Peruvian fare is highlighted at Aji Picante in Squirrel Hill
While Pamela Cohen and Gail Klingensmith already have made a name for themselves in the Pittsburgh area with their six P&G's Pamela's restaurants, the pair have partnered again to provide somewhat less-common culinary fare.
Cohen and Klingensmith are co-owners of Aji Picante in Squirrel Hill, which serves a fusion of Latin American food with an emphasis on Peruvian cuisine. The eatery, which opened in August, already is attracting a loyal following, Cohen says.
"The community has been really supportive, and it's a great location," says Cohen, a "self-proclaimed" Squirrel Hill girl and co-owner of La Feria in Shadyside, which also specializes in Peruvian fare.
Aji Picante sits next door to the Murray Avenue Pamela's, once home to a Panera Bread. Cohen says the space was too much for just a diner, so she asked friend Jose Luis del Solar, a native of Peru, whether he would be interested in running a Peruvian restaurant. Solar, who has more than 15 years of domestic and international culinary experience, including training at culinary school in London, agreed and now runs Aji Picante along with Cohen's sister, Rise.
The team has created a cozy place for diners to immerse themselves in culture while sampling the signature culinary influences of Latin America.
Deep blues and browns dominate the color palette in Aji Picante's intimate, galley-style dining room. Two rustic-looking wooden arches frame the room, where sculptures and pottery are scattered throughout and hangings woven in red, blue and orange geometric patterns are suspended on the walls.
Candles at each table compliment the soft lighting from the circular and square fixtures hanging overhead. The seating area has room for about 50 people, with four-top tables lining one side of the aisle and a one-sided stretch of booths with four- and two-top seating along the other. Because most dishes come in large bowls, it took some maneuvering to make room for everything on a two-top table, but the friendly staff was quick to remove any finished plates to make more room.
Latin music pulses softly in the background in the dining room, which quickly began to fill with diners around 7 p.m. on a recent Friday. Walking in works for weekdays, but Cohen advises calling ahead Fridays and Saturdays.
The majority of Aji Picante's menu items have Spanish names and English descriptions. The knowledgeable staff - most all natives of Peru - are patient in explaining each dish's origin, construction and popularity in their home country.
Appetizer selections include Anticucho de Pollo, chicken skewers marinated in aj' panca (aj' is a chile pepper), apple-cider vinegar and spices; served with onion salsa and corn ($7). Red onions rubbed with salt and citrus -- a standard of most Peruvian meals, as our waitress explained -- provided the ideal compliment for this dish.
The Peruvian-style ceviche, fish marinated in lime juice and hot peppers and served with sweet corn, clams, mussels, orange-glaze sweet potatoes and Andean fried kernels of wheat ($8), was delightfully cold and spicy, with the kernels supplying a nice crunch in contrast to the slippery fish.
The Lomo Saltado entree ($21), billed on the menu as one of the favorite dishes in Peru, is influenced by Chinese cuisine and includes velvety strips of steak stir-fried with tomatoes and more red onions. The garnishes of French fries and garlic rice made the dish exceptionally filling.
One of the evening's specials, scallops parmesan ($21), was made of jumbo scallops baked in the half-shell with parmesan cheese, white wine and lime served atop a bed of homemade fettuccini in an aj' amarillo cream sauce and asparagus.
For dessert, we chose Suspiro de Lime• ($7), a Peruvian-style dulce de leche topped with whipped cream made with port wine. According to the menu, its history starts with the wife of a Peruvian poet who invented the recipe. The poet gave it its name because it is sweet and light "like a woman's sigh." The creamy confection provided the perfect amount of sweetness to end the meal.
The restaurant is BYOB — which most diners seemed to do — but offers nonalcoholic selections including the Tamarind Mojito with sprigs of fresh mint and a citrusy passion fruit orange punch ($5 each). They also have a sangria mix that can be added to diners' bottle of wine.Additional Information:
Cuisine: A fusion of Latin American food with an emphasis on Peruvian cuisine.
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sunday; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Entree price range: $15-$25
Notes: Accepts all major credit cards; reservations recommended on Friday and Saturday. BYOB
Location: 1711 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill
Details: 412-422-0220 or www.ajipgh.com