Gather up three of your best dining friends and set a date for Puerto 511.
But make a reservation first. Word is out about Puerto 511, and diners were being turned away, nicely, on a recent Saturday night. Bring along a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer, too. Puerto 511 has a BYOB policy.
And plan your route. Puerto 511 is not easy to find. The restaurant's plain entrance is on an obscure block of Clay Street, a few blocks south of the central Enoch Pratt Free Library. There used to be a sub shop at this address, but the owners of Puerto 511 have done a complete overhaul of the space.
It's pretty. The white-walled atmosphere is minimalist but not stark. The black-topped tables are set simply, with small flower vases. The room's energy comes from the open kitchen, and from diners falling in love with something new.
The chef and owner of Puerto 511 is Jose Victorio Alarcon, who relocated last year to Baltimore from Chicago, where he was the executive chef at Between Peruvian Cafe & Lounge, a warmly received restaurant in the hip Wicker Park neighborhood. Peruvian food was not a new thing in Chicago, but Between was credited with bringing a contemporary attitude about presentation to the scene.
Peruvian cuisine defies easy categorization. There are a handful of indigenous dishes and preparations you'd expect to find at any Peruvian restaurant — ceviche, for instance, and "anticuchos," the skewered pieces of marinated meats that are the country's beloved street food. At Puerto 511, the preferred meat is veal heart.
But the cuisine of Peru, like our own, is heavily influenced by an immigrant population. You'll find dishes at Puerto 511 that remind you of Spanish cuisine, which you'd expect, and Chinese and Japanese cuisine, which you might not.
When we came to Puerto 511 on a Sunday afternoon, just to check it out, the chef waited on our table. When we returned for our Saturday night review, there were two waitresses on duty. Depend on them. Almost every menu description includes a sauce that we had questions about.
Start with one of the menu's three ceviche preparations, two of which — the Ceviche Classico and the Ceviche Mixto — are coated in the classic "leche de tigre" juices, a spicy concentration of lime juice, peppers and natural fish juices, and garnished with glazed sweet potato and Andean corn. Both are beautifully presented — the Classico is fish only, the Mixto is mixed seafood — and their flavors are overwhelmingly fresh.
We loved the exceptionally bright flavors in the third ceviche, the 511 Tiradito, in which the fish is sliced sashimi style, tossed in a yellow chili-pepper cream sauce and garnished with a small slice of an extremely hot red pepper.
Keep ordering. Yuquitas Doradas are feather-light and savory cassava fritters stuffed with shreds of rib-eye steak, raisins and olives, served with a fiery hot red-pepper sauce. The Causa Sampler is an elegantly designed trio of whipped potato croquettes, served with a yellow chile pepper sauce and topped with precisely placed tastes of garlic-marinated shrimp, grilled octopus and smoked salmon.
The menu lists six entrees, and all are worth a try. Portions are moderate, as are the prices. The Arroz Con Mariscos, a Peruvian-style paella flavored with white wine, lime and cilantro, is a showcase for fresh seafood. As is the house version of Chaufa de Mariscos, Peru's take on Chinese fried rice. Filled with shrimp, octopus and squid, and garnished with eggs and bell pepper, it has the fresh and light appeal of spa cuisine.
The simplest one is Lomo Saltado, tasty marinated beef tenderloin sauteed with onions, tomatoes, cilantro and garlic. The most intriguing is Huancaina Spaguetti, a noodle-based dish with rib-eye, shrimp, mushrooms and cheese with the rib-sticking appeal of mushroom stroganoff. The prettiest are the micro lamb chops, which are encrusted with huacatay, a potent Peruvian black mint, and served with bacon-infused mashed potatoes.
For dessert, there is a shimmery flan made from red quinoa and flavored with grape brandy. And there is Peruvian toast, slices of bread drenched in manjar blanco — think dulce de leche — and topped with vanilla ice cream. We loved them both.
But we loved everything about Puerto 511, which is the best thing to hit Clay Street, ever.
Where: 102 W. Clay St.
Contact: 410-244-8837, puerto511.com
Open: Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 p.m.. to 9 p.m.; Thursday, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $9-$15; entrees: $16-18
Food: Contemporary and traditional Peruvian food
Service: Helpful and informed
Parking/accessibility: On-street parking; meters generally in effect until 6 p.m.
Children: There is no children's menu.
Special diets: No printed menu, but servers will make recommendations.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine throughout the small dining room, with quiet music playing. There are no televisions.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]