by Alice Levitt
1068 Williston Rd., South Burlington, 802-863-6363
Every so often, I'm lucky enough to report a food discovery far more special than a great pizza or sandwich. This is definitely one of them.
I've never heard anyone complain about a lack of Peruvian food in Vermont the way folks often do about Ethiopian, Russian or Korean barbecue. It's a cuisine that tends to fly under most diners' radar, so much so that no one knows they can get it on request at Harper's Restaurant at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington.
Chef Ana (Holiday Inn employees didn't know her last name), a native of Peru, spends most of her time preparing a range of dishes, from garlic-bacon meatloaf to Switchback fish and chips. However, if asked, she'll bring in her native spices and do some real home cooking. When I requested my Peruvian meal, I didn't know to ask ahead for her to bring her special supplies, so she made do with what she had in the kitchen.
Meals begin with a choice of soup or salad -- good ol' American ones. The evening's soup was kale with chorizo. As the oils from the spicy meat mixed with the sweet, onion-filled broth, it provided a preview of the big flavor to come. Hot little balls of rolls came to the table with these starters. Though just north of stale, they were perfect for soaking up the zingy broth.
The salad was less impressive. The mix of iceberg and baby lettuce was more brown and white than green. However, the Caesar dressing on the side appeared to be homemade and was tangy, rich and garlicky.
For those unfamiliar with Peruvian cuisine, its bizarre fusions can come as a surprise. Imagine American food prepared by a Martian. This is a country that calls salchipapas, a dish of cut-up hot dogs mixed with fries and salad, a common appetizer. Peru's national dish is ceviche, but it could just as easily be lomo saltado, a stirfry inspired by the country's Chinese immigrants.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Chef Ana said her special haddock was based on a contemporary Peruvian dish. The perfectly cooked, moist chunk of fish sat bathing in light lemon cream sauce flavored by thinly sliced garlic and pepperoncini. The glut of peppers made the whole dish extremely spicy to a New England palate. I enjoyed every bit of fire that I breathed in the name of the delicious, though unlikely, dish.
The grilled chicken was perhaps less exotic, but no less shimmering with flavor. The pair of juicy chicken breasts were crusted with spices and topped with lightly sautéed red onions. Like a moat surrounding an island of rice pilaf, mildly spiced orange cream sauce filled the bottom of the dish. The tangy, sweet sauce was addictive. Though it filled every crevice of food on the plate, I still wished there were more.
My major quibble with the meal was the pricing. Two entrées and a soda added up to $44.99 before tip. That's twice what I'm used to paying for a Peruvian dinner out of the area, but I realize that Harper's is a hotel restaurant. That's just how it works.
I'll just have to save up for my next Peruvian meal. I'll give Chef Ana plenty of time to bring her spices so she can prepare a dinner just the way she would at home.