Eleven years ago, chef Jose Luis de Cossio stood atop the highest peak of Portland dining. And then he jumped off.
Back in 2005, de Cossio took a plane from Peru—where he headed the country's most famous ceviche restaurant, Gaston Acurio's La Mar in Lima—to become top chef of the restaurant many believed to be the finest in Portland.
At novo-Peruvian restaurant Andina in the Pearl, he threw down amarillo-glazed osso buco and leche de tigre-drizzled sushi for a pisco-drunk dining room, garnering reviews with all the restraint of a Pentecostal tent revival.
Related: WW's Andina Restaurant Review
But it wasn't the kind of restaurant de Cossio wanted to run. It was too big, he says, too money-oriented, too willing to put anything and everything on the menu. The food became "prostituted," he says, by a series of small compromises.
After less than two years, he'd had enough.
"That was not a restaurant. It was a factory," he says now. "I was getting $75,000 a year at Andina. I left to make $11 an hour at Paley's Place."
For most of a decade he cooked his way up and down the coast between Portland and Peru—opening the first American outpost of La Mar in San Francisco, pingponging back to the top post at Andina. Always, he stayed close to the ocean so he could surf.
"I only know how to do two things," he says. "I can surf, and I can cook the food of Peru."
De Cossio had a vision of the kind of restaurant he wanted to cook in. It would be a personal, improvisational place where every diner would know the chef, devoted to the lime-cured fish, earthy herb and bright-pepper flavors of his home country—flavors he mastered after apprenticing with two of Peru's greatest chefs, Coque Ossio and Gaston Acurio.
Paiche, our 2016 Restaurant of the Year, is the place he had in mind.
Paiche sits in a forgotten corner of Southwest—a south Portland neighborhood better known simply as "Corbett." It opened last December as a casual lunchtime cafe, and has quickly evolved into an experience unlike any other in Portland—a full-throated ode to the flavors and colors of Peru that combines joyful experimentation with meticulous technique.
The ceviche at Paiche, which is now open for dinner four nights a week and never for lunch, is an explosion of brightness, depth and chili-pepper heat from a leche de tigre sauce that somehow feels creamier than any aioli.
But ceviche can be only as good as its lime and its fish. And rather than just get limes delivered to his restaurant, de Cossio shops personally for each one, judging what he think it will taste like with the skill of a chicken sexer. But before he'll add it to his food, he cuts each lime into thirds and tastes one section himself. If it doesn't meet his standards, it's thrown away. To get the best fish, he'll go to Hawaii and Japan, when he's not picking up salmon from Native American fishermen along the Columbia.
His causa, meanwhile, elevates the potato from starchy sidekick to tender-hearted hero, while an octopus saltado kicks out the floor on old-school Peruvian street fare to discover untold depths.
Not only is it the finest South American eatery Portland has seen, it's exactly the restaurant our city needs right now.
Related: Portland's Best 50 Restaurants
In a year when the Portland restaurant scene put out seemingly more high-budget duds than Paramount Pictures, de Cossio and partner Casimira Tadewaldt began Paiche with less money than some restaurants spend on flooring. So little money, in fact, they almost had to start a food cart instead.
But with a lucky offer from the cafe that previously held the space, and a sympathetic landlord who's now a regular customer, they built their tiny 23-seat Southwest Corbett Avenue restaurant with nothing but sweat, grit and some woodblocks from the ReBuilding Center.
"I was here with a nail gun," de Cossio say, with his hand against the wood that
tiles his walls. "I am a Peruvian man. We do not typically do this. We are a people who specialize."
And, as is obvious in everything that leaves his kitchen, de Cossio specializes
His kitchen is humble: It's just four induction burners, an oven, a table and a ceviche station, with a pantry housing a tiny spice rack. There's also a sous-vide cooker stashed above the sink.
But that little kitchen brims with ideas—black-olive and huacatay and almond flour-avocado salsas, a reduction made with Peruvian tree bark that acts as a depth charge for flavor, and hearty corn-pudding pastelos brightened with tomatillos that have been infused with kiwi to turn them into a new kind of fruit.
His riotous causa tierra plate—centered on soft emulsions of bright yellow and purple potato—is a so-bright-it-hurts color wheel of flavor and unexpected texture that resets your senses and leaves you in stunned admiration. That single plate contains more great notions than many chefs come up with in their entire careers, but it still all comes together as a symphonic whole.
Lately, he's been playing around with amaranth, a Peruvian pseudo-cereal grain whose texture can be coaxed into something approaching gelatin when cooked it now serves as base for his beautifully spiced chimichurri. His restaurant is dairy-free almost as a form of culinary sport, with chickpea miso or corn water reductions creating novel kinds of creaminess.
"I feel that constraints make for more creativity," de Cossio says. "You have a butternut squash and one orange. Now make a meal."
De Cossio's restless nature and constant dissatisfaction have made bare-bones Paiche into the high-contrast powerhouse it has become. He still tries to spend a day a week learning new things by working the kitchens of chefs he respects, staging at pop-ups like Vincent Nguyen's terrific Jolie Laide.
Paiche has evolved remarkably, building itself dish by dish from the baseline of a much simpler potato causa and those unholy-good ceviches—at least three of which still always grace the menu. Visitors who wrote the place off early as just a spot for ceviche will find a restaurant that now knows how to paint with a much broader palette.
"The restaurants I love, there is a feeling or a music, something you crave, something that you must have another time," de Cossio says. "You have to keep that core feeling. But you are always adding weapons."
These days, his arsenal of flavor and texture has gone nuclear, but he's still building. Dessert remains a simple caramel-sauced cookie, while the drink menu is limited to a few well-chosen bottles of cava from Spain or natural wine from Bow and Arrow, plus excellent beer from brewers like Pfriem. He won't add cocktails until he feels he can execute them perfectly.
When he thinks about the type of place he sees as a model, de Cossio keeps coming back to Le Pigeon—the restaurant that sits atop our list of the 50 best.
Few remember, but when Gabe Rucker started Le Pigeon 10 years ago on a streetwalker corridor of then-desolate East Burnside, it was a no-budget cubby that had no cocktails aside from Pabst bloody marys served during brunch as a joke. Its wine list contained just a few lovely bottles. Those communal tables and the tiny open kitchen weren't a fashion choice, they were a necessity.
That's the dream that made Portland's restaurant scene come alive: a talented chef improvising wonders on an estate-sale-silverware budget, without big money backing, taking risks here that would be impossible in New York.
"That restaurant has been there for 10 years," says de Cossio of Le Pigeon. "It is like a bank they have built—so many recipes, so many weapons, cooks that have been there so long. You can visit again and again, and after 10 years, they are still pushing."
A decade from now, it isn't too hard to imagine Paiche the same way.
Go: Paiche, 4237 SW Corbett Ave., 503-403-6186, paichepdx.com. 5-9 pm Wednesday-Saturday. $$$-$$$$.