When Japan meets Peru on the plate

(SOURCE: Boston Globe) - Peru’s Japanese population dates back more than a century, enough time for two culinary traditions to mingle and become something new. Nikkei cuisine — a seafood-centric fusion of Japanese and Peruvian ingredients, techniques, and aesthetics — has been inspiring celebrity chefs such as Ferran Adria (El Bulli) and Nobu Matsuhisa (Nobu) for years. Now it comes to Boston in the form of Ruka, a restaurant at the new Godfrey Hotel in Downtown Crossing.

This is the latest venture from the group that owns Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar and Yvonne’s, with a strong team in the kitchen. The chef is Preston Miller, who comes to Boston from the Breslin, a New York gastropub with one Michelin star. Local sushi master Ting Yen of Oishii oversees the sushi program; Bing Liu is lead sushi chef. Yvonne’s pastry chef Liz O’Connell is in charge of desserts.

The place is beautiful, with carved dragon pillars, dreamy murals, Day-Glo potholder looms hanging from the ceiling, and a dramatic Murano glass chandelier over the front podium. Reservations are prized, there is always a crowd, and the noise level can be deafening.

The food echoes the room, a lush pastiche that can sometimes feel like an onslaught. The menu is divided into six categories: sushi rolls, Peruvian-style sashimi, “chilled + raw” ceviches and salads, grilled kebabs, “hot + wok” stir-fries and sautés, and “monumental.” (The last is composed of three dishes — priced from $75 to $150 — designed to feed four or five as an entrée. Otherwise, figure two to three dishes per person to share. Ruka also tacks onto the bill a 3 percent “Kitchen Appreciation Charge” to compensate non-tipped employees.) In addition to the Nikkei focus, several dishes — stir-fries, a roast duck — showcase Chifa, or Chinese-Peruvian cooking.

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The food is unusually complicated, chockablock with spices, fruits, and vegetables. Menu descriptions barely scratch the surface, and the waitstaff can’t always help.

Is that zinnia-looking blossom the “ginger flower” mentioned in the description of Japanese sea bream sashimi (madai usuzuki)? Our server’s not entirely certain. The blossom decorates a plate of thinly sliced white fish, sprinkled with crunchy black bits, arranged around a pool of carmine red, Peruvian pepper sauce. What are those bits? No one knows. Nonetheless, the fish is pristinely fresh and delicious dipped into the bright sauce.

Some dishes have also changed or disappeared since the restaurant opened in early December, without update to the menu. Pomegranate has been axed from Nantucket Bay scallop ceviche because of seasonal unavailability, we are told. Regardless, the scallops are wonderful, tossed in homemade yogurt mixed with leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk,” the citrus marinade used in making ceviche).

Everything from the sushi bar tastes as good as it looks. Hamachi amarillo is a yellowtail-wrapped roll of rice, avocado, and corn, arranged on creamy jalapeño-corn puree. Dabs of Peruvian red pepper mayonnaise dress up a platter of spicy tuna roll, studded with Asian pear and jicama, and dusted with texturally terrific “crispy rice dots.” Texture is half the fun of crunchy salmon tacos — fried shiso leaves mounded with salmon ceviche, avocado, and pickled peppers.

Is New England Nikkei the next step for this evolving cuisine? Vinegary shrimp sunomono — shrimp and cucumbers tossed in tart yuzu-lime vinaigrette — is topped with fried clam strips and a squiggle of tartar sauce for a clam shack-meets-Lima treat.

Sweetish golden, cherry tomato-esque fruits appear on skewers of grilled chicken thighs drizzled with piquant yellow pepper sauce: They’re pichuberries, an Andean berry, chock-full of vitamins and antioxidants. Meaty Sichuan king trumpet mushroom kebabs are slathered in garlicky-hot mustard dressing.

Sushi rolls, sashimi, salads, and skewers are better bets than “hot + wok” dishes. There are almost no noodles in the overly fishy, too soupy “green noodles,” and the chicken fried rice is mushy and inexplicably sweet. I liked octopus lomo saltado, a riff on a classic Chinese-Peruvian stir-fry of beef, onions, soy, rice, and French fries. In Peru, the fries would have been mixed in, not a garnish.

A bowl with four miniature sweet potato dumplings, a smattering of black trumpet mushrooms, and a poached egg in smoky dashi is bland. This is an unapologetically expensive restaurant, but it’s hard to justify the $11 price tag for papas chongo — a paltry portion of pan-fried purple potato slices dolloped with garlic mayo.

The “monumental” tea-smoked Long Island duck is a spectacular presentation: slices of perfectly roasted breast, a scoop of confit, and a fistful of tangy kohlrabi, carrot, and red onion slaw, scattered with tiny, pickled Amazonian peppers. Make yourself a duck sandwich with steamed Chinese buns and garlicky aioli. But I wish the confit wasn’t so salty, and that they’d swap out the aioli for more-traditional hoisin.

Desserts range from a nondescript moon pie to delicious, pretzel-esque fried dough, glistening with miso-
butterscotch glaze. The classic Peruvian dessert Suspiro Limeno (“Sigh of Lima,” meringue-covered dulce de leche) is reimagined as a dulce de leche patty, lemony sponge cake, and beet meringues. Beets and meringues don’t mix.

Ruka draws fashionably dressed 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom come for the lively bar scene. The beverage program includes a smart sake selection and a wine list organized by the altitudes where the grapes were cultivated. A 24-page cocktail booklet annotates every drink with factoids about Incan mythology, Andean botany, and Peruvian pop culture.

“PLEASE DO NOT STEAL BEFORE READING THIS,” reads the last page. “These cocktail menus are available for sale for $20 with all proceeds going to local charities . . . Please think about purchasing a copy rather than just slipping one into your pocket or bag. You monster.”

Red-faced, I’ve subsequently donated $20 to MSPCA-Angell.

RUKA

505 Washington St., Downtown Crossing, Boston, 617-266-0102, www.rukarestobar.com

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices: Appetizers $9-$30. Entrees $14-$150. Desserts $7-$16.

Hours: Daily 5 p.m.-1 a.m.

Noise level: Loud

What to order: Crunchy salmon tacos, chicken thighs anticucho, octopus lomo saltado, Ruka spicy tuna maki, Japanese sea bream sashimi (madai usuzukuri).

Jared Snow