Amazonia and Causa restaurant review: Two tastes of Peru under one roof

It took him almost five years, but chef Carlos Delgado finally opened his highly anticipated, two-part dream in Blagden Alley: Amazonia and Causa, casual and fine-dining love letters, respectively, to his native Peru.

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The first retreat, on the second story, rolled out in April. The second oasis, behind a walnut door on the ground floor, made its debut in September. Both restaurants benefit from the skills of a design team in Peru and are co-owned by Glendon Hartley and Chad Spangler, founders of Service Bar on U Street NW and responsible for the wines and spirits here.

Taking the stairs versus the elevator to Amazonia goes a long way toward fitting in your 10,000 steps a day. Either way, once you reach the summit, the reward is a sweep of color and animation: a jungle of green plants, a sun-drenched rooftop bar, a lounge that’s busy and beautiful with fanciful wallpaper and plush seating. No detail is too small. Order a pisco sour, and the egg white froth is inscribed with the word Causa with the help of a stencil and citrus ash, a sustainable alternative to bitters.

Why I’m saying goodbye to star ratings in my restaurant reviews

Our well-informed server practically insists we start with madurito, and the way she describes the combination of hard-fried plantain plied with smoked pork ragu, toasted peanuts and molten cheese has us biting, and eager to follow her recommendations. The menu is a collection of what the chef thinks of as “must haves” in the Peruvian repertoire, so naturally we add a few skewers to our order: juicy chicken thighs, lush salmon belly, pleasantly chewy duck tongues, everything cooked over long-burning Japanese charcoal.

The kitchen, shared with Causa, revels in freshness. Your ceviche is made to order, and brighter for the effort. If your only experience with hearts of palm is out of a can, do yourself a favor and order the salad starring the crunchy vegetable flown over from Hawaii, paired with creamy avocado and carpeted with coins of fried plantains and pickled Peruvian peppers shaped like red teardrops.

Lomo saltado is a class act, stir-fried in a wok to a rosy hue with a wash of sauce that hints of soy but tastes more of beef — something you might expect a French chef to whip up. Bomba rice cooked in fermented corn beer and swirled with sofrito arrives with lobes of sea urchin whose maritime fragrance puts you enticingly close to the Pacific.

The server might forget to tell you, so let me: A 20 percent gratuity is added to your bill — fine by me, finer when I’m informed at the drop of the check.

“We’re going to touch on coastal cooking, then the Andes, and finish in the Amazon,” says our guide at Causa, the six-course tasting menu experience that opens with a toast to the restaurant’s name in the form of a gorgeous snack. Sunny yellow mashed potatoes paved with cucumber slices and topped with diced scallops bound with mayonnaise — a play on Peru’s popular causa rellena — is reduced to a single bite, the goodness held together on two sides with sheer sweet potato tiles. Mouth, meet world-class potato salad.

Good impressions form even before you sit down here, though, when you’re introduced to a display of fish near the entrance. Most of the specimens are flown in whole from Japan; recent models have included amberjack, madai, triple tail and bonito. Your eyes are also drawn to a room that’s minimalist but inviting. Floating above the bar is a shimmering panel of mother-of-pearl; illuminating the tables are lights tucked into floppy woven baskets. Wine pairings are a possibility, but so is a pisco flight, three drinks for between $30 (for staff favorites) and $80 (for rare vintages) and a lesson in how varied grape brandy can be.

Unadvertised, a flurry of hors d’oeuvres shows up. They include a little blimp of a crab croquette crowned with black caviar and a single mussel, nestled in its shell with a tangy tomato emulsion and presented as if on a beach, amid small stones and seaweed. Delgado — a veteran of China Chilcano in Penn Quarter who’s assisted by chef de cuisine Alex Lazo, 31, a fellow Peruvian — explains much of his cooking in person.

“I’m the highest-paid food runner here,” Delgado, 32, likes to joke. The personal appearances are a chance for diners to chat up the chef and for Delgado, an earnest teacher, to welcome patrons to what he calls “my home, my kitchen, where I just try to take care of you.”

A diner could get used to the pampering. The official first course is a nod to Delgado’s mentor, José Andrés: yellowtail that’s been aged a week to develop umami and arranged with crushed Peruvian corn and yellow crumbles of frozen leche de tigre, the “tiger’s milk” that “cooks” raw fish. Liquid nitrogen is added to the dish before it’s served, creating the light fog. Recipients are coached to stir the ingredients together and create their own ceviche. Fun! Delicious, too. A much plainer, but no less intriguing, dish follows: banana fingerling potatoes encased in cocoons whipped up from egg whites, salt and huacatay, the Peruvian herb reminiscent of tarragon, mint and citrus. “In Peru, we’d use edible clay,” Delgado says of the shell, which is cracked at the table to reveal potatoes infused with the flavor of huacatay.

Small skewers of ultra-rich salmon belly, basted with a brassy sauce of red wine vinegar, cumin and aji panca, and tempeh (sometimes beef tongue), beaded with quinoa, follow. “There’s a 500-year-old tradition of quinoa in Peru,” a server lets us know.

Items from the “fish market” section part of the menu cost extra — from $29 to $350 (for four pounds of Spanish mackerel) — a detail some customers have told me they’ve chafed at. Why the tease after you’ve already paid up front for the dinner?

Because, I want to say, six courses for $85 is a relative bargain compared to much of the fine-dining competition, and everyone else offers supplements, too. I have yet to splurge on a whole fish, which the kitchen serves several ways, but I’ve sampled from among the rest of the catch, and I can vouch for the scallops, which come in live from Rhode Island and can also be ordered with different preparations. A purist when it comes to some ingredients — a squeeze of lemon is the most garnish I tend to use on oysters — I ordered the Rhode Island scallops “natural.” Definitely worth the $35 surcharge, flavored as they were with just a suggestion of lime and salt along with their blushing pink roe, delicate and tasting sweetly of the sea.

For $75, there’s abalone from Japan, presented in thin slices in a pool of ponzu sauce with pleasantly chewy beech mushrooms. Anyone who has ever fished for abalone will understand the cost attached to the luxury good. (Remind me to tell you about the time I took an early-morning swim in 50-degree water off the coast of northern California with one of the principals of Cakebread Cellars, only somewhat cheered to hear him tell me that “the sharks shouldn’t bother us.”)

Spain’s influence on Peru surfaces in one of the most sumptuous dishes of the night, bomba rice swollen with the flavor of garlic and culantro — think cilantro, but more pungent — and dressed with soft scored calamari. Moments such as this bring to mind Central in Lima, widely regarded as one of the top restaurants in the world and a reminder that Peru has one of the best natural pantries of any country.

Plenty of top chefs have elevated the idea of meat and potatoes. Delgado’s wagyu beef, sliced thin as a ribbon, paired with a 30-layer bar of potato, parmesan and brilliant aji amarillo, ranks as a favorite of the genre. The dish is a hat tip to pachamanca, the ancient practice of cooking layers of food underground over hot rocks.

Dessert stars macambo, a fruit from the cocoa family, in a dreamy mousse piped to look like soft-serve ice cream. Inside and atop the swirl are passion fruit gelato and gel, bright foils to the delicate white base.

The ending will be familiar to patrons of the fine (dining) arts: bonbons hidden in a little box that unfolds to reveal separate stages for miniature cookies, chocolates and fruit gems, one night mango torched with charapita, the pricey Amazonian pepper.

The last impression is a customary send-off, delivered in distinctive fashion, by an ambitious chef who might just as well go by the title Mr. Ambassador.

920 Blagden Alley NW. 202-780-8607. Accessibility: No barriers to entry, although the foyer is small. An elevator leads to the top floor. ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Staff members are not required to wear masks but are all vaccinated. Amazonia: Open for indoor and outdoor dining 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, 5 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Friday, 4 p.m. to midnight Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $6 to $19, main courses $19 to $38. Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Causa: Open for indoor dining 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Prices: $85 for six-course chef’s tasting menu. Supplements from the fish market $29 to $350. Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy.

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