Saunter through the kitchen of Del Campo, Victor Albisu's new Washington restaurant, and you might think the chef is having a bad day.
Over here is a blackened avocado. The halved fruit rests on its rounded bottom, skin still on, and its creamy green interior is barely discernible under a layer of black char. Tomatoes are blistered. Chilies are blackened. Broccoli rabe is charred. Pretty much all the other foods in sight are similarly discolored.
But these are not mistakes. Albisu simply likes to play with fire, and his new restaurant celebrates a char-focused approach to South American cooking.
"I feel it's going to be familiar but almost revolutionary," Albisu says. "Maybe revolutionary isn't the right word. It's more the elevation of simple cooking."
As a boy growing up in Falls Church, Va., Albisu learned the techniques of Cuba's fabled barbecue from his paternal grandfather. "My grandfather and I would dig a pit in the back yard and roast whole pigs, or we would just grill," Albisu recalls. "He was just an amazing natural cook."
On Sundays, his family hosted giant asados, or barbecues. Friends, acquaintances and relatives flocked to the Albisu home to socialize while dining on crispy-skinned pig marinated overnight in sour oranges, garlic and oregano, then smoked all day on a section of fence over the hole they'd dug.
Other grills were going at the same time, including a brick pit. "We were cooking every kind of steak you could imagine, and chorizo," he rhapsodizes. "We also had empanadas, and put those on the grill."
Albisu sees Del Campo as a paean to those backyard gatherings. "This restaurant is kind of a desire to get back to that," he says. "It's kind of a trip backwards, to the kind of contentment I felt in my childhood."
The trip has been long. From age 12 through his adolescence, Albisu worked in the butcher shop of his Peruvian mother's Latin grocery store in Alexandria, Va. He went on to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He has worked at Michelin three-star restaurant L'Arpege in Paris and, in Washington, the contemporary Latin restaurant Ceiba, the Belgian-influenced French restaurant Marcel's and the American bistro and bar Ardeo (plus) Bardeo. Most recently, he served as executive chef at BLT Steak.
In recent years, the scruffy 38-year-old chef has traveled to South America, where he had something of a culinary awakening in Peru. "To me, Lima is so unrecognized, even today," he says. "It's amazing to me. I can't tell you enough how inherently refined the flavors are. It is something I took for granted until my experience expanded and I lived in Paris. The more I knew, the more I respect where I came from. Obviously, French food is entirely different. But the flavors and the pairings just made me really proud of what I already learned."
Albisu is a sentimentalist but not a traditionalist. At Del Campo, he'll serve grilled seviche and charred salads. His personal history and ethnic background inform his relationship with food but do not suffocate it.
His experimentation in charring and grilling, for example, draws on flavors summoned only by a classic asado, or South American barbecue. Where meats, typically cuts of beef, are grilled or smoked in open pits over wood embers, Albisu conjures similar flavors from a small smoker box, a charcoal grill and, of course, a few cast-iron skillets.
He uses a dry skillet to impart a grill-like flavor to vegetables. "It caramelizes them and brings out hidden flavors," he says, adding that charring is common in South America. "Metal on fire. Pretty basic. I am just doing it in some different ways."
While we talk, as if to demonstrate, he slaps some ricotta cheese on a dry cast-iron pan over high heat. When the cheese is blackened, he transfers it to a plate. He proceeds to char vegetables: tomatoes, olives, broccoli rabe, a couple of small chilies. He adds them to the cheese, then drizzles the whole with an herb-and-lime vinaigrette to create a complex salad — a wonderfully earthy, sprightly dish. (When I get home that evening, I try to duplicate it for dinner guests; I get close.) The grilled-cheese-without-bread trick shows up on the menu at Del Campo in the form of charred provolone with an herb salad.
"Use a cast-iron pan," he says when I ask later about tips for home cooks. "Set your heat at medium to medium-high. Allow the char to develop to caramelization. You don't want to cook the food, just caramelize it. It's trial and error."
Albisu also uses a simple Cameron's indoor stovetop smoker, which is basically a deep, rectangular cake pan with a tight lid and a rack. He places a bed of house-dried herbs into the bottom of the pan, places a cut of meat on the rack, then carefully wields a blowtorch to get the herbs to smolder. He closes the lid and lets the herb-infused smoke perfume the meats for just a little bit, anywhere from about 30 seconds to two minutes.
The menu features a smoked Iberico pork chop with "burnt garlic pearl vinaigrette." The veal chop comes with blistered arugula. Prawns (grilled, of course) are dressed with grilled lemon oil.
Even desserts get the flame. There's grilled pineapple in the tres leches cake, grilled apricot in the rice pudding and a grilled lemon pound cake with pisco-macerated strawberry compote.
All that scorching, charring, burning, smoking and other three-alarm variations on barbecue and grilling extend traditional notions of live-fire cooking, which says something about the incredible rise of barbecue in recent years.
"I think definitely now is the time to do something different," the chef says. "I grew up on it and continue to eat this way and enjoy it. I'm just refining it a little."
His refinements are less about technique than about flavor. They include adding nontraditional ingredients such as broccoli rabe and olives to classic Peruvian dishes and tweaking traditional Peruvian pairings, such as citrus and fish, with char.
On cue, Albisu gets an idea. He happens across a piece of beautiful raw salmon and cuts it into thin slices about an inch long and half-inch wide. He grabs the charred avocado I saw when I arrived and chops it into small squares, then forms the diced fruit into a line about the length of a finger. Meticulously, he drapes the salmon slices over the avocado, then drizzles a burnt-onion-flecked chimichurri vinaigrette over it. (Sometimes, he says, he chars salmon and pairs it with avocado and a lemon aioli.)
I take a bite. The flavor is both bright and subtly dark, familiar and transporting. By using the standard combination of fish and avocado and pairing it with the unconventional chimichurri (usually reserved for steak) and charring, Albisu doesn't upend tradition; he just tweaks it. The spontaneous dish is a modern take on a Peruvian mainstay.
"Seviche," Albisu says.
Of course. Seviche. Just, you know, a little refined.
Provoleta With Herb Salad
4 appetizer servings
Who doesn't like seared and melted cheese? The crust is the best part of the provoleta.
It's nice to cook and serve this in a shallow, enameled cast-iron gratin dish. Be advised that it will smoke up your kitchen.
This will be on the menu at Del Campo, Victor Albisu's recently restaurant in Washington.
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, preferably small ones
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
One 1-inch-thick slice provolone (12 ounces)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Leaves from 2 stems flat-leaf parsley
Leaves from 1 stem basil
Leaves from several stems watercress
Freshly ground black pepper
4 slices country bread, toasted, for serving
Heat a cast-iron griddle over medium heat.
Sprinkle half of the oregano and half of the crushed red pepper flakes onto the thick slice of provolone, pressing them into the top side of the cheese. Place the cheese on the griddle, seasoned side down. Cook for about 2 minutes, until you see the bottom start to caramelize, then turn it over and cook until the second side starts to brown and the cheese is melted.
Sprinkle with the remaining oregano and crushed red pepper flakes, then drizzle with 1 teaspoon of the oil. Remove from the heat.
Toss the parsley, basil and watercress in a mixing bowl with the remaining teaspoon of oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Divide the hot cheese among individual plates, with equal portions of the herb salad alongside. Serve right away, with the toasted slices of bread for scooping up the cheese.
NUTRITION Per serving: 320 calories, 22 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 25 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 810 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Roasted Lamb Shanks With Burnt Carrots and Goat Cheese
This dish offers traditional and refined combinations of South American flavors. The sweetness and texture of the carrots balance out the rich and succulent meat.
Chef Victor Albisu likes to grill slices of country bread and serve broken pieces of it over the lamb shanks.
Piment d'espelette is a mild, sweet ground pepper, available at La Cuisine in Alexandria, Va., and Penzeys.
MAKE AHEAD: The lamb shanks need to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to overnight. From Albisu, chef at Del Campo in Washington.
4 lamb shanks (10 to 12 ounces each)
1 bunch rosemary
1 head garlic, smashed; peel half of the cloves
1/2 cup malbec
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons smoked Maldon sea salt, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon piment d'espelette (ground espelette powder; may substitute sweet paprika; see headnote)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
About 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably South American
1/4 cup packed chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 small bunches medium-size stem-on carrots, scrubbed well
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
6 ounces good-quality goat cheese (in a log), cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
2 bunches arugula, rinsed and dried (about 1 3/4 pounds)
Combine the lamb shanks, all but 1 sprig of the rosemary, the unpeeled garlic cloves, all of the wine and the lemon zest in a large zip-top bag. Seal and massage to coat the shanks thoroughly. Marinate for at least 2 hours or in the refrigerator overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a roasting pan at hand that's large enough to hold the lamb shanks.
Remove the shanks from the bag, reserving the marinade. Season them all over with 2 teaspoons of smoked salt, the black pepper and the piment d'espelette, placing them in the roasting pan along with their marinade as you work. (Discard the skins of the roasted garlic and the spent rosemary.) Roast for about 45 minutes or until the shanks begin to show some caramelization; turn them over and cook for 45 minutes or until the meat has begun to pull away from the bone. (The total cooking time may be longer or shorter than the suggested 1 1/2 hours, depending on the size of the shanks.)
Allow the shanks to rest for 15 to 20 minutes, then add the vinegar, 8 tablespoons of the oil, the chopped parsley and the remaining peeled garlic cloves to the roasting pan. Place the pan (with the shanks in it) over medium-low heat and gently warm through for less than 1 minute; reserve the pan mixture as the sauce for the dish.
Cut the carrots in half lengthwise and place in a mixing bowl. (Depending on their size, cut the carrots into shapes that allow a surface area for charring.) Mince the remaining rosemary leaves (to yield 2 teaspoons) and add to the carrots, along with 3 tablespoons of the oil and the thyme. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add the carrots in a single layer, cut side down, leaving plenty of room around them. Allow them to char irregularly. Depending on their size, cook the carrots for 5 to 7 minutes with the understanding that they are meant to be overcooked toward the tips and slightly undercooked toward the top. Turn the carrots only once to ensure they char well. Transfer to a plate.
Keep the cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil and swirl to coat the bottom, then add the goat cheese rounds; cook briefly, just until they develop crisp, dark edges, then transfer them to the lamb shanks, draping them over each one.
Add the arugula to the hot skillet; cook undisturbed just until the leaves blister. Season with smoked salt to taste, then drizzle with the remaining oil. Remove from the heat.
When ready to serve, divide the charred carrots among individual plates, using them to form a raftlike base. Place a lamb shank on each portion, then top with the blistered arugula and some of the warmed pan mixture.
NUTRITION Per serving: 1140 calories, 70 g protein, 30 g carbohydrates, 81 g fat, 20 g saturated fat, 195 mg cholesterol, 1270 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 13 g sugar
Charred Salmon Crudo With Grilled Avocado and Lemon Aioli
4 to 6 appetizer servings
This dish showcases the flavors of the grill in a seviche style. It is rich, fresh and interesting. The more char you develop on the fish, the more flavor there will be.
MAKE AHEAD: The aioli can be prepared in advance and refrigerated for up to 2 days. The pork rinds are purchased. The vegetables can be prepared and refrigerated a day in advance. From Victor Albisu, chef at Del Campo in Washington.
One 8-ounce piece sushi-grade, skin-on wild-caught salmon belly
Freshly ground black pepper
1 ripe, skin-on avocado, cut in half and pitted, for garnish
1 large egg yolk
1 small clove garlic, coarsely chopped
Several very thin strips lemon zest (no pith)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup canola oil
3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces broccoli rabe, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 red radishes, cut in half and then into thin half-moons, for garnish
3 tablespoons crushed good-quality store-bought pork rinds, for garnish
Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high. If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly under the cooking area. For a very hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly oil the grill grate and place it on the grill.
Make sure all of the fish scales are removed. Season the salmon belly lightly with salt and pepper. Grill it skin side up (uncovered) for 1 to 2 minutes or just until the flesh begins to turn a little opaque but is not cooked through. Transfer to a cutting board; use a very sharp knife to cut the salmon on the diagonal into very thin slices. Discard the skin.
Place the avocado halves on the grill grate, cut side down; grill for 2 or 3 minutes to form char marks. Transfer to a cutting board and discard the skin. Cut each half into chunks.
Combine the egg yolk, garlic, half of the lemon zest and 1/2 tablespoon of the lemon juice in a blender or mini food processor; puree until smooth. With the motor running, gradually add the canola oil to form a thickened aioli. Season with salt to taste; transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use.
Whisk together the remaining strips of lemon zest and lemon juice and the olive oil in a mixing bowl to form an emulsified dressing.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the broccoli rabe and sear until charred but crisp, about 2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the dressing and toss to coat, then sprinkle lightly with salt.
Spread some of the aioli on individual plates. Use tongs to arrange equal portions of the broccoli rabe on top. Lay salmon slices over the vegetable, then drizzle with the lemon dressing left in the bowl. Garnish each portion with some of the avocado, radish slices and crushed pork rinds. Pass the remaining aioli at the table.
Serve right away.
NUTRITION Per serving (based on 6): 250 calories, 9 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 24 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 65 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar