Sietsema Review A Gem Among the Chains A new Peruvian eatery spices up Rockville Town Square By Tom Sietsema Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, May 4, 2008 Sound Check: 80 (decibels) Extremely loud There are about two dozen places for a person to refuel in the tidy assembly of bricks, glass and steel known as Rockville Town Square. The bulk of those businesses in the Disneyesque village sport familiar labels and predictable menus, including Cosi, Gordon Biersch, Jerry's Subs and Pizza, La Tasca and (are you still awake?) Starbucks. But a handful of restaurants there aim to offer something special, and one of them, La Canela, serves a cuisine that I'm always eager to try. Race, do not walk, to find the gold amid the dross. La Canela comes with a long list of dishes that will make you wonder why there aren't more Peruvian purveyors on the scene and with an interior that suggests you're eating in Lima rather than a Washington suburb. The restaurant, whose name translates as "the cinnamon" in Spanish, also counts a hard-working family behind its heavy wooden doors. If the name of the newcomer rings a bell, it could be because the owners, Lilian Clary and her beau, Juan Rodriguez, also run the nearly 11-year-old La Flor de la Canela, a smaller Peruvian fixture in Gaithersburg. Tucked away on a small side street of the mixed-use complex, La Canela looks as if it has been around for decades rather than months. Step inside, and you'll discover several dining rooms spread across multiple levels. Each destination has its charms. The largest of the three is the ground floor, stylish with its bronze-colored banquette, gold-framed mirrors and pastel-colored street scene painted onto one wall. Venture up a flight of stairs, and you'll find a small bar surrounded by a few tables, some of which have window views, others of which look onto the ground floor of the restaurant. Higher still is an even more intimate space, best for small groups. No matter the altitude they find themselves, diners are treated to handsome leather-backed chairs, fanciful black grillwork and service that feels as if good friends are attending to you. The fragrance of garlic and cooked meat infuses the place with even more soul. La Canela weighs in with 20 more seats, and slightly more elaborate food, than its sibling, but "we cook the same way," says Clary, whose two sons, Alain and Erick, oversee the flavors in the younger restaurant. "Like a home cook would." She's got that right. To spoon into La Canela's chicken soup -- thick with noodles that retain some bite, plentiful with shreds of chicken -- is to accept an invitation to someone's house for a meal. To try an appetizer of softly crunchy fried pork (chicharron) and Lincoln Logs of crisp yucca is to order a dish that could pass for a light dinner. Its salsa of red onion, fresh cilantro and chopped tomato balances the earthy flavors of the chicharron. Potatoes are to Peru what a smile is to Julia Roberts, and one of the best ways to sample the tubers is steamed, sliced and sauced with a curtain of yellow cheese sauce. The sunny first course is decorated with olives and slices of hard-cooked egg. It is also deceptively hot, thanks to the inclusion of aji amarillo (yellow chilies) in its sauce. The dish that raises eyebrows, and inspires lip-smacking, looks like something you'd find in a frat house: french fries tossed with sausage coins and streaked with shredded egg white. Simply billed as "huevos" on the menu, the popular Peruvian snack ("We eat them with hot dogs" back home, says Clary) underscores the care the kitchen takes with even its most humble recipes. The fries are hand-cut, the chorizo snaps in the mouth, and the mix comes with a trio of creamy dips that banish any thought of adding ketchup or mustard. The more you try at La Canela, the more reasons you find to like the place. A dish called tiradito delivers see-through slices of raw flounder dotted with an emulsion of garlic, olive oil and rocoto, a hot pepper common in the Andes. The staging suggests sashimi by way of South America. Tubes of tender squid arrive on a plate with a light but assertive sauce that hints of roasted red peppers and wine. Think chicken is boring? La Canela offers two entrees to change your mind. One is creamy shredded chicken over steamed potato slices; the other, "Milanesa," is a thinly pounded breast sprinkled with cumin-and-pepper seasoned bread crumbs, fried to a fine crackle and topped with a fried egg. Slowly cooked onions and garlic lend their caramelized charms to a tender veal stew cooked in beer and finished with cilantro, while beef shows up in more guises than Tracey Ullman. My current passion is lightly breaded steak nearly buried under pesto-draped fettuccine. The entree adds up to a lot of comfort. La Canela imports some of its ingredients -- those yellow peppers, that rocoto -- from Peru and gets advice from Clary's mother, Leonor Iparraguirre, who is recovering from two strokes in a nearby hospital but is available for consultations. "If I need some help, I call her," says Clary, who has been coached by her mother to soak dried cod five times before cooking it and to use only fresh oregano. Some connoisseurs think Peru serves some of the finest food in South America. There's no arguing that the cuisine benefits from a varied climate and borrows from Spain, France and China -- countries known for their cooking. (Among the hits at La Canela: rice stir-fried with tender shrimp and squid, and brightened with diced red pepper.) Any meal is enhanced when it's accompanied by a pisco sour, a world-class cocktail that manages to be both potent and refreshing at the same time. Capped with whipped egg whites, the pisco, a clear brandy, is combined with lemon juice and a bit of sugar. The bar also whips up a mojito that is neither too sweet or too minty, frequent obstacles to enjoying the drink. A diner has to hunt for disappointments at La Canela. Truth be told, the last course is easy to resist. Tres leches cake is a merely decent version of that milk-swollen dessert, and the bread pudding is dull and heavy -- not worth the calories. Unlike almost everything else that precedes them, these dishes taste like afterthoughts. Further, the dining rooms can get loud as the evening progresses. Go early, before the place fills up, if you want a side of serenity with your meal. The food here deserves your full attention.