When I brought my friend Eric to La Rosa Nautica in Boca Raton, he immediately wondered if the tiny, Peruvian boîte had any connection to the famous restaurant of the same name in Lima, Peru.
I thought it unlikely. The La Rosa Nautica he was talking about sits on the end of a pier on a Lima beach; it's a gorgeous, multilevel restaurant offering panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Boca's La Rosa Nautica, on the other hand, is small and homey; the sort of place someone's abuelita might own.
Our youthful-looking waiter confirmed it. "No, we just borrowed the name," he said with a grin.
Still, the two restaurants do have one thing in common: their affinity for fresh, Peruvian seafood. Though the Boca La Rosa is much more diminutive, it makes big inroads with a staggering array of seafood dishes inspired by the South American country. Which is a hefty challenge, considering how fervent Peruvians are about their seafood — particularly their most famous national dish, ceviche.
Putting La Rosa Nautica to the test, we grabbed an order of its ceviche de pescado ($11.99), a dish instantly familiar to anyone who's had an authentic Peruvian preparation before. Ceviche marries sea-fresh fish (on the day we tried it, corvina, or white sea bass) with a torrent of tart lime juice — a process that "cooks" the fish. On top go layers of cool red onions, softened in body and taste by the lime, and a procession of ingredients set around it like numbers on a clock. At 3 is Peruvian corn, fat and starchy kernels similar to hominy; at 6 and 12 is sweet potato, boiled simply and almost candy-sweet. Then there's the cilantro and rocoto pepper (Peru's hot red chile), scattered like minute markers around the whole dish.
Despite the bits of rocoto (and despite asking for our ceviche hot), none of us thought La Rosa's ceviche was as spicy as other authentic preparations we'd had. But the flavor was great — clean, softly melting sea bass cut into one-inch chunks. And there was plenty of leche de tigre — the name for the lime juice cocktail that forms at the bottom of the dish — to spoon up with the fish.
Why would anyone drink that liquid? Well, the stuff is renowned as a hangover cure and a virility booster. For a more potent dose, the restaurant also sells an order of leche de tigre ($5.99) that comes in a wine glass garnished with a wheel of lime. In the glass, it's thick and frothy, like a (gulp) ceviche milkshake.
It's funny how often stamina and virility get mentioned whenever raw seafood is involved. Peruvians attach those benefits to their ceviche the same way salty East Coast mariners do with raw oysters. That's especially true where conchas negras is concerned, a black-shelled clam that's abundant in the cold waters of Peru's northern coastline. I can't say I disagree with the claims. Just like with raw oysters, the first guy to slip one of these inky black crustaceans into his mouth probably sported a mean set of cojones.
"These are so plentiful in Peru, they're like the cheapest thing you can eat," said Eric's Peruvian wife, Cristina, as she sampled some of the conchas negras we ordered ($13.99). Prepared like the ceviche with a dose of lime, cilantro, and more finely minced onion, La Rosa's conchas were salty, fleshy, and bouncy. Most people suggest you eat these things straight from the water only, and I can understand why: The black clams (made so by a pigment similar to squid ink) had a pungent taste that I'm not sure was totally intentional.
La Rosa Nautica's spread of seafood hardly stops at ceviche. Other popular Peruvian dishes like choros a la chalaca ($8.99) get a translation here too. That means giant steamed mussels served on the half shell and filled with a salsa-like mixture of onion, tomato, corn, and lime. One knock: The pieces of the mussel are so big that it's almost impossible to shoot them back the way you're intended to (like an oyster). On the plus side, those are some filling, meaty bivalves.
A similar dish, conchas a la parmesana ($11.99), is another Peruvian staple featuring sea scallops baked in their shells with a patina of crusty, grated Parmesan cheese. On the plate, this spread of six shells looked stunning. Doused with white wine and garlic, they tasted just as good.
Aside from its dogged coverage of the full spectrum of Peruvian seafood, La Rosa covers its bases on land, too. The restaurant looks the part of an authentic eatery, with wooden panel walls, unaffected wooden banquettes, and a simple white tile floor. During the day, a table by the mirrored west wall serves as a buffet station, complete with shiny aluminum chafing dishes hosting all manner of authentic eats. To be honest, I actually liked La Rosa better as a lunchtime spot because of this.
The buffet costs only $9.99, and the dishes presented have a fairly wide variety that changes daily. When I went, there was roasted pork marinated in aji amarillo (Peru's less spicy, but equally popular yellow-tinged chile), flavorful but a touch dry. And lomo saltado, a saute of beef, onions, peppers, and tomatoes with a creeping influence of Western culture — a smattering of French fries tossed in to soak up its soy sauce-based gravy. This dish dries up on the buffet line, but it does go great with chaufa, essentially fried rice with egg that tastes nearly identical — albeit far less greasy — to the stuff you might find at a local Chinese takeout.
For me, the best buffet dishes were those meaty, stew-like ones that can stand up to a full service. That means guiso de pollo, or dark meat chicken braised in a mildly piquant sauce along with strips of onion. Or aji de gallina, another mild stew that, on first glance, has the sort of smooth, pasty appearance of Indian daal. If you've ever had the Peruvian sauce, huancaina (also served here as an appetizer, $5.99), this is similar: The chicken is shredded, sauced with a fresh queso blanco cheese that's more crumbly than creamy, thickened with crackers, and seasoned with garlic and aji amarillo. It looks and eats like a porridge — thick, filling, and really, really good. More adventurous eaters may opt for the cau cau, a potato and honeycomb tripe stew seasoned with hucatay. Offal-phobic eaters can take heart that the green Peruvian herb has a minty aroma that calms the otherwise pungent tripe.
There's plenty more to try at La Rosa Nautica — the bean and rice dish called tacu tacu, a whole host of seafood soups, pastas, fried fish, and salads made with octopus and shrimp. It would take quite a few visits to get through it all — which is doable thanks to affordable prices and the friendly and outgoing staff, who will remember your name and chat with you (if you're willing) on each subsequent visit. Best of all, the restaurant might not sit on the ocean like the original La Rosa Nautica in Peru, but its anchor is firmly planted in the sea.