Pochi Chilean Cuisine and Wine Bar
220 W. Ninth St. | Wilmington | 384-6654 | pochiwinebar.com
Prices: Appetizers and salads $6-$14; sandwiches $9-$13; entrées $18-$28
Recommended: Camarones al pil pil, Chilean sea bass, Chilean wine flights
Braulio Rojas tells the tale of the legendary Carménère grape, which disappeared from Bordeaux, France, sometime around 1867. After a nasty plague of phylloxera bugs ravaged the Carménère’s roots and leaves, the species—behind one of Bordeaux’s Original Six red wines, noted for its deep red hue and fruity characteristics—was said to be extinct.
Only, it wasn’t. Unbeknown to mostly everyone, Carménère grapes had been thriving in the fertile Central Valley of Chile for generations, hidden in plain sight.
“In the early ’90s someone finally came along and did a DNA test of these grapes and, sure enough, there was the Carménère, growing beside some Merlot grapes,” Rojas says.
Carménère flourishes inside Pochi Chilean Cuisine in Wilmington—the cozy 40-seater that Rojas opened last fall with his wife, Patricia Millan. Just like the wayward French grape that blossomed in South America, Pochi is an anomaly—a hip, buzzy spot that’s actually drawing weekend crowds to downtown Wilmington.
With craft beers and gastropubs dominating so much of our local dining conversation, Pochi feels like a refreshing change of pace. With a sexy roster of Latin American wines, Pochi reignites the romance and adventure we reserve for a full-figured glass of crushed grapes.
The narrow, 2,653-mile-long Chile is one of the world’s top wine-producing nations, and supports nearly every variety of climate and topography between its massive coastline and proximity to the Andes Mountains. “Wine is popular culture in Chile,” says Rojas, whose native Santiago sits near the heart of Chile’s heralded Central Valley wine-making region. “It’s something that you see everywhere.”
Pochi’s cellar extends an excellent primer to Chilean wines, from the plump and peppery Carménère varietals from vintners Viña Falernia, Ventisquero, and De Martino, to more assertive Cabernet Sauvignon from acclaimed winemaker Montes. Argentinian malbecs, California pinots and Spanish blends round out the list most nights—and almost everything is available by the glass. A scant $15 buys one of four wine flights grouped by characteristics (“funky reds,” “fruity whites,” etc.), and three generous pours of each arrive affixed to ornate wine holsters.
Sipping, swapping, sharing: Beneath Andean alpaca fur tapestries and heirloom copper etchings, wine immersion at Pochi is terrific fun. Precipitous vertical wine racks hang high above the bar against exposed ancient brick, and empty bottles, each containing a single white rose, line the tables. Packed into its comfy little strip of Ninth between and Orange and Tatnall streets, Pochi furnishes downtown Wilmington with something it’s lacked since Julio Lazzarini moved his Orillas Tapas from its chic, original lower Market Street spot. Intimate, warm and romantic, Pochi is bound to become a destination date spot. When the room is booked, which was most nights, Pochi felt hip and exclusive. I witnessed staffers solemnly turn customers away during a packed Saturday service and wondered who else in Wilmington was doing the same.
Pochi’s food menu, Rojas says, comprises “the essentials of Chilean cuisine,” and was pared down from handwritten family recipes. Such reliable blueprints, in the hands of executive chef Millan, yielded some exquisite flavors that perked taste buds as much as the wine did. The sautéed shrimp, for instance, of camarones al pil pil skimmed atop an intoxicating liqueur of white wine, garlic, butter and a sneaky thump of spice that enveloped every plump morsel of shrimp (not to mention all the extra crusty bread I requested to sop it with).
Expectations were high for Chilean sea bass, especially at $28 a plate, but Millan didn’t disappoint. Her hulking filet was perfectly cooked—crispy top, with a velvety, juicy interior—with a clever smear of blackberry-wine reduction that isolated and underscored the fish’s sweeter strains.
With Pochi’s more lightly shaded dishes, Millan brandished her finesse and restraint. The gentle snap of lime that enlivened humble cannellini bean salad was tactful; but the precision in her fried avocado salad was masterful. A quick jump in the pan left my hunks of avocado warm and pliable (read: not mushy), and a perfectly creamy foil to fresh-tasting arugula, corn, tomatoes and a crunchy sprinkling of chia seeds. Elsewhere, blue agave nectar was applied to grilled salmon with a surgeon’s touch, never allowing the sweetness to overwhelm.
A few dishes seemed clunky—or at least less-refined, given Pochi’s chic surroundings. A pile of sautéed sweet potatoes slumped cold and bland beside my sea bass, while a plate of flank steak empanadas—despite their tender, flaky crusts—were disappointingly monochromatic, unlike the olive- and raisin-stuffed ground-beef variety Pochi also serves. Lomo a lo pobre, South America’s answer to steak frites, featured tender certified Angus tenderloin with a tasty mélange of fries, frizzled eggs and sautéed onions, but the meat’s critically underseasoned exterior left it tasting flat and bitter.
Traditional tilapia and shrimp ceviche radiated its poppy-lemon marinade, but an endless parade of julienned red onions (and the dutiful but unnecessary palm hearts) forced me to poke around in order to get to the fish.
By dessert, the luscious panqueques con manjar pardoned any and all sins. Rich, drool-inducing dulce de leche oozed like lava from the crispy outer ridges of tender rolled crepes, and drizzled around hand-whipped cream.
It didn’t have the complexity of a Carménère—it didn’t need it. For Rojas and Millan, sharing the flavors of home is a passion. When those flavors arrive by the glass—and by threes—we’re more than happy to oblige.