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Sangria and the Sea

Fina Estampa's Peruvian Cuisine

Dining at Fina Estampa is like dating sisters--a no-lose choice guided by mere mood of the evening. The original Mission Street locale has diners cozily nestled in the warmth of its narrow space. Across town on a highly trafficked Van Ness corner, the dark, small tables are swapped for tall, heavy doors opening up to a two-story ceiling space anchored by a mammoth marble-top bar. Area employees regularly gather here for after-work drinks, as does a local Spanish practice group for happy hour, circling around the bar and the variously shaped, motel-vinyl tables and booths that serve any imaginable seating configuration.

Though largely eluding the city's foodie radar, Fina Estampa has dished up generous - yes, huge - portions of central coast Peruvian cuisine for thirteen years. Huge portions because it continues to be family-run, Peruvian because that is from where the owner and head of the family had immigrated, central coast because like many Japanese-Peruvians, the Shinsato clan hails from that region. The regional influence is not lost on the menu, carrying an extensive seafood selection and idiosyncratically Japanese-Peruvian traces of ginger and soy sauce. Add to that spectrum the Spanish selections bearing colonial influences, and no wonder the menu emerges densely-lined pages long.

Order the sangria for the most auspicious beginning to this, and every, date. Floating with carefully cubed apples, it is that perfect balance of sweet and sharp lost among other trendier tapas venues, at many dollars less ($12 full carafe). Sip between bites of the complimentary bread, topped with the accompanying delightful house special sauces and marinades, including a delectable parsley and garlic dip and chili sauce tapenade with minced onions. Topping the tapas list is the "Ceviche Mixto" ($9.95) which has won not only an award but also the hearts of tapas-ers, who expected a sampling, not a veritable meal, of a bed of prawns, squid, and white fish doused with the freshest lemon juice. The "Palta Rellena" ($7.95), sections of an avocado generously filled with chicken or shrimp, come trimmed with olives and fresh tomato slices. And share: truly a family establishment, these tapas portions allow the whole party to sample.

Also generously portioned are the entree selections, which include numerous chicken, lamb, and beef dishes, as well as the seafood specialties. The "Pescado al Ajo" ($12.50) lives true to its name: a red snapper (as are all the fish entrees) pan fried and topped with sautéed crunchy garlic. Any hankering for seafood could not be more abundantly met than by the "Arroz con Mariscos a lo Macho" ($13.95), squid, prawns, white fish, and mussels sautéed and laid in a hearty cilantro sauce, thankfully atop white steamed rice to neutralize each spicy bite. The sangria helps too. Before taking that last sip, though, definitely do ask for that second date. The Fina Estampa pair, while different as can be, summons a most down to earth Peruvian feast - with equally down to earth prices.

Editor's note: Try Fina Estampa's authentic Pisco sour cocktails. Pisco, a Peruvian spirit that's somewhat of a cross between grappa and tequila, is whipped with citrus and egg white to produce a smooth, frothy, intoxicant that goes down all too easily.