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A Bit of Heaven: First-time restaurateurs dazzle at Somerville’s tiny Peruvian gem Celeste

Photo by: Madeline Malhortra

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.

 

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