I'm going to completely date myself here, but as a kid, while most of my friends were obsessed with Sweet Valley High - I had maxed out my quota at the local public library with books from the Choose Your Own Adventure and Nancy Drew series (which succeeded Encyclopedia Brown).
I loved the interactivity of these books, where you have to pick up clues along the way to help you arrive at the right conclusion (solve the mystery! save the day! get to the happy ending!). My OCD apparently developed early as well - with the CYOA books, I would go back and follow every path in the decision tree so I can see all the possible scenarios, and see how my original decisions stacked against other options. I would keep a post-it on the figurative 'fork in the road' (yes, post-its had been invented by then, I am not that old, dammit...), go down one path, and flip back to find out where the other fork led. I loved Encylopedia Brown, with its charming 'neighborhood mysteries' - and maybe partly because a lot of times, he helped his dad, the chief of police, solve his harder cases while at the dinner table. That set the scene for two of my biggest loves in life.
So it was, that when one of the hottest chefs from one of the hottest restaurants in LA sent out an invite for a 'Mystery Meat Dinner', there was no way in the world I would miss it. Even if the term for most people, and if issued by lesser venues, would elicit fear and thoughts of culinary Russian Roulette. Even if it was, very literally, a dark, stormy and ominous night. And no one I knew wanted to leave their house. Even if I'm not a big meat eater (much prefer seafood). I love mysteries, I love surprises when it comes to food, and I grew up eating almost everything and will try almost anything once (bird spit? good for your skin. cow spinal cord? love it like a tougher savory marshmallow). And it was 6-courses for the very reasonable price of $50. So, I had no choice but to get myself to Picca Peru for their one-night only event.
Everything on mixologist Julian Cox's menu looked good, but I decided to go with the one recommended by our server: Zarate's Tomahawk #15 ($12) with rocoto infused mezcal, fresh lemon juice, agave nectar, fresh huacatay, cucumber foam.
I don't normally like mezcal (too smoky, tastes like liquid cigar) but liked that there were unfamiliar elements in this drink, and was reassured that it would be well balanced with the refreshing citrus, agave, huacatay (Andean mint-like herb) and cucumber - and she was right. The rocoto (pepper) infusion gave the drink subtle heat, cooled off by the frothy cucumber foam. Off to a great start.
This would have been the point in a meal where guests would usually have been offered food menus, if not before. Instead came the plates of mystery meat (with a promise that we will get the menu after dinner, for the big 'reveal'). It was so much fun to try to guess what each course was as they came. Play along with me as I relive the meal...
What I tasted/guessed:
White or red: White meat
Consistency - smooth, juicy, not too fibrous. This made me think maybe quail, but...
Other clues: telltale skinny bones were not there, and the meat was a bit too light in color to be quail. There was some sort of unfamiliar cartilage that wasn't consistent with quail bone structure...
It couldn't possibly be chicken, could it? Has to be quail, I deduced - maybe some part of it I hadn't eaten before.
What it was: Culito de Pollo a La Brasa huancaina rustica, beet salad
Foiled! Brilliant to serve up the most common of fowl as the first course, just when people were expecting the exotic, to keep us guessing. Yeah it was chicken, even though it was so juicy (even for dark meat) and smooth, and without that distinct chicken flavor, that I didn't think it was possible. I stand corrected. Perhaps it was the pungent herbed crust that masked the chicken taste. But, the cutesy name 'culito' belies what it truly was - a euphemism for the business end of the hen. That's what that cartilage was. I had just eaten chicken butt. Really tasty though, especially paired with the refreshing, clean, beet salad.
What I tasted/guessed:
White or red meat: red
Consistency: on the crostini, the meat was like ground beef, and a little dry; on the risotto, the meat was tender and 'stripped' in long panels, like beef belly - the texture reminded me of the meat some Taiwanese places use in Niu Rou Mian (beef stew noodle soup)
Flavor - kind of gamey...
Other clues: Knowing Alpaca is a Peruvian specialty (llama-like creature), I figured Chef Zarate would use it at some point, and the crostini reminded me of what he sampled at the Los Angeles Food & Wine event last month - which was alpaca. So I guessed alpaca for the crostini, and beef belly (for a twist from the usual pork belly)
What it was: Alpaca Two Ways alpaca stew, barley risotto and alpaca and chorizo crostini
Should have guessed since they were two presentations on the same plate, that it would be the same meat showcased two ways. Loved both preparations but liked the pairing with the barley risotto slightly more - the rich and creamy carbs went fantastically with the rich flavored, tender meat.
What I tasted/guessed:
White or red meat: neither, this looked like offal but probably from a cow
Consistency: a little chewy, and in hefty, wide strands. Is it offal or is it maybe 'skirt steak skin', super tenderized?
Other clues: has sort of crispy/crunchy exterior from frying, I think.
I couldn't make out what sort of offal this could be!
What it was: Choncholin braised intestine marinated in anticucho sauce, spicy rocoto.
Really loved this dish, well balanced with the heft of the crispy potato chunks offsetting the slightly crispy, intensely flavorful and slightly chewy intestines. My only note was that the rocoto (orange looking sauce in photo, made of hot peppers) was super spicy and made my eyes water a bit, but that's just me not being able to handle my spice. Loved the tamale inspired presentation on the corn husk.
What I tasted/guessed:
White or red meat: neither, this one was easy to identify and I felt like maybe a 'freebie' from the chef...
Consistency: chewy, would have been rubbery if not well cooked to tenderness; most pieces have honeycomb-like structure
Finally, one that I could feel confident in identifying - I knew this one had to be tripe!
What it was: Cau-cau peruvian potato and tripe stew, jalapeno sarsa, cumin yogurt
Loved this dish - not only were the 'meat' for most of the dishes unfamiliar, the preparations were also a nice surprise. I've typically had tripe with pho or at dim sum steamed with soy-based sauce. In Picca's preparation the tripe was cooked to perfect tenderness, soft and goes down easy, yet retaining its structure. Loved that it was served in a rich, flavorful, starchy stew with a refreshing dollop of yogurt to break things up a bit.
What I tasted/guessed:
White or red meat: neither, organ meat for sure
Consistency: chewy but still very tender. My first thought was liver but it didn't have the 'crumbly' quality of cooked liver. Whichever the organ, it was definitely from a cow, has that distinct beef taste. Might have guessed heart next since that is a specialty at Picca.
What it was: Chanfainita beef lungs stew, peruvian mote
I thought this was a delicious, hearty stew (especially with the tomato base and giant kernels of Peruvian mote or corn) but that turned out not to be the organ of choice. It's not the first time I've had lung but I usually have pork lung boiled into Chinese soup and don't actually see or eat the lung. Foiled on this one!
What I tasted:
The last course was dessert, and I was wondering how they would work in a protein.
I saw what looked like a berry sauce (a beautiful deep purple) over a white creamy pudding. I tasted orbs of berries and lush sauce with carefully controlled sugar so it wasn't overbearingly sweet, and then more orbs of what I can only describe as like large maybe lima or broad beans that added a bit of crunch. Followed by a massive crunch of something that was sharp and poked at the roof of my mouth. Which I spat out. No doubts about it - it was a chocolate cricket.
What it was: Sol Y Sombra rice pudding, mazzamora morada chocolate crickets
I like to think of myself as a pretty adventurous eater, but I draw the line at bugs. This was the only dish in the meal that inspired true terror in me. I couldn't even bring myself to take a photo of the half-chewed creature on my plate. *shudder* Wish we could have ended the meal with something less...jarring. Everything else in the glass was tasty. I've never had 'mazzamora morada' before - quick research online shows it's a Peruvian dessert made with purple corn and fruit, thickened into pudding consistency with potato flour or corn starch, spiced with cloves and cinnamon. It did taste like a bit like blackberry pie filling except NOT sickly sugary. I guess those big crunchy pieces that WEREN'T bugs that I thought were beans were actually giant kernels of corn?
Cool to have tried this dish, even if I had to turn the plate so that I couldn't see the bug carcass anymore.
So, The Mystery Meat Dinner definitely broadened my horizons...I learned that I definitely don't have what it takes to be a good food detective...But the important thing was that I learned a lot and had one of the most entertaining and delicious meals this year.
All in all, a fantastically fun concept dinner that I hope will make a regular appearance at Picca. Maybe with the option to not include creatures that have more than four legs...and that would be the one time I would not go back and explore the other path.
9575 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90035
Parking: Valet $6.50 (there are meters on Pico, but they are really hard to get)
Look for reservations: opentable.com/picca