Under the Incan Sun

Peruvian-inspired restaurant del Inti adds the flavors of the Northwest to a cuisine that embodies cultural fusion

By Martha Calhoon May 19, 2009 Published in the April 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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Potatoes and chiles from the Incas. Limes, cheeses, and olives from the Spaniards. Soy and ginger from the Chinese. Seafood from the Japanese. Combinations that at first may sound like a gimmick in nouveau cuisine are in fact the savory-sweet (and little-known) hallmarks of Peruvian food. Peru’s eclectic cuisine blends the centuries-old influence of the conquistadors with the more exotic flourishes of the Far East—but what happens when it is uprooted from the Andean peaks and South American jungles and submitted to the temperate evergreen climes of the Pacific Northwest?

Perhaps the next era in an already dynamic culinary evolution.

Ignacio del Solar, with his wife, Erin, opened the sky-blue restaurant del Inti (or “of the sun” in the language of the Incas) last September on NE Alberta Street. Ignacio, former head chef at the Pearl District gem Andina, runs the kitchen with a staff of two, while Erin often manages the front of the house. An open kitchen and a copper-surfaced bar bookend a dimly lit dining room bathed in burnt ocher and cream tones, and accented by dark wood, flickering tea lights, and a smattering of Peruvian prints. In many restaurants, an open kitchen introduces clanging pots and bustling commotion to the dining atmosphere, but at del Inti a quiet, casual intimacy pervades. The polished cork floor further reduces noise pollution, though there isn’t much to contend with here on a sleepy Wednesday night. “If you drop a glass, you can’t hear it, and it doesn’t break,” a waiter tells me in a Spanish accent thick enough to spread on my slice of olive bread. “And it’s good for my feet,” he adds.

I’d say his feet were well worth preserving, seeing how readily he refilled my bread basket and my bowl of creamy garlic-and-green-onion dip. (When I returned that weekend, I was disappointed to find the dip replaced with a bland fava bean curry). When I ask what he recommends, he doesn’t hesitate: ceviche.


Ceviche mixto at Del Inti

Arguably Peru’s national dish, ceviche has its own distinct category on del Inti’s menu, just ahead of the appetizers. Its signature raw seafood is briefly cured in a splash of leche de tigre (a lime-juice mixture) and seasoned with rocoto pepper (or other seasonings) mere moments before it arrives at your table. The ceviche mixto comes heaped with tender pink shrimp, mussels, white fish, and scallops. Razor-thin strips of red onion and a sprinkling of earthy, almost nutty, roasted corn kernels balance soft bites of seafood with crisp texture.

Light, with a citrusy tang, the ceviche whets my taste for the appetizer course: papas rellenas (crispy potato croquettes) and a quail roasted to perfection, stuffed with quinoa, shallots, and white truffles, and glazed with a lightly sweet quince reduction. Traditionally, papas rellenas would be filled with meat, but del Solar is no slave to custom. His papas rellenas have a fluffy center of potato and queso fresco, with raisins for contrast; the olives that would normally be folded into the meat filling appear, instead, as a tapenade for the croquettes. Offering this vegetarian alternative is just one of several distinctly Portland-inspired breaks with tradition at a restaurant that bills itself as “Peruvian-Northwest.”

The seafood at del Inti stands out, but the meat transcends. Cilantro-braised lamb shoulder on a bed of canary-bean stew is rich and implausibly tender. The hanger steak saltado comes cut in thick, juicy pieces and is served in a colorful arrangement of roasted peppers, Roma tomatoes, and red onions (a soy sauce marinade recalls Peru’s nineteenth-century legacy of Chinese immigrant laborers).

Among the more subtle surprises on the menu is the spinach quinotto (quinoa risotto) which, admittedly, I order with limited enthusiasm. The spinach purée with quinoa, cooked Oregon apples, and caramelized onions doesn’t seem like much of an entrée, and its presentation is similarly unexciting­—mushy and pale green, topped with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. But I find this dish deliciously creamy and delightfully un-spinachy. Fennel and spicy oil folded into the mixture elevate it from any potential blandness without being overpowering.

My meal ends with marionberry flan—the crimson dollop of marionberry compote on top offers a fresh, tart counterpoint to the flan’s caramelly sweetness. Yet another example of South America meeting Northwest, as if it were always meant to be so.

Closed Monday and Tuesday.