On its very first day of business, Limón was a hit, a force to be reckoned with on 17th Avenue.
Actually, from before its first day, because -- as is the habit lately -- Limón opened very soft, for friends and family, with no flags or fanfare, just an unlocked door and all the lights on. These days were technically tests for both the floor and the kitchen. And what tests: first night, 120 covers; next, 180. By the time Limón officially opened last July, there were lines at the door and eager would-be diners packed into the bar like sardines in a tin.
I've seen openings of larger, grander and more spectacular restaurants come off with all the excitement of a pauper's funeral, others so over-hyped that anything short of a personal appearance by God or Bocuse to bless the crabcakes and love up the Garlands would've been a disappointment. But success came to Limón overnight, seemingly effortlessly. The crowds didn't see all the behind-the-scenes exertions as chef/ owner Alex Gurevich (who also owns Cafe Bisque in Lakewood) and crew worked like crazy on menus, design and decor, battling with customs authorities to get their stock and supplies into the country.
1618 East 17th Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; 4:30-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Chicharrn de pollo: $7
Causa limena: $7.50
Langostino cebiche: $8
Atn con tacu tacu: $17
Lomo saltado: $15
Aji de gallina: $13
Arroz con pato: $17
Those battles highlight one of the reasons that Limón's early takeoff was so surprising. Gurevich's chosen cuisine -- Novoandino, an iteration of modern immigrant Peruvian food that he acquired a taste for on several trips to South America and that remains a rarity today even in the most cutting-edge North American restaurant cities -- wasn't exactly tame or easily approached. Had Gurevich been giving away free pie and balloons, I could've understood the crushing, very nearly overwhelming hit he and his guys were taking. But he was offering tabule de cereals andinos; cold, ring-molded mashed potatoes; green-mango langostino cebiche; Chinese/Peruvian lomo with yellow chiles. I've been playing with food for many, many years, and even I didn't know what half the stuff was.
And it's not like there's a dearth of dining options in the area. Seventeenth Avenue has become an unusually cosmopolitan stretch, where anyone with a few bucks and an appetite can find nouvelle Vietnamese and Chinese, jumped-up Mexican, lowbrow Mexican, New American, Old American and all-time American. With a lineup like that, you'd think nouvelle Peruvian wouldn't be such a draw.
Still, during those first few weeks, I received regular phone calls from Limón's manager, updating me on how shocked he and Gurevich and everyone else was at the reception their little Novoandino place was getting. And while I was talking to him, I was doing recon at Limón myself -- first talking to people who'd waited an hour at the bar just for the chance at a table, then scouting the floor, arriving early so I could slip in without having to fight the crowds, giving up my table to the first rush as soon as it started to pour in.
The main floor, at maximum capacity, seats two dozen; a large, rough-cut community table placed uncomfortably in the lane between the kitchen and the floor adds another six or eight tops to the count. Patio seating adds still more. But by a quirk of architecture -- which may have been deliberate, though I can't think of why -- the bar-lounge/waiting area on the left of the room occupies about as much real estate as the main dining floor. This adds six bar stools and a couple of armchairs to the available seating, but these are almost immediately spoken for by those waiting for proper tables. Limón is operating just a few inches on the good side of teensy, which helps explain those early lines.
Small and weird and uncommon and devilishly crowded at its peak is not a standard recipe for wild restaurant success. By all rights, Limón should have imploded after about three months, collapsing into a supernova of fava beans, fried plantains and designer shoes. The crew should have cracked, the chef should have broken, and the customers -- sensing disaster -- should have fled.
Instead, it took just over a month.
Following that huge opening, the counts collapsed. And suddenly, rather than doing five, sometimes five and a half turns of a 36-seat room, Limón was doing one. The 200-cover nights dropped to sixty, to forty, bottoming out as fall turned to winter and the patio was closed for the season.
It was the best thing that could have happened.
Maybe not for Gurevich, who had not only his money, but his reputation and passion tied up on 17th Avenue. The manager who'd been so happy in his early reports of killer numbers became somewhat scarce, no longer calling with weekly updates. And I'm sure the kitchen and floor staff were a bit heartbroken, having become accustomed to big money, big waits and big nights, night after night after night.
But here's the thing: Limón was dying at 200 covers. The service was either rushed or exhausted, the potentially interesting food suffering from the grind of constancy, the strain of a five-turn repetition turning what should've been tight plates into muddled puddles of starch and protein and sauce. All of the elements were there, but the soul was gone, drained away by the nightly battle on the floor.
The sudden retreat of customers gave both the kitchen and the floor the breathing room they so desperately needed. Gurevich was able to get onto the line with his guys, explaining not just how to make the cancha chulpe -- Peruvian-style fried corn that's like corn nuts, only better -- but why it's made that way, and why Limón is not a place where some overeager station cook should inject his own ideas about how the final product ought to taste. Gurevich's style is complicated: A single sauce, a single starch, a single resounding flavor is never enough. And while I might knock some chefs for falling victim to the more-is-more philosophy of plate design, Gurevich has the talent to pull it off admirably -- provided he has the time and space to make his crew understand why things must be done his way.
One slow season bought him both. And the renewed focus in the galley -- those few extra degrees of precision -- has made all the difference at Limón, where the numbers are now climbing again.
On a recent ninety-cover night, I got lucky and slid in during the lull between first and second seatings, snagging a prime table against the windows, on a bench-back banquette jammed with pillows. I had causa limena -- two ring-molded potato cakes served ice cold with a loose chicken salad between them. On earlier nights, this had tasted exactly as odd and awful as it sounds. But sharpened by penury and time, it now came together with the combative flavors of onion and scallion, ripe avocado and a swirl of sauces -- all subtle built on sharp built on soft -- and the result was a comforting, strangely familiar plate made only more interesting by its bizarre juxtapositions.
The atún con tacu tacu, Gurevich's favorite dish on the menu, was a pitch-perfect overload of sensations: flash-seared tuna touched with a light black-pepper-and-orange-zest crust, mounted over a fat, flat, crisp-edged tacu-tacu cake made of mashed lentils and rice, the plate styled out in competing swirls of yellow aji "demi" and a Cape gooseberry aguaymanto. On the page, I couldn't even pronounce the dish. On the plate, it was comfort food with a nose job -- Peruvian, yet made foreign only by language. The chuletón was another: a pork chop over bacon, cabbage and potato hash, like a bog-Irish dinner party. And the lomo saltado could have been a steak dinner cooked up by a Chinese immigrant in suburban Lima -- wok-fried beef with onions, soy, garlic and a final jolt of chile, served with fried potatoes. These dishes all come from the heart of Peruvian cuisine, a complicated marriage of Andean staples and overlapping waves of immigrant flavors -- peasant food for wandering palates that refuse to stay put.
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On another night, tucked back in the wine-colored dining room, washed in the buzz of conversations well-lubricated by egg-thickened pisco sours, gin-and-cucumber tortugas, honey vodka and ginger-infused rum, I had a barely passable chicharrón de pollo -- chicken nuggets, essentially, that tasted exactly like the ones at Chick-fil-A -- and a pile of limp fries touched with sugar. I chased that disappointment by picking my way through a companion's crowded plate of aji de gallina, pulled chicken in an aji cream sauce, cilantro rice, sour black olives and yellow potatoes. Then came an excellent fritada of double-cooked pork (steamed first, then fried, like Michoac´n carnitas), salsa criolla, fried plantains and more cancha chulpe, as well as a plate of Peruvian duck confit -- arroz con pato -- that had been so carefully constructed and babied, nursed overnight and powerfully flavored, I almost felt bad about eating it.
But I did eat it, of course. I ate everything on our table. And then I almost stole one of the quinoa-crusted scallops -- set atop a purée of spinach and parsnip, detailed with red beet and passion-fruit reductions -- off the plate of some guy at the table next to mine who'd been unwise enough to leave it unattended while he went to talk to the bartender.
After months of serious ups and killer downs, Limón has finally hit its stride. Working in the range of a hundred covers -- with parties still turned away on the busiest nights -- the guys in the kitchen have found their groove. The menu is no less foreign, but it now comes off clean -- bare of pretense and sharply defined rather than the jangled and untidy product of fatigue. The floor staff have learned their courses so well that they've almost worn trenches in the floor. The vibe in the dining room is one of competence and excitement instead of borderline panic.
And Limón itself, while always an interesting restaurant, is now also a very good one. That's a double threat, and a formula for true success. And all it took to get there was learning how to fail upward and succeed by doing less.