118 W Grand Ave
As interest in Peruvian food continues to grow in the US, and especially in Chicago, we’ve seen an increasing number of haute Peruvian restaurants open up – the surest sign a cuisine is taking on a big audience. Tanta, in River North, is one of the most recent high-end Peruvian restaurants to open in the city, and we were eager to give it a try. Its menu seemingly sets it apart from its competitors, with an emphasis on some highland dishes (most “Peruvian” food in the US is from central coastal Peru) as well as nikkei dishes inspired by Peru’s heritage of Japanese immigration. Overall a bit pricey for the fare, we were overall impressed by Tanta’s offerings and ambiance.
Our amiable and perfectly attentive waiter began our evening with fried choclos (large Peruvian corn kernels), a typical starter snack. We quickly paired these with the anticuchos – marinated and grilled beef hearts served with potatoes, corn, and huacatay ($9). We also got some plantain chips served with aji amarillo. This sauce gave us a clue for the evening: Tanta does not skimp on spice levels.
Given the bold flavors in the starters, M was particularly excited to try the ceviche. Sparking our interest was the leche del tigre flight ($15), which will definitely merit a try on a return visit. “Tiger Milk” is the name given to the mix of citrus marinades left at the bottom of a bowl when one finishes eating a ceviche. Typical protocol requires you to pour the remainder in a shot glass and drink it straight; Tanta does one better by offering a full flight. Still, M decided to go with a more traditional cebiche tasting menu ($28). While it typically includes three of Tanta’s best ceviches – clasico, mixto, and nikei, the kitchen made a small mistake so we actually received a fourth, the criollo. The mixto (“Mixed”) and clasico (“Classic”) are old standbys for any Peruvian restaurant; the former at Tanta showcasing mahi, squid, shrimp, and rocoto; while the latter always includes whitefish (in this case fluke) marinated in lime juice, red onions, and cilantro. Both impressed M with the powerfully authentic spice level, and showed that the kitchen was not willing to compromise on authenticity. The criollo was a small twist on the mixto – the same proteins, only this time marinated in the aji amarillo that was such a hit on our first course. The nikei, however, was the big hit of evening: tuna and avocado marinated in tamarind and garnished with cucumber, this was a great fusion ceviche that is worth a full plate at Tanta.
Ceviches downed, tiger milk drank, we were already getting full. But on this night on the town, we still had our mains coming. We chose a selection from the “Del Chifa” section of the menu, which came with a blurb: “In the 1800s, people from Canton immigrated to Peru and brought their amazing culinary culture.” Representative of this, and recommended by the waiter, was the chaufa aeropuerto ($23). A hot stone dish was served to us containing pork fried rice, a shrimp tortilla, and accented with spicy garlic. Mixed all together this dish was a big hit, a marriage of bold and trans-Pacific flavors that are distinctly representative of the history of Peruvian cuisine, and rarely featured on other Peruvian menus. Tanta’s offerings include many other dishes in this vein, and we are eager to return to try more.
Overall, Tanta’s bold flavors and spices, crossed with its trans-Pacific emphasis, really impressed us. The trendy atmosphere was a bit much, and the prices perhaps a little high, but the quality and inventiveness was there, perhaps moreso than at any other Peruvian restaurant we have tried in the city. Great for adventurous clients, or a foodie date you want to impress, or someone who wants a great cross-section of Peruvian history through food.