Peruvian chef Ricardo Zarate was riding high in the Los Angeles dining scene. His last few years, though, have been rocky and mysterious. Zarate, 43, started out strong with the wildly popular Mo-Chica, originally a stall inside Mercado La Paloma, before getting its own space downtown. He expanded with Paiche in Marina del Ray and Picca near Beverly Hills, and he was named a best new chef by Food & Wine magazine in 2011.
But at the top of this mini-empire, things were not what they seemed. “Despite all of the accolades and success,” Zarate wrote in an essay for Vice, “something didn’t feel right.” He left all four restaurants and disappeared.
Of course, he didn’t, really: He wrote a cookbook (“The Fire of Peru”) and traveled extensively in Asia and South America, collecting inspiration.
The result is Rosaliné, his West Hollywood restaurant that opened in June. “With Rosaliné, I thought, this one is going to be about me,” he said, “food that represents, obviously, my roots in Peruvian cuisine, but that has the elements of what I’ve learned traveling around, of my journey.”
During a late summer dinner, it was clear that his new approach has put him solidly back on the Los Angeles dining map. We were seated in the enclosed patio dining room, which Zarate describes as a “floating garden”: Light streams in through a greenhouse-style roof and the dozens of plants hanging from it. We started with a few cocktails, all of which in some way drew inspiration from his native Peru; a highlight was the El Capitán, a Manhattan riff made with pisco, as well as sweet vermouth and Peruvian bitters.
The restaurant is named for Zarate’s mother, and the dishes have a satisfyingly homey quality (everything is meant to be shared). From the “small plates” section of the menu, we tried the pan andino, delicious quinoa bread served with rocoto pepper butter, jam and olive spread; chicharrón de paiche (made not with pork or chicken, but paiche, a huge Amazonian fish, encrusted with popped kiwacha, a Peruvian grain); and earthy, deeply flavorful beef hearts paired with more rocoto pepper, feta and a walnut sauce.
The rest of the menu is divided into four sections: family-style dishes, and sections labeled “from the sea,” “from the soil” and “from the land.” The blue prawns with yuzu kosho (a chili paste flavored with yuzu zest, one of a number of Asian ingredients Zarate sprinkles throughout the menu) and charred lime were fiery and tangy. Two salads — one, a vivid green, featuring the Peruvian staple of quinoa, the other beets done three ways — were both go-back-for-thirds tasty.
But the two standouts were also arguably the most simple: the arroz con pollo, offered with beer-flavored rice and a creamy, spicy sauce; and the whole grilled branzino, accompanied by huacatay (a sauce made with black mint and aji peppers) and a purée of canario beans. Each was like a refined version of a dish you might prepare over an open fire in an Amazonian camp.
Desserts were also sophisticated takes on classics, including alfajores, a sandwich-style Latin American cookie, and chancay con leche, a Peruvian cake flavored with a goat’s milk custard and guava frozen yogurt.
Fans of Zarate will note that we didn’t sample any ceviches, for which he is well known. Frankly, we had already ordered our food before noticing them on the back of the menu. Consider it a reason to return.
Rosaliné, 8479 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 323-297-9500; rosalinela.com. An average meal for two, without drinks, is about $110. (A 20 percent service charge is added to all checks.)