A carefully planned out design with a tasteful touch of neon colours marks the interior of Chicha, Kreuzkölln's excellent Peruvian eatery that is well on the way to taking the crown for the best Ceviche in Berlin. It’s not only the Ceviche that’s worth the trip. While we taste our way through delightful causa, tender pulpo, golden aji de gallina and sweet, sweet desserts, owner Robert and head chef Simón take us on a journey through the tastes, fragrances and history of Peru.
It's a dark and chilly evening in Berlin when Robert Peveling-Oberhag welcomes us into the delightfully warm and wonderful world of Chicha. Tall and boyish with a scruffy beard and an open smile, it's easy to forget that Robert actually has a sound background in finance and business, making him the perfect entrepreneur to take Neukölln's heavily fought over food crown by storm.
One of Chicha's best features is its open kitchen, from which head chef Simón Limón gives us a wave and smile before turning back to creating an extraordinary tasting menu for us. My tip? Grab a seat directly at the Ceviche bar and watch the chefs create extraordinary culinary art up close.
True to its history, one of the highlights prepared right in front of the diners' eyes is Chicha's signature ceviche. Top-notch corvina is marinated in lime-based “tiger milk” and comes served with sweet potato, roasted corn and yellow chilis. Fun fact: before opening the actual restaurant, Robert and his team could regularly be found at Markthalle Neun's Streetfood Thursday markets, serving up Ceviche-variations to the hungry masses.
Chica: What's in a name?
Excellent pisco sours in hand, Robert takes us on a tour of the premises. For him, Chicha fulfills a dream many years in the making, one which is deeply rooted in his passion for good food and social occasions. After having scouted numerous international cities for restaurant locations – Barcelona, Zurich and London among them – he eventually set his eyes on Berlin; a city as vivid and international as he is.
Robert's original vision of a Chicha themed restaurant came to life two years ago, with a little help from friends and partners, including artists, architects, bar staff and chefs. Listening to his passionate storytelling, it soon becomes clear that conveying the history of the Chicha movement while retaining the modern, multicultural and eclectic feel of a restaurant in Kreuzkölln was no mean feat.
The Chicha style originates in the colourful – or, one might say, neon-coloured – history of Lima. In the 60s and 70s Peru's rural population was flocking towards the newly bustling capital. The poor and hopeful making Lima their home rarely managed to better their financial situation, but gained something else: a sense of cultural identity. This is when Chicha was born. What started out as a musical style that brought together Colombian cumbia, rock and traditional Peruvian folk tunes soon became a movement that was fired up by, but certainly not limited to, music alone.
Robert is wearing his trademark grin while he gives us the rundown of Chicha in a nutshell. Beer in hand, he is happy to talk about the careful thought process behind several features of the restaurant layout, from a Japanese-German-Peruvian wood panelled wall to the DIY chalk-art-toilets – and, of course, the Chicha music playing in the background.
“You know, when we came up with this place it was clear that we needed a Chicha wall,” he says, gesturing to the white-and-neon-coloured feature wall in the back of the restaurant. The story goes that the bold neon posters for Chicha concerts were originally made from bright, not-always-legally-acquired road paint and re-used boards. The intention of the stark lettering and triple contrasting colours is clear: attracting attention in the busy city streets, conveying key information in the blink of an eye.
Chicha is music, art, lifestyle... and food.
Contrasts, textures and bold statements are clearly a recurring theme in the food at Chicha as well, as is the idea of sharing. All dishes are placed in the middle of the table with everyone helping themselves, making for a delicious social experience full of laughter.
Head chef Simón joins us as Chicha's very own pulpo perucho is served. The octopus comes served on a delectable bed of grated almonds and cauliflower, contrasted by tangy chorizo sausage. The intentionally vegan passion fruit mayonnaise lends a delightfully exotic touch to the dish, while thinly sliced, purple Andean potato crisps add a satisfying crunch.
While Simón explains some of the history of Peruvian cuisine and the Incan, Spanish Creole, Chinese and Japanese influences that helped define it, we are served one of Chicha's little secrets: Alitas de corvina. This on-demand only tempura dish came into being from a no-food-waste policy that Chicha is proud of. The pectoral fins of high-class corvinas, which elsewhere might end up as fish stock, are battered and deep-fried to order. Crisp on the outside, the inside of these Nikkei-style “fish wings” just melts on your tongue. They come with a sesame seed and almond studded soy sauce, vegan mayonnaise and a foamy avocado dip. The conversation temporarily dies down while we munch away – the best compliment a chef could wish for.
Up next is aji de gallina, a yellow pulled chicken dish that dates back to the first Spanish Creole generations living in Lima. This staple of Peruvian comfort food gets a lovely Chicha makeover with the help of extra-tender corn-fed spring chicken, dehydrated olives, a tinily tasty quail egg and a generous helping of golden ají-pepper and cheese sauce.
And let's talk about the causa negra! Whether its name goes back to the Quechua word “kausay” (“sustenance) or to “La Causa” (“the cause”), Chicha's version of Peru's mashed potato pie is certainly a dish worthy of any good cause. Inky black potato mash bites are topped by tiny deep-fried fish and vibrantly orange caviar for a little international touch. The garnishes of frothy garlic espuma and fresh green glasswort twigs add extra layers of tastes and textures.
Simón's deep thought process that goes onto every plate becomes clear when he talks about his food. His passion for his Peruvian roots can be tasted in Andean, rainforest, coastal and urban ingredients that take place of pride in all of his food. Extra inspiration comes from international touches that are as diverse as the Berlin crowd eating here.
“You might call it a revolution on a plate.”
Born to a Peruvian father and German mother Simón grew up in the heavily urbanised Rhine-Ruhr area. He fondly remembers watching his father cook, who was responsible for most of their meals. Mostly Peruvian, of course.
Years later, on an extended trip through South America, he found some of the best food he had ever tasted in his life in Peru. Spearheaded by star chef Gastón Acurio, the Cocina Novoandina was making international headlines.
“You might call it a revolution on a plate,” Simón says smiling. “Suddenly there was something to be proud of. A whole nation found itself through food. I wanted to be part of that.“ Mixing the methodical, sometimes overly intellectual German approach to cooking with the laid back Peruvian style and the ingredients he loved so much felt incredibly inspiring.
“I just couldn't see myself being anywhere as passionate about German cuisine, though,” he admits. After having run a Peruvian catering business based on Youtube recipes, he eventually committed to and completed a classical German culinary apprenticeship. As a young sous-chef at Serrano, probably Berlin's best-known Peruvian restaurant, his team received 13 Gault-Millau points in 2015.
Eventually, he found his culinary home as head chef at Chicha. Watching Simón and Robert at work, Serrano's place at the top is getting some heavy competition these days.
“You know, we can't change the whole world, but we can make an effort whenever possible”, Simón sums up the idealist stance that inspires him. With him and Robert at the helm, Chicha scrapped the endangered tuna from the menu, adopted a no-food-waste policy and held a fundraiser that financed two new houses after Peru's heavy floods. Maybe most importantly, they never lost their drive, passion and fun while working in a restaurant they can be proud of.
Time for dessert
It seems hard to believe, but we've been at Chicha for hours, talking and laughing, when we finally get around to desserts. Here, nobody will glare at you when you order one dessert with multiple forks. As with every dish, they are visual and culinary treats made to share.
Suspiro (“sigh”) is a Peruvian dulce de leche based dessert which is so sweet that it makes the ladies in Lima sigh. Simón's Chicha version has flambéed marshmallows on a raspberry sauce with a cream of caramelised condensed milk. To sigh for!
My personal favourite however is “Paseo Cusqueño” – a stroll through Cusco. A chocolate dusted Cusqueña parfait with a tiny sliver of edible gold sits proudly on a bed of puffed amaranth that is decorated with rich chocolate strands and a gel of Inca Cola, a Peruvian soft drink. Need I say more?
After dinner, it's time to have a beer (or try more of Chicha's 42 Piscos) and share more laughs, anecdotes and good times. Maybe that's the best way to sum up the Chicha experience: excellent food, excellent laughs, and excellent friends.