Restaurant Reviews

The Magic Touch

In the more remote corners of Peru, restaurateurs are going to great lengths to win regular customers: They're requiring the female cooks to practice encantes -- culinary spell-castings.

These bewitchings aren't the white-witch, nose-wrinkling sort Samantha Stevens made famous, either. In fact, they're sort of stomach-turning, not to mention appallingly bad hygiene. One popular method is for the female cook to rub raw foodstuffs such as anticuchos, or skewered beef hearts, over her flesh before grilling it. Another good-luck charm is even more disturbing -- the chefs make giant pots of rice and, while the kernels are hot, immerse themselves in the tubs naked. A third trick? Stirring sancoche de gallina (chicken stew with sweet potatoes and pumpkin) with human femurs, which are usually recovered from graveyards and sold on the black market by a brujo, or dealer in medical hexes.

Aside from the adherence to superstition -- the bones are said to be from the discarded physical bodies of two native South American spirits: Tunchi, a playful jokester, and Chullachaqui, a bad-tempered specter -- some of this witchcraft could have practical application. The diners who sup on the enchanted foodstuffs, the locals insist, are absorbing the pheromones from the cook. Those who eat that food will be attracted to her and, consequently, to the restaurant. The belief in these methods is so strong that despite the illegality of many practices, restaurateurs and their cooks continue to use them.

Fortunately, here in less-remote Boca Raton, Inca Grill is choosing more conventional methods of attracting customers. Owners Nadine and Carlos Acuña serve traditional, well-prepared Peruvian fare, with an emphasis on seafood, in a lovely, sophisticated setting filled with fresh flowers and pink-hued linens. Forget pheromones. All it takes for a diner to want to return for another meal here is a palate.

Make that a sturdy palate, because some of the fare here is quite zesty. Served with the rolls at the beginning of the meal, the salsa picante de Peru, a standard blend of chile peppers, green onions, and garlic, was exceptionally fiery -- a boon to chili lovers and an unpleasant surprise to those who might think this is just a plain garlic-herb condiment. Unless you've taken Maalox before the meal, you might want to use it sparingly.

The salsa works well with the warm, fresh rolls, but it can also be used to spice up appetizers like the ceviche mixto, a blend of squid, octopus, shrimp, and fish that already has a bite of its own from onions and citrus juices. The ceviche is a generous portion, accompanied by choclo, a section of boiled corn on the cob, and can easily be shared. Octopus-shy folk -- I know you're out there -- can also order simple fish ceviche or shrimp ceviche, but it'd be a shame to miss the tender treatment of the tentacled comestible here. If you've ever wondered how octopus should be textured, Inca Grill can show you the way.

Other cold starters include raw mussels, oysters, or clams topped with chopped tomatoes and onions, plus a standard and not particularly inspiring papas a la Huancaina, boiled potatoes covered with a tangy cheese sauce. The color of Velveeta, the cheese tasted a little off to me, not quite as fresh or zippy as other versions I've had. A much better choice turned out to be the palta rellena, two halves of a peeled and seeded avocado stuffed with a mixture of chopped shrimp and scallops. The avocado was a delight -- perfectly ripe, buttery but not mushy, mild but not bland -- and the mayonnaise-based salad overflowing the edges was an ideal partner.

Surprisingly, despite what looks to be a good amount of items listed, the menu is rather limited. The only hot appetizers available were fried fish, fried squid, fried shrimp, or a combination thereof. Having had my fill of this dish in innumerable other restaurants, I opted for one of the five soups instead. It turned out to be a wise decision. The sailor soup, a tomato-chili broth heady with mussels, squid, shrimp, and clams, was hearty but not filling, taste bud-stimulating rather than overwhelming. It does have an awfully similar flavor to the picante de mariscos main course, an assortment of the same seafood braised in nearly identical flavors, so you might want to choose one or the other.

Because Inca Grill is primarily a seafood restaurant -- the only poultry you're likely to find is in the chicken soup -- I was a little discouraged to find that both the grilled trout and the whole fried snapper were unavailable that evening. What did they have in stock? Mahi-mahi, available fried, sautéed, poached, grilled, topped with seafood, slathered with sautéed onions, or smothered with chopped tomatoes and onion. We chose to have the fillet fried and accompanied by the tomatoes and onions and weren't sorry. The fish had been beautifully battered and turned into a crisp-cased winner, with the salsa criolla adding vibrant color and Homestead-ripe flavor.

Pastas are also a variation on the theme -- linguine with white clam sauce, red clam sauce, seafood sauce, seafood Creole sauce, or sautéed beef tips. We ordered linguine with red clam sauce, but the kitchen goofed and brought out white clam sauce; we accepted the error and were plenty happy with the nuggets of fresh clams and the light yet potent sauce, though the smattering of tiny clams in the shell could have been upped to a more impressive number.

While Inca Grill doesn't serve chicken, it does offer a few beef dishes. We particularly delighted in a large bistec encebollado, a pounded and fried flank steak enhanced with sautéed tomatoes and onions. Simple fare but immensely satisfying. Less than pleasing was the fact that along with snapper and trout, the kitchen had run out of tres leches. We made do with a decent rice pudding, not one of my favorite desserts. Despite the lack of a fully stocked larder, however, Inca Grill managed to put us completely under its spell.