Monday, June 11, 2007

Washington Post: If You Haven't Tried Lima's Cuisine, You Don't Know What You're Missing

Jonathan Yardley has kindly allowed me to republish his article which appeared in The Washington Post on June 10, 2007. Jonathan is a book critic at The Washington Post's and lives in Miraflores and Washington DC.

In this article, Jonathan provides visitors to Peru an overview of Peruvian cuisine and recommends seven of his favorite restaurants.

Lima Cuisine: You Don't Know What You're Missing by Jonathan Yardley in
The Washington Post. For the original article and photographs, click here.

In recent years, Jorge Chavez International Airport has been so spectacularly rejuvenated that it inadvertently reinforces an old cliche about the city it serves: Lima -- the City of Kings, the capital of Peru, home to 9 million people -- is merely a way station for travelers en route to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Iquitos, Lake Titicaca and Peru's other celebrated attractions.

As to what they're missing, they haven't a clue. Not merely is old Lima rich in history, but new Lima is so rich gastronomically as to put just about all the world's other cities to shame. Today it is not merely advisable but mandatory to come to Lima para la cocina: for the food.

Please don't ask me to be objective about Peruvian food or, for that matter, anything else in what has become my adopted second home. My wife is a native of Lima, and two years ago we bought an apartment in Miraflores, a district of the capital that was a seaside resort when it was founded in the late 19th century but is now a bustling city unto itself. We don't own a car, not only because taxis are plentiful and cheap but also because we can walk just about everywhere we want to go, including dozens of restaurants that range from haute cuisine to home cooking but have one thing in common: The food is indescribably delicious.

My wife and I do not exactly take for granted the food of Miraflores, but during our frequent stays there it is inextricably intertwined in our daily lives. From street-corner vendors we buy mangoes and cherimoyas bursting with sweet juice. At E. Wong, the cornucopian supermarket chain, we get the golf-ball-size limones (tart limes) that are essential ingredients of the puissant Peruvian national drink, the pisco sour, and langostinos (shrimp) so fresh that their heads and tails still twitch. The bakery two blocks away has a startling variety of breads and homemade sandwiches, not to mention splendid beef empanadas.

This is a side of Miraflores that few tourists see. They arrive in taxis or tour buses and are shepherded to the places where tourists are fed: Larco Mar, the lively commercial center cut into the oceanfront cliff a few blocks from our apartment, or the two famous restaurants on the beach below, Costa Verde and Rosa Nautica. These range from okay to fine, but you'll get only a hint of what Miraflores offers if that's as far as you go.

Miraflores is scarcely the only place in Lima where excellent restaurants are to be found. In two adjoining suburbs, Barranco and San Isidro, there are a number of good places, and lovers of the Peruvian twist on Chinese food often head for restaurants known as chifas in Chinatown, in the old center city. But the concentration of fine restaurants in Miraflores is nothing short of remarkable. Add to this that Miraflores has many good hotels and shopping districts, is clean and safe, and offers breathtaking views along its three-mile malecon (oceanfront avenue), and it comes down to this: Miraflores is the perfect place for the traveler to discover and savor Peruvian food.

South America has long known about Peruvian food, but only in recent years has the rest of the world begun to catch on. In large measure this is due to the efforts of Gastón Acurio, now in his late 30s, who with his wife, Astrid, a decade and a half ago founded the most famous restaurant in Miraflores, Astrid y Gastón, but whose influence reaches far beyond that. He is a passionate goodwill ambassador for Peruvian food; he has a popular television show that regularly draws attention to other restaurants both great and small, he has published popular and influential cookbooks, he's opened many other restaurants of his own, and he's far better known in Peru than any celebrity chef in the United States.

Gastón's food (in Peru everyone refers to him as Gastón) is an artful blend of traditional Peruvian with contemporary nouvelle techniques. For generations, Peru's has been a fusion of all the cuisines developed there or brought from elsewhere: native (or criollo), Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Caribbean, Italian, African. Peru gave the world the potato -- it grows thousands of varieties in more colors than you can count -- and the potato remains essential to its cuisine, most nobly in causa, a concoction of potato mashed in lime juice and the fiery indigenous pepper aji, and filled or topped with everything from crab (my favorite) to avocado to boiled egg to shrimp to octopus.

As that suggests, seafood is at the heart of Peruvian cookery. It is from the Pacific that Peru's two greatest dishes come. These are seviche (spelled ceviche or cebiche in Peru) and tiradito. The former is fresh, raw fish, often sole, cut into chunks and "cooked" in lime juice; the latter is fresh, completely raw sole or a native fish called corvina, thinly sliced and covered with one or more of Peru's innumerable sauces, many based in aji or another hot Peruvian pepper, rocoto.

Before a quick tour of the glories of Miraflores, a few pointers for visitors:

· Peruvians eat late, so you can arrive at just about any restaurant by 1 p.m. for lunch and 8:30 p.m. for dinner and be assured of a table without a wait. Virtually all restaurants that specialize in fresh seafood -- cevicherias -- are open only for lunch, usually between noon and 5.

· Dollars are accepted in most places, as are standard credit cards.

· Tipping is not as common in Peru as in the States, and 10 percent is considered generous; at some places service is included in the check, so ask if you're not sure.

· With the exceptions of Astrid y Gastón and Costanera 700, restaurants in Miraflores are cheap by American standards; two can eat gloriously for under $30 (not including alcoholic beverages) at many of my favorite places.

Indeed, that's where we'll start: at one of my favorites. It's a cevicheria called Punto Azul (Calle San Martin 595), a half-mile from our apartment. It's hugely popular in the neighborhood, and after 1 p.m. there are always long lines outside. The food tells you why. Punto Azul (which has four other locations in Lima) uses a fish called palmerita for its seviche and tiradito. It is perhaps not quite as sweet as sole, but it is tender and tasty. I usually order tiradito, half under aji sauce and half under rocoto; it costs less than $6 and is a meal in itself. The most expensive dishes on the menu are under $8. Somehow my wife and I managed to spend $22.50 on our most recent visit, but that was a three-course meal.

There's no such thing as a cevicheria district, but many of the best seafood places are concentrated in an otherwise unfashionable section of north Miraflores centered on Av. La Mar. These include La Red, Pescados Capitales, Costanera 700 and La Mar, an offshoot of the Gastón empire. As to which of these is the best, my honest answer is that though all are excellent, the best is the one I ate at most recently. La Red (Av. La Mar 381) is the least expensive -- our three-course lunch weighed in at $30 plus tip, pisco sours and wine included -- and has an especially good causa, though I'd be hard-pressed to choose between that and the causas at La Mar and Pescados Capitales.

La Mar (Av. La Mar 770) and Pescados Capitales (Av. La Mar 1337) are five blocks apart and look a lot alike, with open, airy dining rooms under bamboo roofs, and roomy tables spaced generously. The causa at La Mar is basically the same as what Gastón serves at his flagship restaurant: four little potato mounds topped with the ingredients of your choice. My wife is especially partial to the wontons packed with shrimp at Pescados Capitales, and we tend to agree (at least immediately after eating there) that it serves the best pisco sours -- Peruvian brandy, lime juice, sugar syrup and egg white -- in Miraflores. At both restaurants the seviche and tiradito are superb, though by the narrowest of margins I favor Pescados Capitales. At La Mar, a superb lunch set us back $90 plus tip, while we got out of Pescados Capitales for $60.

The most expensive restaurant in this part of town is Costanera 700 (Av. Del Ejercito 421), operated by the legendary Japanese chef Humberto Sato. Ask for a table upstairs, where you can look across a small park to the ocean. I recommend the tiradito lenguado ($14) and the causa de centolla ($8). On a recent visit, we shared the house's signature dish, a tender fish called chita baked in a thick crust of salt, and we shared, as postre (dessert), a heavenly plate of three sorbets made from indigenous fruit. It all came to $95 plus tip. A bonus was that as we walked out the rear entrance we saw, eating quietly at a corner table, Gastón himself, checking up on the competition.

Gastón wasn't on the premises when we visited Astrid y Gastón (Cantuarias 175) in April, but the restaurant was at full glory. We were seated in the wine cellar and welcomed by the manager, whom the Easter holiday seemed to have inspired to heights of hospitality. For the somewhat daunting price of $185 we had a meal that can only be called astonishing, beginning with (of course) seviche and causa, continuing through stuffed rocoto, grilled swordfish and shrimp ravioli, culminating in dessert, coffee and the unique jungle-fruit confections with which the restaurant closes all meals. Wow. Or, as we say down there: Guau.

Still, if I could go to only one restaurant in Miraflores it would be (again by the narrowest of margins) Alfresco (Malecon Balta 790), where the tiradito lenguado alfresco ($7) apparently is made in heaven. It swims in the simplest of olive oil sauces, delicately flavored, and is tenderness defined. The causa mixta of fish and shrimp ($5) ranks with Gastón's, and the panko fried shrimp ($7) are the best I've ever eaten. Anywhere. The restaurant is in an old house, but the enclosed main dining room is built out onto the sidewalk and is as airy as any cevicheria. Lunch for two came to $62.50.

There you have it: Seven restaurants for seven lunches during your week in Miraflores. For dinner or breakfast, try the other places listed under Details. I can vouch for all of them. Of dining in Miraflores, this must be said: It is just about impossible to have a bad meal there, and it is easy to have a great one.

Thanks again to Jonathan Yardley for permssion to republish this article on Peru Food.


Click here for the Peru Food main page.

TAGS: Peru, Peruvian, food, cooking, cuisine, cocina, comida, gastronomía, peruana


fabricio said...

Woww.. que excelente! genial saber que la comida peruana da tanto que hablar. Como siempre visitar tu blog demuestra lo afortunado que somos los que estamos en el Perú degustando tanta variedad culinaria. Salud por eso! :)

Un gran saludo!

Anonymous said...

Bueno el articulo, pero se olvido de mencionar Rafael (tambien en Miraflores!), que para muchos peruanos es mejor que Astrid y Gaston.
Pero definitivamente como se come aquí se come en ningun lugar del mundo, que suerte tenemos!!!

::Alejandro:: said...

Gracias por la visita!