Monday, November 14, 2016

Lima, Peru: restaurants

“A whole week in Lima, and not going to Cusco?” I raised a lot of eyebrows with my unusual itinerary.  The problem was that Lima had too many restaurants that I wanted to try, and I didn’t want to risk altitude sickness in Cusco.  But (wo)man proposes, and God disposes.  I managed to get sick in Lima.  Before you panic about the safety of food in Peru, let me assure you it was a garden variety stomach virus (and I am not guessing here, I went to the doctor and was tested for everything).  But nothing was going to stop me from enjoying one of the most delicious cities in the world.  Sure I had to skip a few meals.  I simply had to work harder the other days.  I can just imagine being in hospice care in the end of my life and asking “So what’s for dinner?”  Since most of you will only spend 2 days in Lima, let me get to the point.  Here is what you don’t want to miss:

El Mercado (lunch only)
I had a lot of ceviche and a lot of octopus on this trip.  Mercado’s versions were by far the best.  This was my goldilocks of restaurants -- pleasant, modern, and lively.  The kind of place I would want to go to again and again.    

Central (lunch and dinner)
If you want a thought provoking meal that you can’t get anywhere else in the world, Central is a gem.  80% of ingredients were unfamiliar to me.  Everything was delicious.  The variety of food in a tasting menu was enormous, but they were sized and paced just right.  The meal didn’t drag and the amount of food was perfect.  

Don Cevichero in Surquillo Market No 1 (lunch only)
If you want a hole-in-the-wall experience with the food so good you’ll want to lick your plate, this is your place.  I have 2 words for you: Parilla de Mariscos (mixed sauteed seafood).  You’ll get to try shrimp, scallops, squid, and octopus all in one dish with the tastiest garlicky butter sauce.  As you exit the market get a few picarones -- squash and sweet potato donuts served with fig syrup.  

Cala (lunch and dinner)
The spectacular views is not the only thing this restaurant has going for it.  Don’t let Americanized maki rolls scare you away.  Their twists on creole Peruvian cuisine are delicious (though I stayed away from those maki rolls).  The best cooked corvina (sea bass) dish of my trip was at Cala.  

That’s my short list.  Is there a long list?  Of course.  Here are the details on all the restaurants I’ve tried.

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El Mercado
Out of all the amazing meals, this one was my favorite.  Ceviche is often served with fried seafood on the side.  The one I ordered at El Mercado had fried sole roe.  I can’t remember a more delicately fried seafood than this.  The ceviche was superb with really light leche de tigre that was mildly sweet and refreshing without evaporated milk that is often used.  Grilled octopus with potatoes and mushrooms was lovely too.  

What was great about Maras is that they took Peruvian classics and elevated them to a new level.  Take their scallops with leche de tigre for example -- leche de tigre was turned into a thicker creamier sauce, and the corn nuts were replaced with corn dough cut into tiny pillows and fried.  It was still the usual combination of ingredients, but with perfect texture.  Was it better than the classic version?  Yes!  Vanilla infused potato soup was served with wild mushrooms with the shape and texture of snails.  It was a familiar potato mushroom concept, but with a flavor profile that was new to me.  It was one of the most memorable dishes of my trip.  Veal cheeks, octopus, and many other savory courses were excellent.  Dessert was a let down, but maybe I was just too full.  The portions were too big considering how many courses they served (I got the tasting menu, but you can also order a la carte).  Service was outstanding and the sommelier went above and beyond the call of duty answering my endless food and wine questions.

All I tried was ceviche with fried octopus.  Ceviche was good, but octopus was way too tough.  

After eating all seafood, I decided to order the duck dish here since it was their specially.  It was a duck breast served in a cast iron pot over rice.  The rice was tasty, but the duck breast was cooked well-done, and its skin was soggy.  It was fairly flavorful and tender, but not crispy or juicy.  The table next to me ordered fish and it looked beautifully moist.  My first thought was to revisit Fiesta, but I didn’t bother since I found so many places in Lima that serve impeccably cooked seafood with better service, atmosphere, and prices.

Don Cevichero
I was taken here by a local chef.  It’s in the back of Surquillo market No 1.  It’s a hole in the wall, but their Parilla de Mariscos is to die for.  You get a cast iron pan with all sorts of seafood (juicy little shrimp, sweet scallops, big chunks of tuna, a whole octopus, and squid), doused in the most aromatic garlicky, tangy, buttery sauce.  Luckily the dish comes accompanied by huge chunks of fried potatoes that are pure heaven dunked into the sauce.  We fought over every morsel and almost licked the dish.  Leche de tigre, tiradito, and grilled octopus were all great.  I didn’t like the mixed seafood ceviche as much (octopus was a bit tough), and fried seafood was a heavy.

Yes, it’s gorgeous.  You can sit outside right over the ocean and listen to the waves crash.  I only ordered one dish and it was the best cooked fish of my trip.  The dish was an interpretation of chupe -- the seafood soup.  But in Cala’s version, the soup was more like the sauce on the bottom of the plate.  It was topped with risotto and the most delicate piece of corvina.  I usually like my fish seared, but this one had no browning.  Instead if offered very evenly cooked, juicy flesh.  I’ve been seeing lots of C-Vap ovens in restaurants around Lima.  So I am guessing it was cooked with temperature controlled steam (like sous-vide, but better).  The sauce and risotto had a very intense crayfish flavor -- kind of like a lobster bisque.  

Lucha Sangucheria
Lechon sandwich was delicious.  Juicy, porky, on a perfect bun (slightly crispy and substantial enough to hold all the pork juice).  I had a delicious lucuma milkshake with it.

I had a few dishes at the bar, but would love to return for a tasting menu.  Thinly sliced corvina was topped with tiny pieces of tomato and fried garlic, then liberally sauced with soy and olive oil.  Very yummy if a bit heavy handed with sauce.  The crispy rice crackers with foie gras and eel were stunning.  You don’t see foie gras and seafood together much, and that’s a shame.  It’s a great combination.  Though what isn’t a great combination with foie gras?  Avocado with beans and black quinoa crackers was nicely composed and presented.  I can’t say it’s a must get dish.  It was my sad attempt to eat more vegetables that were quite rare in restaurants (besides the ubiquitous sweet potatoes and corn).  The only let down was confit of cuy (guinea pig).  The meat was delicious and tender, but it was encased in too much skin (sure the skin was puffy and crispy, but the ratio didn’t work for me), and too much sweet sauce.  Cold yuka cream served with it was very stiff and gummy.  But that was the only miss in an otherwise good meal that also included a lychee infused foamy iced tea.  Alcohol free drinks is not usually the section of the wine list that I pay any attention to, but I am glad I did this time.  It was so delicious, I’d come back to Maido just for this drink.  

Astrid & Gaston
Solid cooking, but pales in comparisons to most other Lima restaurants of this caliber.  My entree was made out of the same ingredients as in Cala: corvina, rice, sauce.  Cala’s version was tastier and more affordable.  The appetizer of lucuma gnocchi with scallops was tasty, but not the best example of either scallops or gnocchi.  Gnocchi were a tad mushy, and scallops not particularly sweet.  The topping they put on scallops was a dry and distracting.  Dessert seemed like haphazardly thrown together ingredients: shortbread, dulce de leche, raspberry jam, avocado ice-cream, passion fruit drops, and some frozen nougat.  I couldn’t see the harmony in this. The wine by the glass list was very expensive considering the stingy pours, and I am comparing to the most expensive restaurants of Lima.  

Pan de la Chola

When I walked through the door of Pan de la Chola, I thought I ended up in San Francisco.  There were artisanal breads, croissants, and juice blends that included spinach.  Wood and glass dominated the interior.  It was contemporary and rustic at the same time and felt like South America imitating North America imitating Europe.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  The lemon chia cake was perfect -- moist, tangy, not too sweet.  I have a soft spot for carrot orange juice and Chola’s version was great.  The only disappointment was a chocolate croissant.  It was very crusty on the outside (this is pastry, not a loaf of sourdough!) and although puffy and airy, a bit limited in the flaky department.  It needed way more folds to my taste to create more delicate and more plentiful layers.

What is it like to experience a new world food for the first time?  That was the question hovering over me during my 16 course exploration at Central.  Each course was constructed around a particular elevation (from -20 to 4100 meters).  Most restaurants in the innovative category play with textures.  You’ll find the classic combinations that clearly belong to a particular cuisine presented in unfamiliar form (mozzarella balloon filled with tomato foam sitting on a pillow of basil air).  Since that is no longer particularly innovative, some chefs turn to questioning the esthetic of traditional cooking.  Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz takes familiar ingredients and gives them textures that are tough, slimy, and chewy.  Add to that the low salt concept and it makes you look at ingredients in a whole new light.  You thought you liked duck, tomatoes, truffles?  Well, not anymore.  Chef Martinez does the inverse of that.  He uses ingredients unfamiliar not only to Europeans, but to Peruvians as well -- plants from the earth and the sea consumed only by indigenous populations in tiny villages where those rare plants grow -- and makes them taste good by adding salt and manipulating their texture.
Central isn’t trying to challenge your culinary sensibilities.  The salt level is perfect.  The textures are familiar and most of his dishes follow the same pattern.  The main ingredient (in most courses it was seafood) is not visible.  It’s sitting in a contemporary looking house (think Frank O. Gehry) or cubist sculpture made of crispy materials.  The texture of these “crackers” varied from course to course.  Sometimes they were parchment paper thin, sometimes a little puffy, sometimes they gradually melted over the dish making each bite a different.  The sauces and the crackers were the vehicles for all the unusual ingredients.  It gave the diner a chance to try a new flavor with familiar crispy or creamy texture.  I enjoyed every moment of that meal, yet for the first time in my life, I can’t recreate the taste of specific dishes in my head.  I remember their texture, but not the flavor.  The dishes that I can clearly conjure up were the most familiar: beef with quinoa and the chocolate dessert.  I can also clearly remember how the scallops, razor clams, octopus, and other familiar ingredients tasted.  But I can’t conjure up a taste of huarango, sargassum, mashwa, and other unfamiliar ingredients.  I also can’t think of any dish from Central that I am dying to have again, that I re-live in my head over and over.  This made me think about taste memory.  How do we remember and recognize the ingredients?  How many exposures would it take for me to remember those flavors.  Do we remember new flavors easier if they are paired with a new texture?  

Discovery of a new ingredient is a painful process.  Imagine tasting cocoa for the first time in unsweetened form.  Just think how many Europeans died eating the wrong part of the potato plant?  Those days are gone, of course, since we are not as hungry.  But it’s good to know that there is a chef who has the intellectual hunger for new ingredients and is so masterful at sharing what he finds.  

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