FoodIssue 16

Burning Down the Casita

If you’re an older sibling you know that those who come after you can never truly measure up. If you’re a younger sibling, well, you know that anything you can do I can do better (and that I can do anything better than you). Luckily for me I’m a middle child, which I think makes me better than everyone. Right?

This sibling rivalry is no less apparent with restaurants, and newer offshoots often feel a little lacklustre when compared to the dazzling originals. With the Olympics come and gone you can leave off rooting for Venus over Serena; the fiercest competition these days is between Andina and her little Soho sister, Casita Andina.

Until Martin Morales brought Andina and Ceviche into the world the UK’s favourite Peruvian import was undoubtedly Paddington Bear. But with Morales’ new home or, shall we say, casita on Great Windmill Street, London will be tossing out stuffed bears and tossing back Pisco sours, making room for tamales, leche de tigre and mountains of corn nuts.

The restaurant is modelled on the traditional family-run restaurants nestled in the Andes, known in Peru as picanterías. Loving Andinas (women from the Andes) usher both the local communities and wayward travellers into their homes to serve up the bright, powerful dishes that typify Peruvian cuisine. Casita Andina recreates that wonderful, homespun feel, though I’m not quite sure the Andean abuelas are as single-minded in their delivery of gluten-free dishes as the chefs here. With airy rooms, vibrant patterns and an unstudied ease that is missing in so many London restaurants, you can sit with a cool Andean tea or a Peruvian lager in the tiny, thatched-roof terrace on the top floor and swear you’re right there in Cusco.

To ensure that a few too many gallo negros (Andina’s riff on the negroni) don’t go straight to your head, nibbles are surely in order. The cancha, toasted Peruvian Chulpe corn nuts, are all you want in a snack. With a gentle kiss of salt and a great toothsome crunch, you can hurl fistful after fistful into your mouth before you know it. The avocado fritters may be on trend, but they’re under-seasoned and a bit disappointing. I had high hopes for the deep umami flavour the anchovy salt should have brought but found them entirely devoid of taste. The sangrecita could give any good Scottish black pudding a run for its money with its deep earthiness and soft, warming spice. But what is quite likely the best dish on the menu, and to be ordered in duplicate or triplicate at the very least, is the plate of croquetas. Paddling in a pool of rocoto chilli jam, they are savoury and tender and have no flavour lost to breading or superfluous fillers.The watermelon and quinoa salad is crisp and refreshing; with an exciting crunchiness from the black quinoa and a subtle tang from the queso fresco, it plays well with many of the other, richer dishes on the menu. The classic ceviche is quite heady and floral, though less remarkable than the trout tiradito with its fiery cousin of more traditional tiger’s milk thanks to the addition of Amarillo chillies. The causa andina, a purple intestine of violet potato purée snaking across a plate dotted with asparagus and sweet potato, firmly establishes itself as the dim-witted stepchild of the family, leaving much to be desired in terms of robust flavours and interesting textures.

The salmon escabeche is wonderfully fork-tender although, again, it would welcome a bit more salt, a bit more spice, and a bit more acid. The sweetbreads soak up the maltiness of the dark beer sauce, and give way easily as a bite is swept up into the mouth with a nugget of potato and a bit of peanut. The tamal sees tender shredded pork cushioned against a corn dumpling as soft as the bosoms of an old Andina. The salsa criolla that decorates the top is vegetal and spicy, without being overpoweringly hot.
Though we’re all meant to be equal in the eyes of our parents as well as the eyes of God, Cain and Abel can attest to the fact that that’s just not the case. So, while Casita Andina has all the lure of youth and novelty, age does indeed come before beauty – and perhaps, with age, it might just be able to fill the shoes of its older, wiser sibling.

 

Monday to Friday 11:00–midnight
Saturday and Sunday 10:00–midnight
£20 / person