The sweet gig that is professional restaurant reviewing has few downsides beyond a busted diet. But one genuine challenge is the ennui that inevitably accompanies the umpteenth iteration of Fusiony Small Plates, another quinoa/kale salad, yet another oversized beefsteak. Critics grok why these things are popular, but the resultant repetition of the research grind can be enervating. What saves you from madness is the occasional dizzying exhilaration uncovered at the rare places that remind you why you first became an obsessive food nerd. Such is Celeste, a new Peruvian restaurant near Union Square that practically vibrates with infectious joy and fire and soul.
On paper, its awesomeness seems improbable. It’s the brainchild of chef JuanMa Calderon (a filmmaker by training) and his partner and general manager Maria Rondeau (an architect/producer) whose only previous industry experience was an intermittent pop-up run from their Cambridge home. The space is a spartan white shoebox with six bar seats overlooking a compact open kitchen and another tight 18 seats at modest banquettes. Many dishes feature the same ingredients from the Peruvian canon, including aji amarillo (a fruity, medium-hot yellow chili), sweet peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, red onions, lime juice, boiled giant white corn kernels and smaller pan-toasted ones. But what’s astonishing is the flavors Calderon evokes from that palette, including influences from nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) and chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) traditions.
CELESTE LA VIE: Plates at the Union Square newcomer feature many staple Peruvian ingredients.
So, tiradito de atún ($17) is evocative of tuna sashimi, with its elegant knifework and adornments of arugula, corn, sesame seeds and dots of aji amarillo sauce. The incredible ceviches ($17-$18) include blue cod or a mix of blue cod, squid and shrimp marinated and sauced in a bracingly tart but not crushingly fiery leche de tigre. The precisely balanced flavors here are equaled by the variegated textures, notably the gorgeously tender seafood. A simpler ceviche of palm hearts and artichoke hearts ($16) is also sublime.
You’ll want to get to know causa, Peru’s cold terrine of boiled riced potatoes seasoned with lime and aji amarillo with various fillings and sauces, like causa de shrimp ($15) layered with gently-poached shrimp and squiggled with three sauces—black mint/cilantro, huancaina (aji amarillo/queso fresco) and rocoto (spicy red-chili/mayo)—and causa de avocado and tomato ($12). The tension between these dishes’ gentle hominess, cool temperature and vivid capsaicin heat searing in occasional bites is exquisite. A generous salad of arugula ($10) dressed with lime and Parmesan and a few cherry tomatoes is simple and very fine.
Aji de gallina ($19), tenderly poached shredded chicken in a rich sauce of garlic, aji amarillo, herbs, ground walnuts and Parmesan and topped with hard-boiled egg and black olives, is a dreamy, delectable stew. Lomo saltado ($24), a stir-fry of beef tenderloin slices, onions, sweet peppers and tomatoes, gets a deep-umami chifa boost from a sauce of chicken stock, oyster sauce and soy sauce. Sudado de pescado ($24) again evokes Chinese flavors with a big steamed filet of blue cod amid scallions, onions, pea pods, sweet peppers and tomatoes in a garlicky soy sauce. Camarón al ajillo ($23) is a simple saute of giant prawns in white wine, garlic, onions, scallions and chilies, wreaking an utterly winning tenderness and snap from just-doneness. A side of pink, stewy, lima-bean-like frejoles ($4) adds value-priced heft.
The terrific desserts include suspiro limeño ($8), a caramel-sweet dulce de leche custard topped with bruleed merengue, and the wondrous mousse de lucuma ($8), an ethereal, cinnamon-dusted pudding made from a Peruvian tree fruit with a beguiling butterscotch note.
The beverage program is remarkable for the tight quarters, with soft drinks like chicha morada ($4, glass; $9, bottle), an inky, sweet-spiced fruit punch based on purple corn. Classic Peruvian cocktails include an excellent, egg-white-foamy pisco sour ($12) and the chilcano ($11), a zippy highball of ginger beer, pisco, lime and bitters. Variants on classics like a mezcal negroni, mezcal margarita and the Manhattan-like, pisco-based Lima Capitan (all $12) could use more chill and dilution. The short beer list shows decent range in six drafts ($7-$10) and six packaged options ($6-$11); we found Peru’s golden lager Cusqueña ($6) a crisp refresher. The brief wine list is similarly well-chosen, with seven by-the-glass options ($10-$12) from a list of nine bottles ($42-$55). Seafood-friendly choices include the 2017 Poderi Cellario “Favorita” ($11 / $42), a Langhe vermentino with nice acid/fruit balance, and Languedoc’s pale-but-spicy 2017 Les Chemins De Bassac Isa rosé ($12 / $45). The standout red is the 2017 Cacique Maravilla Pipeño ($10/$45), an odd, fascinating, pure-país-grape Chilean red: cloudy, rusty-brown, light-bodied, peppery and earthy. One can start or finish with straight spirits ($5-$24) of pisco, mezcal, tequila and sotol.
That itty-bitty room thrums with bouncy cumbia music and cheers for the TV fútbol broadcast, feeling less like a restaurant than a lively house party filled with happy neighbors and friends of the owners. The tight-knit, warmly hospitable staff does its best with patrons who understandably want to linger; plan to wait for your table and savor a leisurely-paced meal. Celeste ultimately combines stunningly good food at nice prices with the vivid warmth of folks who seemingly got into the business out of love of community, a thing rare and wonderful enough to make a jaded critic shed a tear of bliss. Run, don’t walk there. You’re going to need reservations. ◆
Causa de shrimp
Aji de gallina
Sudado de pescado
Camarón al ajillo
Mousse de lucuma
Celeste, 21 Bow St., Somerville (617-616-5319) celesteunionsquare.com; Liquor: Full; Hours: Tue.-Wed., 4-10 pm, Thu., 4 pm-midnight, Fri.-Sat., 12:30 pm-midnight; Parking: Metered street spaces; Reservations: Yes