Chef Roberto Castre of Latin Bites Cafe knows what it means to work hard. The last two days, he shared the details of how he worked up the ranks after graduating from culinary school in Peru, and then opened up his first restaurant within weeks of undergoing major surgery to donate a kidney to his partner and brother-in-law, Carlos Ramos.
It's not just hard work that has made Castre successful, however. The food that comes out of his kitchen is thoughtfully and artistically constructed. Each detail, each ingredient is there for a reason. On the palate, the flavors blend well, the textures change and add depth to his food, and the presentation of his signature dishes is peerless. His food is layered, colorful, shapely, beautiful.
Take, for example, one of his newest creations, the cebiche de conchas, made of chopped scallops. Served on a rectangular plate, the creation looked like it had wispy butterflies nestled on top of it. In fact, they were flat, dehydrated pineapple and orange chips which gave a bit of texture as well a deep citrus-y finish to each bite, while the diced red onions provided some fresh crunch to counterbalance the softer texture of the scallops. Add to that the softly sweet potato puree drops, which moderated the sharp tartness of the leche de tigre marinade, and this is one of those dishes that you'd remember for years after just one taste.
Also notable was his cebiche de chifero, a Chinese-inspired cebiche served in a round, fried wonton mold next to a weaving pattern of sweet potato puree kisses and whole kernels of white choclo (Peruvian corn), accented by curled slivers of green onion. A riff on the traditional Chinese bird's nest, the prettily plated dish was also quite fun to eat.
We started by cracking open the thin, crispy wonton column to get at the cebiche inside, a mixture of tuna, bell pepper, red and green onions, snow peas, and peanuts. Each of the components brought a dimension to the dish: crispy, crunchy, sweet, tart, tangy, savory, powdery, spicy.
The nikkei tiradito, in essence a sashimi dish, was simply constructed, yet again beautifully put together, as slivers of cucumber were folded over in such a way that they looked like bows, their green color contrasting nicely against the bright pink color of the tuna. The cucumber, masago (small crunchy orange fish eggs), and sesame seeds all added pleasing textures to the delicate, aptly named, Japanese-looking arrangement.
Conchas a la parmesana, which Castre described in detail during our last chat, is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Fresh scallops in the shell, covered in a heady mixture of torched, molten mozzarella and parmesan cheese with butter, aji amarillo, shallots, garlic, parsley, cilantro, basil and pisco, were presented on an a long oval platter on top of bed of sea salt and dried berries. Melted cheese with anything is good, but with scallops and all the other flavors mixed in, this is one of those dishes that are meant to be shared, but you'll want to hoard it for yourself.
Unlike the uninspired lomo saltado I had at Lemon Tree a couple of weeks ago, the cubed beef tenderloin in Latin Bites' version had the seared-in-the-wok burnt edges that gave it more smokiness and bite.
Served with french fries arranged in a jenga-like pattern, this dish was wonderful not just for the beef and the fries, but also the rice, which had been cooked in some butter and chicken stock to give it a juicier, more savory flavor. I'm willing to bet you can't find better lomo saltado in Peru.
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And if you haven't had their pollo a la parilla before, let me just preface by saying that it was already memorable at the old location. At the new one, however, the brand new hot ovens give the roasted, 24-hour-marinated, melt-off-the-bone chicken that extra kick that makes you want to pump your fist in the air in a gesture of triumph. As they say in South America, it was definitely muy rico.
Castre's menu at the new Latin Bites has more than 40 dishes to sample, and this is just a small snapshot of what you can expect to find. Peruvian food is the new "it" gourmet ethnic food, from Buenos Aires, to New York, to London, and now, we have it in Houston thanks to Chef Roberto Castre.