Say "sah-ZAWN" when you say Saz?, the new Peruvian restaurant in the Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa. You're just as likely to say, "Wow!" or "Ahhhh!" or even "M-mmm!" because Saz? will delight you with authentic dishes of Peru.
For instance, there are layers of flavor in Causa Lime? ($8.50 ****), an appetizer that's a stack of extremely edible ingredients. At the bottom of the stack is mashed potato mixed with aji amarillo, a hot Peruvian chili pepper. Gast? Acurio, the famous Peruvian chef and ambassador of Peruvian cuisine, who has restaurants all over the world (including La Mar on the Embarcadero in San Francisco), has called aji amarillo the most important ingredient in Peruvian cooking. The Navarro family — father and two sons — who operate Saz? don't cater to the timid American palate by stinting on this hot pepper or others in their sauces. They are blazing hot, just like at home in Peru.
Not to argue with Acurio, but I nominate the potato as the most important ingredient in Peruvian cooking. Over 200 different kinds of potato are grown in Peru, where the wild progenitor of our modern spud is indigenous.
Atop the potato in the Causa Lime? is a generous helping of Dungeness crab, surmounted by a slice of hard-boiled egg, a slice of avocado, and a pitted botija olive — a Peruvian olive with a unique and intense olive flavor. It is given a dot of aioli made with rocoto chili pepper and cilantro. The rocoto has a Scoville (heat index) rating of up to 250,000 units (a jalape? rates about 2,000 to 3,000). That little dot is enough to set your mouth aflame — in a good way, of course.
The Causa Lime? comes with three spicy-hot dipping sauces. One is made from rocoto chilies. A second is a classic Peruvian huancaina sauce, made with farmer's cheese, aji amarillo, onion and garlic, all pureed. A third is made with huacatay, a native Peruvian herb with a strong flavor and aroma somewhere between mint and basil.
With more than 1,000 miles of coastline between Ecuador and Colombia to the north and Chile and Bolivia to the south, seafood figures centrally in Peruvian cuisine. Ceviche — raw fish marinated in citrus juice to denature its proteins, rather than through the heat of cooking — originated in what is now Peru, and is among the most popular of Peruvian dishes today. Saz? offers four kinds: a traditional ceviche made with corvina sea bass, ceviche mixto made with various fruits de mer, ahi ceviche nikei or Japanese style ahi ceviche, and Ceviche de Pescado Classico ($10 ****), halibut marinated in lime juice sparked up with rocoto chilies, roasted and crunchy corn kernels called cancha, Cuzco corn with kernels as big as your thumbnail, and sweet potato.
The Navarros import green-lipped mussels from New Zealand to make their Choritos a la Chalaca($8 ***), a cold dish of six big, chewy mussels topped with a salsa of Cuzco corn, tomato, cilantro and lime juice. Maybe green-lipped mussels are traditional in Peru, but our local mussels are soooo melting and tender. Just a thought.
Remember Captain Beefheart? He's brought to mind by the dish called Anticucho de Corazon</CF> ($8 **), skewered cubes of dense, chewy beef heart soaked in an aji panca marinade. Aji panca is a mild red pepper with a smoky, fruity flavor that gives the heart cubes a tangy snap. They're served with roasted purple potatoes and Cuzco corn, plus a tablespoon of roasted rocoto chili sauce hot enough to melt the dish it's served in. As a side dish, sweet fried plantains, or Platanos Fritos ($4 ***), complemented the tangy marinated red onions and salsa criolla of diced yellow chilies. A dab of sour cream completed the plate.
Soup at Sazon is spectacular. Chupe de Camarones ($11 ****) is a creamy tomato and shrimp broth loaded with prawns, shredded fish, corn, potato, rice, aji panca and a poached egg. It's a meal in itself — and what a delicious meal it is.
If it's mood elevation you're after, order the Aji de Gallina ($11 ****), a sunny yellow chicken stew that's the happiest looking and brightest tasting plate of food ever. The color is given by aji amarillo peppers made into a creamy sauce into which pulled chicken meat is mixed. Grilled slices of Yukon Gold potato, a slice of hard boiled egg, rice and a Peruvian olive add to the fun.