La Limeña Grill recently opened in Rockville and serves Peruvian fare, including corn pie with beef, raisins and hard-boiled egg.
If you’re smart, you’ll end your meal at La Limeña Grill, a Peruvian restaurant that opened in Rockville’s Talbott Center in August, with alfajores, small anise-scented cookies that sandwich creamy, thick slatherings of caramel sauce known as dulce de leche. Butter makes them so delicate that they practically disappear in a puff of powdered sugar as the pastry dissolves on your tongue.
Cookies called alfajores are the signature item at La Limeña Grill.
Alfajores are the signature of La Limeña Grill’s owner, Emma Perez, a Silver Spring resident and native of Lima, Peru. (La Limeña means “the woman from Lima.”) She came to the United States 26 years ago to seek medical treatment for her son, who is blind, settling in Maryland to be close to Johns Hopkins Hospital. An economist in Peru, Perez first became a waitress in the U.S., then put a lifelong love of cooking and baking to use by working in George Washington University’s catering kitchen. On the side, she sold alfajores to Latin markets in the Washington area.
La Limeña Grill seats more than twice as many diners as the original La Limeña Restaurant.
Twelve years ago, Perez opened La Limeña Restaurant in the Ritchie Center on Rockville Pike. The restaurant, which features Peruvian and Cuban specialties, has been resoundingly successful, but Perez found the 60-seat eatery too small to meet demand and opened La Limeña Grill three-quarters of a mile down the Pike, in the former Potomac Grill space.
The new restaurant, designed by the Russell Sears & Associates architectural firm, seats 138 inside and 50 on an outdoor patio. Burnt-orange walls, colorful murals of Lima balcony scenes, gilt-edged mirrors, archways with cast-iron scrollwork, and 20 elaborate cast-iron chandeliers serve as design accents and signal that La Limeña Grill is a step above the more modestly outfitted flagship.
A classic pisco sour
La Limeña Grill’s menu doesn’t send the same message, given that most dishes appear on La Limeña Restaurant’s menu. The specialty cocktail list is the same: featuring Caribbean and Latin American-inspired drinks (such as piña coladas, margaritas and mojitos) and highlighting Peru’s signature cocktail, the pisco sour. They make a sound version of the drink here, which is pisco (Peruvian brandy made from distilled grape wine), lime juice and sugar syrup shaken until foamy, strained and topped with a few drops of bitters. Pisco riffs are made by adding passionfruit (maracuyá) nectar or syrup made from chicha morada, a sweet purple-corn juice.
Tiradito clasico de aji amarillo (sashimi with yellow pepper sauce)
Peruvian cooking represents a symbiosis of three main influences: Spanish (criollo cooking is the Latin American interpretation of Spanish food), Japanese (known as Nikkei cooking) and Chinese (called chifa). The latter two were fused into Peruvian cuisine when Japanese and Chinese workers emigrated there in the 19th century.
Upon arrival at La Limeña Grill, a server places a dish of fried corn nuts and plantain chips on the table with two sauces made with aji peppers. One is mild, creamy and yellow; the other herbal, zesty from chili peppers and green from cilantro and huacatay (Peruvian black mint with notes of basil, tarragon and citrus). The sauces come in handy throughout the meal to embolden dishes that need a flavor boost.
Piquillo peppers stuffed with tuna salad
You can’t forgo ceviche if you want a true Peruvian experience, and La Limeña Grill does right by the specialty with a classic version of cubed tilapia “cooked” in lime juice and hot rocoto peppers (the fish is denatured by acid in the marinade) and topped with sliced red onions flecked with cilantro. Drunk like a shot, the marinade, called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), is said to be an aphrodisiac.
Tiradito clasico is a Nikkei take on ceviche where wafer-thin rectangular slices of marinated raw tilapia are laid out sashimi-like on a plate, outlined prettily with bright yellow aji pepper sauce and garnished with sweet potatoes, corn and sliced red rocoto peppers. The fish tastes bright and fresh (it comes from Costa Rica or Honduras, Perez notes), its sauce adding a nice counterpoint of richness to balance the acid.
Causas (whipped potatoes) come in a sampler with four toppings.
A sampler of four causas—savory stacks of whipped potatoes topped with, respectively, a poached shrimp and three mayonnaise-y dollops of crab, tuna and chicken salad—is a showstopper. But my favorite starter at La Limeña Grill is a creamy, soufflé-like corn pudding spiked with sautéed diced sirloin steak, hard-boiled eggs and raisins. It’s wintertime comfort in a casserole dish, rich and rib-sticking. Tubular pastry pies (tequeños) filled with lomo saltado (beef stir-fried with onions and tomatoes) and aji de gallina (creamed chicken in a sauce made with mild yellow aji peppers) create an opportunity to taste two Peruvian staples in finger-food form.
Entrées don’t blow me away here. I’m partial to the braised beef shank cooked pot roast-style, especially once I scoop out the marrow and mix it into the meat’s tomato-based braising liquid. Two dishes—a bouillabaisse-style seafood soup and a seafood combination in a cream- and fish stock-based sauce—suffer from rubbery calamari that was clearly frozen. A pair of chifa dishes—lo mein-esque tallarines (spaghetti) stir-fried with vegetables, tomato wedges and chicken; and a stunningly presented chicken fried rice with roast pork slices and a tumbleweed of fried noodles—are bland. My faith is restored by perfectly cooked rainbow trout seasoned with cumin and sprinkled with crisp garlic chips and a two-rib hunk of tender roasted pork belly covered with a bronze shield of crispy skin.
Rainbow trout sprinkled with garlic chips
For dessert, you’d be perfectly happy with creamy rice pudding perfumed with cinnamon, or bright orange lucuma (a fruit) ice cream tasting vaguely of maple, but let me make the decision easy for you—you’re having the alfajores.
LA LIMEÑA GRILL
1093 Rockville Pike, Rockville | 301-417-4922
Overall Rating: B
FAVORITE DISHES: Corn pie with beef, raisins and hard-boiled egg; tiradito clasico de aji amarillo (sashimi with yellow pepper sauce); causa (mini mashed-potato towers) sampler; fried trout with garlic; Peruvian pork belly; alfajores
PRICES: Appetizers: $8.95 to $16.95; entrées: $16.95 to $22.95; desserts: $5 to $7.50
LIBATIONS: A full bar but with a limited number of alcohol brands (Tanqueray is the only gin, for example). A list of 13 cocktails includes Latin American favorites such as Cuba libres and piña coladas. The pisco sour here is excellent, all the better with passionfruit (maracuyá) nectar added. Nine wines are offered by the bottle and glass. The most expensive bottles are $38. For something more festive, go for the ruby red sangria.
SERVICE: Owner Emma Perez makes the rounds and makes everybody feel welcome, but service can be spotty. One server may be affable while another is cranky, down to dropping the check with one hand and the dessert you ordered with the other. Leave the American Express card at home—La Limeña Grill doesn’t accept it.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine