Head chef Angel Bojanovich puts the finishing touches on the Lomo Saltado. Unlike other versions of the popular dish, Panka’s main course uses sirloin strip steak and homemade fries. Claire K. Racine|Westmore News
Head chef Angel Bojanovich puts the finishing touches on the Lomo Saltado. Unlike other versions of the popular dish, Panka’s main course uses sirloin strip steak and homemade fries.

Claire K. Racine|Westmore News
Panka Peruvian Bistro makes 10. Ten Peruvian restaurants in a 2½-square-mile area. Even for a village like Port Chester with its large Peruvian population, that's a lot. It explains why this restaurant had to set itself apart from the others, make every attempt to be a cut above its competitors. In many respects, it has succeeded, although Panka, which opened barely a month and a half ago, is still a work in progress.

The Peruvian bistro, which opened Jan. 1 at 167 Westchester Ave., offers the same traditional recipes as other Peruvian eateries, but they are made with higher quality, all natural and organic ingredients, presented more beautifully and served in a classy, modern setting unlike any of the others to make the entire experience more memorable. That's why it's the perfect spot for Valentine's Day or any special occasion or even for a lovely dinner out with your partner, family or friends.

You should not go to Panka expecting an inexpensive meal, but neither are you going to overpay for the quality you get at this Peruvian eatery, and you will not walk away hungry.

The upscale, family-owned restaurant was a long time coming but definitely worth the wait.

"We started the idea last March and opened Jan. 1," said Reynier Melgar, 33, who owns Panka along with his parents, Rayner Melgar and Janet Paulina Arapa. They had a soft opening in December and waited for a special occasion, the New Year, to open for good to have a nice impact, he said.

Panka was first introduced to the community at the outdoor Peruvian festival in the marina parking lot last August where the Melgar family had a booth. They also have a deli-buffet restaurant in Stamford called Daddy's Deli which specializes in Peruvian food and owned Lineas de Naska in New Rochelle which they recently sold after five years in business.

After the festival, a banner hung outside 167 Westchester for months indicating that Panka would be opening soon, but I began to wonder.

"The place was fully renovated, we got everything up to code and that is one of the things we wanted to follow to show people things have to be done the right way," Melgar said. "In the end we just waited for a holiday to open the doors." The large space had previously been the home of the Mexican restaurant Tortilleria los Gemelos where in the background tortillas were being made and packaged for retail sale.

Expect the unexpected

Walking into Panka the first time with my family, when there wasn't even a sign outside yet, we had no idea what to expect. We were familiar with Peruvian food, of course, but were not prepared for the transformation that had taken place there, starting with the striking black and white décor. From there we were blown away by the exquisitely prepared food, exceptional presentation and service. It was a quiet Thursday night and not many people knew they were open yet at that point. Service wasn't as good on a busy Saturday night when I had requested a booth and in the end got a drafty table near the door. We were moved upon request to a table near the window and all went fine after that except that our server didn't speak English well and had to call over the head waiter to answer our questions. Another Thursday visit was equally as impressive as the first.

Why Port Chester?

Melgar, who came to the United States from Peru when he was 17, first lived in Port Chester, later moved to Stamford where his parents still live, and has recently moved back. He and his wife are expecting their first child in April.

The Melgars chose Port Chester for their new restaurant because "Port Chester is the center of Peruvian cuisine in all of Westchester," said Reynier. "It's a valuable location."

With their concept of top notch Peruvian cuisine made with the finest ingredients in mind, the Melgars hired Peruvian-born Angel Bojanovich of White Plains as their head chef to help carry it out. He studied culinary arts in Argentina and Mexico, his family owns restaurants in Peru so he grew up in the business, and he has worked in different eateries in Greenwich, Westchester and New York City.

"They had the idea and I liked it," said Bojanovich.

The rotisserie chicken, for example, is made with natural free range poultry that is not injected with hormones or antibiotics. It costs $24.95 for a whole chicken with salad and house made fries, more than at other Peruvian restaurants, and I can't vouch for the difference because I haven't tried it yet. The produce is largely organic, everything is made in-house, the fish is fresh, never frozen, and the ceviche is made with fluke rather than a cheaper fish. Having compared the Ceviche de Mixto with that my husband and I have enjoyed at another local restaurant, we realized there is really no comparison when it comes to both taste and presentation.

What's in a name?

Panka is a kind of chile pepper that is very significant for Peruvians, said Bojanovich. "That kind of chile is the base for all kinds of food." He added that "we have different kinds of chiles, some spicy, some not."

Specialties and recommendations

Bojanovich said Panka's specialties are the seafood, especially the ceviche, meats and 100% Peruvian recipes. He recommends the Lomo Saltado, rotisserie chicken and the Seco de Cordero ($23.95), a lamb shank cooked for hours until the meat is falling off the bone with red onions, cilantro, dark beer and Peruvian peppers. It is served with white beans and rice nicely flavored with the sauce from the lamb. I'm not usually a fan of lamb, but this dish is extraordinary.

There is Lomo Saltado ($14.95) made with sirloin strip steak, tomatoes and onions sautéed in a fiery wok served with yummy homemade fries and white rice or Lomo Panka ($19.95), the same dish made with New York strip steak. Even this traditional Peruvian specialty looks attractive with the steak and hand cut fries separated from the quartered tomatoes and seasoned rice rather than all thrown together. I never much cared for lomo, but when it's made with good cuts of meat and freshly cut fries, it takes on a whole different dimension.

Every weekend there are a few specials, most recently pan-seared mahi mahi with shrimp in a yellow pepper sauce served with butternut squash purée and surf and turf with a panka chile demi glaze.

Another item that has stood out during my three visits to Panka is the Pulpo a la Parilla ($12.50) appetizer, grilled pieces of tender marinated Spanish octopus which came with roasted potatoes and sausage in a lovely, slightly spicy sauce the night we visited, but that side will change regularly. It was so much better than grilled octopus appetizers I've had elsewhere.

The Causitas ($10.95) were another delightful appetizer: three pieces of lime infused mashed potatoes stuffed with shrimp, octopus and chicken topped with avocado and a mildly spicy savory sauce.

Tallarines Verdes con Bisteck ($21.95) brought tender grilled sliced skirt steak cooked just right with a nicely garnished nest of thick spaghetti cooked in a basil, spinach and fresh cheese sauce and a side of Papa a la Huancaina (boiled potatoes in a creamy yellow aji pepper cheese sauce) which delighted my daughter on one occasion and her friend on another.

Ceviche de Mixto ($19.95) contains fish of the day, calamari, octopus, shrimp and mussels marinated in lime juice which was perfectly spiced to our liking. Pieces of giant corn from Cuzco and chullpi, a dry corn you can fry to make it crunchy, were also part of the wonderful mix of flavors and textures.

Dinner for two

Meals at Panka start with a bowl of addicting crunchy corn and plantain mix called concha.

On my third visit I got a little adventurous, trying the Leche de Tigre ($10.95) or tiger's milk appetizer, a drink made from the ceviche marinade that used to be served in a shot glass, said Reynier Melgar, but it became so popular that people wanted more of it. At Panka it is served in a good-sized glass and includes bits of fish and seafood as well as larger slices of fish. Topped with crunchy corn, it was definitely interesting, but I could only finish half of it.

We also had the Enrollado de Pejerrey ($13.95), thin pieces of Peruvian smelt, which Bojanovich said is a seasonal fish that is finished now and will return in the summer, marinated in lime and spices. A good portion, it was served on a long white plate and beautifully topped with the two types of corn plus green and red pepper rings and pretty greens with red veins. This tiradito (thin sliced marinated fish) seems fairly mild until you take a bite of one of the pepper rings!

For the main meal, we went with the Jalea Special ($22.95) which brought crispy pieces of fish and mixed seafood-calamari rings, two halves of crab, baby octopi, shrimp, and yucca-lightly deep fat fried in the chef's secret blend of flour and corn meal served with Peruvian tartar sauce and topped with salsa criolla.

Quinoa Risotto con Mushrooms ($15.95) brought a rich, creamy blend of three types of mushrooms, quinoa and risotto.

All of this was way more than we could eat, so we brought what would travel-all except the tiger's milk-home as leftovers.

To drink I had the chicha de quinoa made with boiled and processed quinoa spiced with cloves and cinnamon to make a tasty organic concoction. Chicha mora is another available non-alcoholic drink made with purple corn which I have had at other Peruvian restaurants. I just became aware of a house made Peruvian iced tea I haven't yet tried.

My husband sampled both of the Peruvian beers-Cuzquena and Christal ($8 each).

For dessert, we had the pleasing and popular Lucuma Panna Cotta ($7.95). Served in a small glass bowl, this layered sweet treat includes syrup made with the subtropical fruit native to Peru on the top and bottom with the smooth and creamy panna cotta custard in the middle. Because there was little syrup, we found the flan ($7.95) dry and disappointing. Another choice for dessert is the moist Tres Leches cake or the Mousse de Chirimoya, another subtropical fruit. Most desserts come on a plate garnished with at least one strawberry expertly cut in the shape of a rose.

Our check totaled $105.

Drink menu a work in progress

Besides the drinks mentioned above, Panka is serving local craft beers as well as Amstel Light and Heineken. The wine list includes varieties from California, South America and Spain that pair with the seafood and meat. A house specialty is their red and white sangria served in tall wine glasses laden with pieces of chopped apple. Other exciting drinks are being developed as Panka will likely not be getting a full liquor license from the state because it is located across the street from a church. Pretty ironic since St. Peter's is often rented out for parties where alcohol is served.

Valentine's Day

From my experience so far, I would highly recommend Panka for Valentine's Day on Sunday, Feb. 14 when the restaurant is offering a three-course, price-fixed meal with champagne for $35. For appetizer, there will be a choice of leche de tigre, tuna tartare Peruvian style and tiradito (marinated sashimi) prepared three ways with fish, octopus and shrimp. For the main course you will have a choice of spaghetti with huancaina sauce with shrimp and scallops, surf and turf of New York strip steak and shrimp with a panka demi glaze and creamy mashed potatoes or pan-seared mahi mahi with shrimp and vegetables in an aji Amarillo (mild yellow pepper) sauce. For dessert, you can choose from panna cotta, dulce de chirimoya (between mousse and panna cotta made from this tropical fruit) and suspiro a la limena (dulce de leche with merengue and port wine on top).

Striking but stark décor; ceviche bar to come

The simple black, white and gray décor is striking but rather stark. A large painting of a jazz singer and the words "Life is Beautiful" hangs on one of the white stucco walls. Perhaps there should be another. The floor is covered in black tile, tables are dark laminate with no cloths and matching chairs with white seats. I've seen white, black and red napkins. Besides the tables, which are nicely spread out, there are comfortable booths along two walls with white cushiony backs and gray seats. Industrial light fixtures hang from the tall gray tin ceiling. The booths and tables seat about 50.

A nice touch are the decorations on the tables. They have ranged from silver and red foil to red or yellow rose petals floating in round, clear bowls of water.

The L-shaped bar where you can eat has a light gray top, low stools with white square seats and black legs. In the spring it will be the location of a ceviche bar, similar to a sushi bar, so you can see the art of ceviche preparation right in front of you.

"Any kind of ceviche or cold appetizer is going to come from this bar," said Melgar.

On either side of the door are troughs of steaming water that change color and create an interesting effect.

Carrying out the Panka theme, there are two peppers above the front door, just inside it a glass screen bordered in black with the word Panka and peppers printed all over it in white and toward the back of the restaurant another screen with Panka printed in black on white with a red panache through it.

Above the kitchen counter at the back of the restaurant "PANKA Peruvian Bistro" is spelled out in three dimensional white letters along with a lit red pepper. This I like. I do not care for the tacky changing photos of dishes served at Panka that flash on screens in the same vicinity.

I agree with Bojanovich who said "we need to finish with a little more things to make [the restaurant] more cozy."

Hours and parking

Panka Peruvian Bistro is open seven days from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Lunch is served from 11-4 Monday through Friday when there is a less pricy menu with fewer options than the dinner menu. Parking is on the street where meters are enforced until 9 p.m. except on Sunday when it's free. You can also park free in the commuter lot on Broad Street on Saturday and Sunday.