Membrillo seems to be the best of all worlds — a quirky, cozy, modern interior, chill music and attentive wait staff. And when the head chef and the owner of a restaurant are the same person, it’s my bet the place will be tasty. It’s a plus if it’s well-run, too.
Membrillo isn’t your typical Latin kitchen. Most of the dishes are Peruvian inspired, and the menu offers food from Argentina and Cuba as well. The special twist at Membrillo, though, is the Asian-fusion cuisine originating in Peru. That’s something the owner and head chef, Corey Wisun, says he studied intently when he visited Peru in February.
“Due to the heavy immigration of Japanese and Chinese many years ago, they brought with them their cuisine, their techniques, their flavors,” Wisun says. “The ingredients they were used to were not readily available — they used ingredients that were local, thus creating new types of cuisine. The Japanese cuisine in Peru became Nikkei cuisine, and the Chinese cuisine became Chifa.”
The result is tender crudo (raw) fish with a delicate balance of unique flavors. Off menu, though sometimes served on the tasting menu, is the scallop crudo. The scallops were tender, with a lovely balance of flavors between vinegar and something a bit sweeter. This one is straight out of Nikkei cuisine, the kind of dish that’s the best of both worlds.
Wisun doesn’t seem like the type to settle into a routine, and Membrillo’s menu changes almost weekly to match his intuition and the changing seasons. Since it’s a tapas-style restaurant, you might get the chance to try a couple different dishes, but Wisun suggests the tasting menu for $45 a person.
If you want to sample something on the regular menu, try the ceviche — that tuna is as tender as fish gets. It’s bathed in a nice citrus and ginger sauce called leche de tigre, topped with fresh cilantro and some deadly slices of habanero pepper.
The real star, and a modest one at that, is the humita en olla, a traditional South American staple. Wisun calls it a kind of “deconstructed tamal” made of fresh corn.
“We peel back the husk, slightly char it on the grill, take the kernels off the cob, save the cob and made a corn stock with that,” Wisun says of preparing the dish. “We took a third of the corn and pulsed it in the food processor, we took a third of it and left it whole, and another third of it we pureed entirely. And we took all the corn then with the corn stock we made and slowly cooked it down to humita.”
With all that slow cooking, it’s a sweet and smoky dish topped with a few herbs and some goat cheese. It’s a modest masterpiece, and Wison adds that it’s “a nice vegetarian dish, kind of summery, not too heavy.”
As for Wisun’s preferred meal, “I really love my fried rice. It’s something I’ve been doing from day one.”
The Peruvian fried rice tastes wholesome. With fresh veggies and generous oil, it tastes like something straight out of grandma’s kitchen. Membrillo’s bartender says it’s the in-house favorite.
Speaking of the bar, Membrillo is stocked with all manner of house-made elixirs, cocktails and sangria. Some of these tasty concoctions even use ingredients from the farmer’s market.
But will Wisun be moving on to a new project anytime soon?
“I would love to have another couple restaurants, but I see myself staying here for the next while,” he says. “I’d like to look into doing a more quick-serve Latin concept, something a little more affordable. I think that would be good for this town.”
Membrillo is at 1530 Willamette Street. It is open 5 to 9 pm Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 10 pm Friday and Saturday. It is also open for brunch 10 am to 2 pm Sunday. For more information, visit membrillolatinkitchen.com.