Nicole and Rick Fierro fell in love at first bite.
The two met one night while noshing at Chinook and immediately found they had food in common. Rick was managing the Washington Park Grille (for years before that, he'd been a front-of-the-house man at various Berardi ventures, including Juanita's Uptown); Nicole had just moved here from California, where she'd completed a degree in hotel management and also worked in the dining rooms of various restaurants.
But it was after Nicole and Rick hooked up romantically that their careers really started cooking: They decided to open a restaurant together. "We knew for sure that we needed to work on something that there wasn't already a bunch of," says Nicole. "No Italian. I'd spent some time a couple of years back in South America, and the culture and the food were very intriguing. We knew that Denver was lacking in that cuisine, so we started concentrating on that."
Piscos, 1120 East Sixth Avenue, 303-777-8222. Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.- 10 p.m. Sunday
The couple took a few trips to South America, traveling around the continent, and then brought back what they'd discovered to their own home kitchen. "Wednesday nights were South American nights for the past two years," says Rick. "And we knew we didn't want to be tied down to one part of South America, so we tried to develop recipes that pulled from all over, like Chile and Brazil and Venezuela. We went back to South America to double-check that we were doing the recipes right."
Once the recipes were right, it was time to find a home for their venture. The couple did so with a little help from their friends, particularly Blair Taylor, who'd suddenly found the Sixth Avenue spot that was once Chives American Bistro back on his hands. After running Chives for eight years (before that, the space housed the legendary Dudley's, which Taylor owned with Mel and Janie Master), Taylor had decided he wanted to focus all of his energies on Barolo Grill, and he'd leased Chives to Mark Chafee, owner of The Moondance on Market Street. But when Chafee went under last year, The Moondance closed altogether, and Chives returned to Taylor. He didn't reopen the restaurant, though, and locals watched in consternation as one of their favorite hangouts -- particularly for late-night meals -- remained dark.
So when word leaked out that the space was going to reopen, there was a citywide sigh of relief -- as well as a spark of new interest, since word also had it that this place would be South American, a fun switch in this Italian/Mexican/ Asian-obsessed town.
And the basic premise of Piscos, which opened in late October, is fun. The restaurant's name comes from a grape-based brandy, pronounced "pee-skoe," that's mainly produced in Peru and Chile but enjoys popularity all over South America -- what could be more fun than that? In addition, the Fierros retained the general setup that was so successful at Chives -- bar in the front area, booths lining the back wall, tables scattered throughout the middle section -- but redecorated it in a very tasteful, sometimes whimsical manner (a clock shaped like South America hangs above the bar), with deep, rich browns and cheery blues that evoke the rich earth of the continent and its connection to the ocean. They've filled the space with a soundtrack of Latino favorites (a lot of Ricky Martin) and a staff of cheerful folks who aren't overwhelmingly familiar with the food but get bonus points for trying hard to offer good service.
The menu is a joint effort between the Fierros and their chef, Robert Sanstone, a New York transplant and Culinary Institute of America graduate who'd previously worked at Cavaleri's and the Ship Tavern before teaching culinary classes at Emily Griffith. And the best things on that menu are the appetizers, several intriguing items offered on their own or in a value-packed sampler platter ($12 for two people, $16 for four). An order for two brought a shareable portion of four starters, along with three dipping sauces: a thinly flavored, tomato-based concoction lightly sparked by chipotles; a rich, tart lemon aioli; and an unusual but appealing Dijon-based mixture that contained honey-roasted garlic and tasted almost like a sweetened horseradish. The real surprise on this plate, though, was the French fries.
"We saw them everywhere in South America," explains Nicole. "And we've had so many people ask us why on earth we'd offer them, when it's so clearly an American favorite. But I'm telling you, they eat French fries in Chile in a big way." In fact, potatoes were cultivated in South America long before they were exported to Europe. (Columbus is credited with bringing potatoes back from his notorious trip to the New World, and while some Europeans thought they were poisonous, the French immediately took to the tubers because they resembled testicles. Really -- you can look it up.) Today South American kitchens still use spuds extensively.
Probably not as well as they do at Piscos, however. The fries, or papas fritas, were thin, crunchy and faintly greasy, sprinkled with the perfect amount of fine-textured salt on the outside and sporting just enough soft steaminess in the center. Almost as addictive were the empanadas (which were small enough to qualify as empanaditas or empanadillas, the tinier of the South American-style raviolis), filled with an alluring combination of sweetly seasoned pork, chopped pears and walnuts, and enriched with Brie, of all things, which gave them an appealing creamy, musky quality. The humitas were pretty special, too: Inside the familiar cornhusk wrapper of this farther-south-of-the-border tamale was an unusual grainy filling that included minced banana chiles and cheddar cheese. And while tamales use masa harina, humitas are made from fresh corn. (In the culinary world, there is much heated debate over which came first, the tamale or the humita, but there are no fossils of either to settle the disagreement.)
The fourth starter in the sampler, the ceviche, was the least sophisticated. The shrimp and scallops were fresh, but the proportions were off in the seafood's "cooking" liquid. While coconut milk is a staple in South American-style ceviche (often spelled "seviche"), there wasn't enough of it here, and an excess of lime juice soured the whole deal despite a liberal scattering of cilantro, chiles and scallions.
I suppose the Caesar salad ($5) technically rated inclusion on the menu because it was originally invented in Tijuana, but this version earned Piscos no points. The romaine had a bitter edge that overwhelmed any flavor in the thin, watery dressing; the greens could have used some of the salt that was on those fries. The chupe de camarones ($3) was another disappointment: The shrimp chowder with potatoes, celery, carrots, onions and tomatoes arrived lukewarm, which meant the potatoes had begun to take on a pasty gumminess and the shrimp were overcooked. Someone in the kitchen wasn't watching.
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Our entrees could have used more attention, too. The arrollado de malaya ($15), a traditional dish in Chile ("malaya" is Chilean for flank steak), lacked the deep flavors usually imbued when the steak is properly marinated before it's stuffed and rolled. This piece of meat seemed to have been taken fresh from the Styrofoam packaging, then pounded and wrapped around a dollop of nebulous filling -- listed on the menu as spinach, carrots, onions, roasted peppers and egg, but it was impossible to discern what we were eating. Although the meat was tender, it was awash in an utterly insipid tomato-based brown sauce that did nothing to help the linguine at the base of the dish. The Brazil-nut-encrusted, pan-seared ahi tuna ($18) also lacked oomph. The fish arrived at the specified medium-rare, but under the crunchy nut crust it needed something, perhaps a sour or spicy element, to play up the taste. The sautéed spinach side was right on, though, with the greens wilted just enough to release their juices but not so much as to turn soggy, and the mashed sweet potatoes were heaven. But what should have been the most intriguing item on the plate, the banana salsa, contained just two slips of squishy banana, a few diced onions and two specks of chile. Why bother? And the grilled tomato promised on the menu failed to appear at all.
Still, we'd been intrigued enough by the start of our Piscos meal to reappear for another round. This time we found the escabeche de pollo ($13), another well-known South American treat, devoid of the great vinegary liquid that would have qualified this dish as true escabeche (the word refers to a Spanish-originated cooking technique of marinating meats and vegetables in a sour liquid). Even though the chicken included the bone, the meat was dry and chewy. Aridity also afflicted the chuletas de cerdo ($14) -- two grilled center-cut pork chops coated in an apple-butter barbecue sauce. Although the preparation sounded delicious, the sauce had dried right into the chops and lost all of its sweetness. And the accompanying purple-potato tart tasted as though it had been made too far ahead; it was as flavorless as slightly moist cardboard.
Piscos offers a Sunday brunch, which is another mixed blessing. Everything on the à la carte entree menu is $12, and while that includes a beverage and unlimited stops at a buffet bar, the offerings there were hardly worth the effort. Instead of wasting time and calories on vanilla yogurt, exotic fruit cocktail and granola, we concentrated on our entrees. One was the chorizo soufflé, actually more of a Napolean of eggs, potatoes and a mild chorizo sausage, augmented with tomatoes; the other was a Chilean scramble. Once we got used to the excessive chile powder, both were a welcome break from the usual brunch omelettes and eggs Benedict. But a twelve-buck break? I don't think so.
Piscos got off to a promising start, both in concept and location. And its starters show promise, too. But so far, the restaurant is just flirting with us, failing to deliver the real goods. Even the house signature drink, the Pisco sour ($4.50), a concoction that my dining companion had quaffed often on a recent trip to Peru, fell flat here. A cross between cough syrup and bad grappa, the cocktail, like Piscos itself, left us disappointed and still thirsting for a restaurant we could really love.