I have a knack for cooking in my blood,” says Juan Placencia, chef/owner of Costanera in Montclair. Here is how he comes by it. He was born in Lima, where his paternal grandmother ran a little eatery on the patio of her home. Years later she emigrated to Hudson County, and when Placencia was two, he and his parents joined her there. “Her stories and recipes inspired me,” the chef, now 30, tells me. “But most of what I know about Peruvian cooking comes from my father.”
That Placencia learned well can be seen from how quickly Costanera’s 68 seats fill on weekends. Certain justly touted dishes go fast: delectable Peruvian rotisserie chicken, the lively ceviches and plump empanadas with rich and delicate pastry crust (made with a bit of lard). Their secret? Unlike the empanadas of Mexico and the Caribbean, Peruvian empanadas are baked, not fried. Placencia is currently stuffing them with a kind of Peruvian chicken à la king called aji de gallina.
That is an interesting tweak. In Peru, aji de gallina is a classic peasant dish, usually made from old hens after their laying days. Creamy and delicious but messy looking, it is not “easy on the eyes,” Placencia says, so he spares his customers the sight and tucks it inside his empanadas.
Another vote of confidence in the young chef comes from his father, Pablo William Placencia, chef/owner of Oh! Calamares, a traditional Peruvian restaurant in Kearny. “Now, when my dad’s not cooking at his place, he’s eating at mine,” Placencia said in a phone interview after my visits.
When he was ready to open Costanera, his first restaurant, in 2010, he chose Montclair because the locals support a wide range of restaurants in town, but Peruvian was not represented. The owner of Montclair’s Greek Delights, Ursula Garcia, a Peruvian and longtime family friend, “talked it up to me, that Montclair is receptive.” And so it has proven.
“Diners here are very adventurous and global,” Placencia says. “They look for interesting, authentic tastes, and Peruvian is the original fusion cuisine. It combines indigenous ingredients with cooking traditions from coastal and Andean tribes, Spain, Africa, China and Japan.”
Adaptability, in other words, is part of Peruvian food culture. While Costanera’s flavors are authentic enough to pass muster with a Peruvian grandmother, Placencia sees the cuisine as amenable to certain tweaks. So Costanera features a raw bar. Even though raw bars are unknown in Peru, he said, the idea works because seafood is a big part of the country’s coastal cuisine (hence the name Costanera, which means seaside).
While the chef sees his raw bar as an homage to the French brasserie, he transposes the traditional accompaniments to a Peruvian key: the cocktail sauce is made with aji rocoto peppers, the mignonette flavored with mild aji amarillo peppers. The seafood tiers come with cut limes as well as lemons.
Some adaptations are unavoidable; others are irresistible. In the first category are Costanera’s intriguing potato-based starters and sides—like the avocado-filled mashed-potato cakes called causas—made from American spuds because none of the 3,000-odd varieties cultivated in Peru’s Andean highlands are available. In the latter category is estofado de osso bucco. Terrific veal shanks are available in New Jersey, so Placencia makes an osso bucco based on a Peruvian method of slow-braising chicken thighs with aji panca peppers. He serves the shank with spinach-potato purée, shiitake mushrooms and balsamic-onion relish. To me, the dish tasted more CIA than Peruvian, but it was outstanding.
Placencia grew up helping his parents in their Union City, and later, North Bergen restaurants, so it seemed only natural for him to be a chef. But when he declared this intention as a teenager, his father rejected the idea, warning him about grueling hours, greedy landlords, uncertain profit margins and all the rest.
But the son had an answer. In his research he had found a place called the Culinary Institute of America. He thought it might appeal to his hard-nosed pop, a self-taught perfectionist who “was always working harder to achieve something better, even if people thought it was already fine.”
Placencia convinced his father to take him to see the campus in Hyde Park, New York. “When we took the tour, everything turned around for him. He said, ‘This is a complete program, not just kitchen techniques, but wine, spirits, service, economics.’ The way he talked about it, it was like it was a Hogwarts for restaurant people.”
CIA students would probably ride spoons rather than brooms, but Placencia apparently had some wizard in him, interning with Jean-Georges Vongerichten before graduating in 2002. Afterward he worked as a line cook at Tom Colicchio’s Gramercy Tavern and a busboy and line cook at Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park. Then he came home to help his parents open Oh! Calamares. “That’s when I really learned how to cook Peruvian.”
After three years, with Oh! Calamares running nicely, Placencia returned to the city to work at Va Tutto, Gotham Bar and Grill and Del Posto—the last two as dining-room captain. “I’m grateful I have that dining-room experience,” he says. “A restaurateur should be versed in both. I know a lot of cooks who have that kitchen demeanor and can’t hold a conversation with a guest unless it’s about the food they’re putting out.”
Ceviches, a coastal Peruvian invention, are as vibrant and authentic here as any I’ve eaten in Peru. Diners can choose from three varieties, all made from sushi-grade ingredients: fluke; fluke, octopus, shrimp and squid; or crab, arctic char and shrimp. Each is marinated in lime juice and mild aji amarillo peppers and served with red onion, cilantro, yams and choclo (Andean boiled giant corn kernels).
Similar to ceviche are tiraditos, in which the fish is cut like sashimi. Nikkei, a standout Japanese-Peruvian tiradito, is made of arctic char with aji amarillo peppers, avocado and soy-lime dressing. If you want to share a starter, a total table pleaser is jalea—calamari, prawns, scallops, mussels, octopus and cod, deep-fried with a light rice-flour batter. Another is chicharron de pescado, fried fish spears, a Nuevo Andino, or New Andean, dish coated in crispy Peruvian quinoa.
Costanera’s entrées revolve around seafood “prepared with one of the Peruvian mother sauces,” Placencia says. These sauces are made in house from scratch from imported peppers, not from commercial purées. Lobster-and-crab stock adds heft to all Costanera’s seafood dishes, including chupe de camarones, a spicy, entrée-sized prawn soup in which the prawns are delicately cooked. That stock is also found in parihuela Costanera, a Peruvian bouillabaisse. I wasn’t as enamored of Placencia’s chaufa de mariscos (wok-fried rice with seafood), a Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) recipe made with basmati rice. Frankly, it made me nostalgic for great, greasy Cantonese fried rice.
But another hybrid—Italian-Peruvian tallarin verde con bisteck, spaghetti with steak—actually improved on its inspiration. Lavished with velvety Peruvian-style pesto (puréed basil, almonds and queso fresco cheese), the Italian De cecco noodles are served alongside a deeply beefy Black Angus skirt steak. Also hearty and satisfying was lomo saltado, stir-fried beef with soy and onions, “a Chifa classic you’ll find in every Peruvian restaurant.”
I was impressed to find anticuchos—skewered, grilled chunks of beef heart—on the menu. “I serve anticuchos because it’s a great taste, and it surprised me that they sell so well,” Placencia said. “But this is Montclair.” Anticuchos is vintage nose-to-tail eating. Placencia uses veal hearts, lighter in flavor than beef hearts. The muscle is separated from the rest of the organ, cut into flat squares and marinated for six hours in chilies, spices, a bit of vinegar and a lot of Cusqueña, a dark Peruvian beer that adds a hint of coffee and chocolate flavor. Then the meat is skewered and lightly grilled over charcoal. It comes out tender and tasty, with the residual sugar in the beer helping caramelize the surface.
Desserts are not Placencia’s strong suit. I wish he had not added ordinary chocolate to his dulce de leche pudding, the first version I’ve ever left on a plate. (It’s been replaced by a coffee-flavored dulce de leche.) His Northern Peruvian style of alfajores, a rich shortbread, was as dry as matzoh. Simpler was better: flan and gently sweet purple-corn pudding. The best finish to a Peruvian feast at Costanera may be a takeout order of those divine chicken empanadas for tomorrow.