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Essencia Restaurant

New Peruvian Adds a Little South American Flair to Hayes Valley

When in the Hayes Valley neighborhood and craving something brasserie-ish, I always think of Absinthe. For something casual and perfect with a lager, my go-to is Suppenkuche. While these two mainstays and other delightful Euro-centric restaurants play nicely into the prime Hayes Street scene, newcomer Essencia is a welcome addition.

Opened by Anne Gingrass-Paik (formerly of Hawthorne Lane), Essencia dresses up the teeny, triangular space of the former (and forgettable) Pendragon Bakery & Café with a minimalist eye. Box frame windows allow much people watching and afford an airy feel. A rustic, forest animal-themed mural covers the length of the main wall, and squiggly light fixtures give a sensual visual. While the dining room is oddly shaped, there are a few nooks perfect for dates, but can easily shift to accommodate more guests. The only thing missing is a little warmth and perhaps more cohesiveness in the ambiance.

I am a huge fan of ceviche. So I was thrilled to see three preparations of it. Okay, it’s not Fresca, where you can choose from at least six, but I was happy nonetheless. We ordered two of the three. First, the Kampachi ceviche ($12), which is deconstructed by slicing the fresh sashimi-grade fish, practically melted in my mouth. The yellow pepper sauce complemented the fish nicely without overpowering it, giving depth of flavor.

The shrimp, sea bass and mussel ceviche ($11.50) reminded me of the sunomono salad, or pickled cucumber salad often found in Japanese restaurants. While this second dish may sound odd, Peruvian cuisine has been influenced by many ethnicities -- Spanish, Japanese, Arab, and Italian -- to name a few, that had immigrated to the country at least 100 years ago.
We veered away from the fish and meat appetizers only because we were slightly sated already by the ceviches and were planning on going all red meat for mains. So we decided on the artichoke and quinoa salad ($12), a delicate little number dressed with lemon parsley sauce, which possessed much more depth than its name lets on.

The lomo saltado ($26.75), a classic Peruvian steak dish, did not stimulate the palate as much as the previous dishes, but it was not bad. Having a dislike of stews, my date was disappointed that the steak had a stewed texture and was sitting in a way-too-brothy sauce, a problem recently encountered by a colleague at Piqueo's in Bernal Heights. Otherwise, the flavors of the steak, accompanied by stir-fried onions and yucca fries, were nicely rounded, and strangely enough reminded us of Slanted Door’s shaking beef. But Slanted Door does not have the delicious and crispy yucca fries!

While the leg of lamb simmered in cilantro sauce with peas, green beans, and risotto ($25) possessed great flavor, the lamb was overcooked and tough. The best thing was the spicy, cheesy risotto, served in a very cute, miniature Le Creuset Dutch oven. With both dishes, the sides slightly overshadowed the meats.

Like the menu, the wine list is concise, with an emphasis on Southern Europe and South America. While the steak and lamb would’ve easily paired well with the LaBorum malbec blend from Argentina, or perhaps one of the tempranillo selections, the Son Bordils “Negre” ($55), an interesting blend of Merlot, Monte Negro, Cabernet Franc and Syrah blend from Mallorca, caught our attention, and married beautifully with the meats.

For dessert, we opted for the guanavana mousse with strawberries ($6). We were curious about this guanavana fruit, perhaps due partly to the fun in saying it. According to our very knowledgeable server Carmen, the guanavana is a native Peruvian fruit which is green and prickly on the outside. It carries a delightfully subtle flavor -- a shy cousin to the passion fruit. Though my date doesn’t like desserts, I had to fight with my spoon for every bite.

While some have given only a so-so review of Essencia, we found it to be refreshing and were mostly happy with our picks. The menu is succinct, a nice change of pace from the long-winded menus so common these days. Service was extremely attentive and well-versed in the offerings. It may not have as strong a Peruvian character as, say, Limon, but Essencia does just fine as a Peruvian-fusion spot that hopefully will not be as forgettable as its predecessor.

Hayes Valley
Reservations Essential? Yes.