area next to a large screen projecting images from Peru and Port Callao. The warm bread with butter was placed before us and we loved it, each little loaf was a cross between a biscuit and a bun. We were given a pisco sour to start, a cocktail typical to South America, the egg whites were perfectly frothed and the cocktail was downed in mere moments.
Our first dish was a white fish ceviche with lime juice, pickled red onions and a sweetened potato purée with fresh herbs and cooked rocoto peppers. As this was our first Peruvian dish we didn’t know what to expect, but we were quickly impressed. The purée was perfectly creamy and a wonderful compliment to the fish ceviche and the tangy peppers. The combination of flavours and the tender textures made for a perfect start to our meal.
Our next dish was a scallop ceviche with lemon, onions and what was described as Jamaican flowers, but is more commonly known as the hibiscus flower. More importantly, this dish was topped with one of our favourite yet rarely seen on menus ingredient, sea asparagus! This is called salicorne in French and we simply adore it, it tastes exactly like the sea and there was no exception at Callao. It added a refreshing salty element to the dish. Passion fruit also decorated the dish and added a wonderful tang, definitely one of the top scallop dishes that we had ever enjoyed.
Our next tapas was a vegetarian dish, made with Quebec potatoes and a huancaina sauce. The waiter explained that this sauce was a typical Peruvian sauce served with potatoes and made with aji amraillo Peruvian peppers. This dish is traditionally served with hard boiled eggs and black olives, and Chef Mario Navarrete Jr presented the dish beautifully. Dollops of Huancaina sauce were served alongside another creamy hollandaise-like sauce, the black olives were made into a granulated powder, and the hard boiled quail eggs were cooked to perfection.
The octopus arrived and it truly was a different way to enjoy octopus. Marinated and then grilled, it was very tender and served with a purée of black beans. The oddest part of the dish was the intoxicating olive oil powder. What looks like white crumbled cheese in the photo was some sort of infused olive oil powder that was extremely potent. We weren’t sure if we loved it or hated it, we kept trying it, it was like nothing that we had ever tasted; the olive oil flavour was so compelling. A splash of red beet aïoli was painted on the plate and eating the octopus with all of these flavours made for a very different dish from the traditional Mediterranean grilled octopus.
The salmon escabeche arrived, which is traditionally a salmon cooked in wine, oil, vinegar and pimento (similar to paprika). It is an old preservation method for fish which chefs have recently brought back into style. Marinated red onions, Peruvian peppers and coriander were all part of the salmon escabeche tapas at Callao. It wasn’t our favourite tapas of the night but the sauce was refreshing and we enjoyed it nonetheless.
After all of this delectable fish we were quite pleased to see a meat dish. This tapas was of a roll of fried dough stuffed with meat and topped with a salsa criolla for freshness. Salsa criolla is a Peruvian salsa made with lime juice and pickled red onions and Peruvian spicy peppers. It added some spice to the fried dish. A splash of avocado liquid and dollops of salty squid ink aioli added another dimension of flavour. This was a unique dish, and once again Chef Mario Navarrete Jr combined a complexity of flavours. We were full, quite impressed with the array of dishes that we had tasted, and the generosity of restaurant Callao.
We had enjoyed tons of wine, switching from white to red depending on the dish before us, and were full but intrigued by the dessert. Sweet Pea, an advocate of quinoa, would have been pleased to see a dessert quinoa as our final dish at Callao. A quinoa pudding was topped with a crunchy caramelized quinoa crust that we adored. The richest of chocolate ganaches topped the dish along with four dollops of creamy vanilla and a sprinkling of edible flowers. The taste of quinoa was faint and the chocolate ganache bitter but paired very well with the vanilla cream.
We were full and quite eager to spread the news about Callao restaurant, our first experience with Peruvian cuisine will certainly not be our last. The fish was fresh, the dishes complex in both their combination of flavours and textures, and the portions were generous. A dinner at Callao should end with a trip to Baldwin Barmacie for cocktails. We adore Laurier street and Callao is another exciting addition to the strip, different from the usual Montreal restaurants.
Our Rating: Splendid
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