Friday, June 15, 2007

Travelog: Meeting Gastón Acurio

Regular readers of this blog will know that like many of you, I am a fan of Peruvian superchef Gastón Acurio. Well, a year and three visits to Peru later, thanks to the kind assistance of a dear Peruvian journalist friend of mine, I had the opportunity to meet him yesterday at his offices in the Barranco district of Lima.

Because I was really just a fly on the wall during an interview Gastón was giving to my friend, about a project that is still very much under wraps, I can't write too much about our meeting. But, I can say that Gastón is as down-to-earth and personable as he appears in other interviews. Quick-witted, engaging, and kind, Gastón was exactly as I imagined him, and it was a great honor for this humble Peruvian food blogger to have the pleasure of meeting one of the key proponents of Peruvian food in the world today.

I was able to take some pictures of him deciding the presentation of one of the dishes for his Astrid y Gastón restaurant. And, hopefully, before I leave Peru on this visit, I will have the opportunity to interview Gastón myself for Peru Food. As preparation for my meeting with Gastón, I printed out a number of posts that have appeared on this blog regarding his work, including the translation I did of his memorable speech last year at Lima's University of the Pacific. So, I'm keeping my fingers crossed, that Gastón's and my path will cross once again. (If you want to know more, search this blog for Gastón Acurio).

Click here for the Peru Food main page.

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Travelog: Huancayo

As far as Andean cities go, Huancayo is not the most attractive nor most historic one in Peru. A bustling commercial center for the Mantaro River Valley, about six hours by road southeast of Lima, Huancayo has grown haphazardly in the last few years to become a city of over 400 thousand people.

Yet, Huancayo attracts visitors who come to its Sunday fair and to visit the many small villages that are located in the agricultural valley where it is located. The villages in the Mantaro River Valley are known for their folklore and handicrafts. It is said that every day, somewhere in the valley, there is a village fair going on. Many villages in the valley specialize in one type of handicraft; for example, San Jeronimo de Tunán is known for its delicate silver filigree, Cochas Chica is the center of the handcarved gourds known as mates burilados, and Hualhuas is famous for its textiles.

Another draw to Huancayo is the spectacular road that heads east from Lima following the Rimac River Valley, to the pass at Ticlio which is located at a breathtaking 15,807 feet, or 4,818 meters, above sea level. There used to be a daily train to Huancayo, famous for being the highest railroad in the world; however, it currently only operates during certain Peruvian holidays a few times a year. The Rimac River begins at those heights and flows east toward the Pacific Ocean, while the Mantaro River also begins there and flows south and west, eventually joining the Eñe River, one of the many tributaries that eventually feed the mighty Amazon.

Sadly, at the onset of this journey, the road passes some of Lima's precariously perched shantytowns built on the barren desert hillsides of the coast, so if this sight is disturbing, it is best to focus on the videos the bus company shows.

Soon enough, the desert gives way to the beginning of the Andean region, and the road passes small villages and towns, some focused on agriculture, and as the road ascends, others which rely on mining. As the road traverses Ticlio, the landscape becomes barren and eerie, with multicolored lagoons and only the small ichu grass growing amidst the snow-capped mountains. Despite the harshness, there is a certain surreal beauty to the landscape. Finally, the road descends, passing one of Peru's most important mining centers at La Oroya, before finally entering the fertile Mantaro River Valley.

One of the most interesting parts of the journey is watching how the Rimac River eventually turns into a trickle at the highest point of the journey, and then observing how the trickle of water heading west eventually becomes the roaring and powerful Mantaro River.

We headed to Huancayo to attend to some family business on a double decker bus operated by Cruz del Sur, one of Peru's best bus lines (lunch is served on board, there are constant videos, and at the end of the journey, there is even a game of bingo). Sitting on the upper deck of the bus, each time we turned one of the hairpin curves, we felt as if we were on a boat veering from side to side.

Some people on the bus felt the effects of the altitude, and had to breathe small alcohol-soaked pads. One well-prepared couple even had their own thermos of mate de coca, coca leaf tea, which is also a good antidote to the effects of going from sea-level to such heights.

At 9,842, or 3,271 meters above sea level, it is also best to take it easy the first day in Huancayo. We stayed in the grande dame of Huancayo hotels, the
Hotel de Turismo, located in the center of town, where we received excellent service. The hotel was an excellent base to take care of our business in Huancayo, and the staff was friendly and extremely helpful.

And now for the food.

Although we were not in town to research food for this blog, we still had some good meals in Huancayo. The food at the Hotel de Turismo's restaurant was not fancy but well made. At this altitude it is best to eat lightly the first days, and their grilled chicken breast with steamed vegetables and rice was just the right type of fare to have upon arrival. On our last day in Huancayo, we had a decent filet mignon in a mushroom sauce, and sirloin brochettes, all accompanied by steamed vegetables and mashed potatoes, made with the wonderfully flavored yellow potatoes that only grow high in the Andes.

We were told by more than one source that the best restaurant in Huancayo is called Leopardo, located in the center of town at Jirón Huánuco 716, but unfortunately we never made it there.

One day, we hired a taxi by the hour (at 10 soles per hour, about USD 3) and went to visit the trout farms at Ingenio, passing through the village of Concepción. Outside of the trout farms there are numerous small establishments offering fresh broiled trout, and pachamanca, the traditional Andean meal cooked in the ground and consisting of different types of tubers, pork, beef, and cuy; we did eat at one such place, but I would not recommend it, as one person in our party became ill, possibly due to consuming too much hot sauce made with unpurified water. A better option may be the Hotel Huaychulo, and old 1940s hotel on the outskirts of Ingenio, which was opened by a Swiss couple who moved to the Mantaro River Valley, and built a hotel modeled on a Swiss chalet.

The one other restaurant we tried in Huancayo used to be the city's finest, El Olímpico, located overlooking the main square, but almost everyone told us it is not what it used to be. Nonetheless, we had a couple of decent meals there. One standout was a hearty Andean wheat soup we sampled there. We were also fortunate to be invited to private home for lunch where we also sampled some typical Andean fare: olluquito con charquí (a stewy dish made with the tuber known as ollucos and a type of beef jerky), and caiguas rellenas, which is made with the fruit of a vine (in Latin, Cyclanthera pedata) which is stuffed and cooked with a mix of ground meat, peanuts, and raisins.

There are many traditional dishes in the Mantaro River Valley, mostly hearty soups and stews, but for our brief stay, we preferred to stick to relatively simple fare.

As I said at the onset of this post, while Huancayo may not be the most attractive city in the Andes, it is worth a visit now made easier by the fact that there are currently daily flights between neighboring Jauja (the first capital of colonial Peru, about 40 minutes from Huancayo) and Lima. We flew back to Lima in a small 18-seat plane and had a spectacular view of the Andes, with its myriad lagoons and snow-capped peaks. Before we knew it, about 30 minutes later, we were flying over Lima, arriving just in time for lunch. But, that's another post on another day.

Click here for the Peru Food main page.

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

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

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Travelog: Peru Food In Peru, The First Three Days In Lima

It is early morning in Lima, and I finally have a few quiet moments to sit and write up some of the culinary adventures we've had this past week in Peru.

I have received several e-mails asking me about our current culinary adventures. I will not be able to add the photographs until I return home to Los Angeles at the end of June and since I am using an unfamiliar computer, I will not be able to link my other posts (although, I will note when a blog search may provide you with further information).

I apologize for not maintaining my usual format, but hope you find these travelogs interesting and worthwhile reading. I will also add addresses and contact information when I return home (although, skilled Google users should not find it to difficult to find what they are searching). Right now, I am simply trying to catch up on my posting.

First, there are various options for traveling from Los Angeles to Lima, but my favored flight is the one offered by Panamanian Copa Airlines. This red-eye leaves Los Angeles a bit past midnight, and after a brief six-hour flight arrives in tropical Panama City, whose airport is a one giant duty-free shopping center. After a quick turnaround of about an hour, the connecting flight to Lima takes less than three hours, arriving in the Peruvian capital in perfect time for a late lunch.

Some friends of mine complain the Copa flight from LAX to Panama City is a bit crowded (and since it is a feeder flight to other points in Central and South America, it can be very full, especially during the winter holiday season) but I enjoy arriving in lush and green Panama City, and its hassle-free airport (no customs or immigration formalities) where there is always time to have a quick cup of coffee and pick up a last-minute present (the airport is a shopper's extravaganza). There are other flights to Peru from the West Coast of the US, including the non-stop LAN flight (about eight hours) but they all tend to arrive in and leave Lima very late in the evening.

I am a creature of habit, and I have a culinary tradition when arriving in Lima which I have kept during the last few years of travel here. On this trip, I was able to maintain my tradition. After checking into our hotel in the Miraflores district of Lima, we had a stroll around Miraflores' main park, Parque Kennedy, and I picked up the Lima daily, El Comercio, and headed to the Café Haiti, one of the grand old-fashioned Lima cafés to have my first Peruvian meal (lomo saltado and a frothy pisco sour) while people-watching. The waiters are definitely old-school and after so many times there, they know who I am. "In Lima again?" one of the waiters asked me, "Are you ready for your lomo saltado?" You have to love that type of service.

The Café Haiti, overlooking the park in Miraflores, may not have the best lomo saltado or pisco sour in town, but it is perfectly acceptable (as a Peruvian food critic friend of mine commented when I told her about this tradition of mine) and it is a very safe and comfortable place to get over the long flight from North America and start settling into life in Lima. (Do a search in this blog for more about the Café Haiti).

Our second day in Lima, we had lunch with a friend at Javier Wong's ceviche speakeasy, located in the non-chic district of La Victoria. This is one of Lima's roughest areas, except for the neighborhood where Chez Wong is located, called Balconcillo. Javier Wong is known as one of Lima's finest ceviche masters, and his unassuming restaurant, where he only has eight tables, is located on the ground floor of his home. I call it a ceviche speakeasy, because you have to knock on the door to get in, and just like in the speakeasies of the US Prohibition era, they peer at you through a hole in the door before deciding to let you in or not.

Modest yet wonderful, at Chez Wong, Javier Wong prepares his creations right in front of your eyes. There is no menu, and often, what you eat there is unavailable in any other part of Peru, or the world for that matter.

On our visit, Chef Wong prepared us a ceviche made with pineapple and octopus, a sashimi-like tiradito bathed in sesame oil and garnished with Chinese onions, and a stir-fry dish involving the freshest flounder imaginable, tiny Chinese sausages, and heaps of fresh, almost kelp-like, seaweed. As unusual as these dishes sound, they were simply exquisite. We washed down our meal with a perfectly fine Argentine Navarro Correas 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon which I picked up locally, and when that was finished, a flavorful Erdinger lager which is now offered at Chez Wong.

Other diners included Peruvian politicians and entertainment figures, and the small, intimate atmosphere means Javier Wong attends to the most minute detail of the dishes he serves. Eating at Chez Wong is not cheap, our meal for three was around USD 80, not incluing the wine, which was about USD 15 at the Vivanda supermarket in Miraflores. (Do a search in this blog for more about Javier Wong).

After lunch, our Peruvian friend took us for a post-lunch cocktail in the Lince district to a place that has elevated kitsch to a high-art. The locale is called the Blue Moon, and it is owned by an Italian who has lived in Lima for many decades. His restaurant is known for its buffets, as well as for its coffees and cocktails. As you walk into the Blue Moon your senses are assailed by all the decorations (everything from Buddhas to Peruvian figurines; apparently, the owner has a fear of blank spaces) and by the over twenty thousand bottles of wines and liqueurs that are suspended from the ceiling. We had never been there before and enjoyed a cappucino and a strawberry cocktail as we admired and were amazed by the decor.

Finally, to finish off our first full day in Lima, we headed to bohemian, seaside Barranco, to sample different types of piscos at Vida, located beneath Barranco's famed Puente de los Suspiros, or Bridge of Sighs. This fashionable restaurant and bar has a wide selection of Peruvian piscos, and we sampled different varieties including a pisco soaked in coca leaves. As we relaxed in the very comfortable bar, we realized we were very glad to be in Peru once again. (Do a search in this blog for more about pisco and the use of coca leaves in Peruvian cuisine).

Our third and final day in Lima before heading to the Andes, where I had to attend to some family matters, we stopped in the venerable Bar Cordano in the center of Lima. We didn't have a chance to eat lunch there since we were expected elsewhere, but still enjoyed the historic ambience of one of Lima's oldest bars. (Do a search in this blog for more about the Bar Cordano).

Lunch was a delicious roast duck served on a bed of seasoned rice, arroz con pato, and excellent cocktails at the Manhattan in central Lima. The Manhattan is arguably the best place to eat in central Lima, and a perfect respite when touring this historic part of the city. To me, the Manhattan is a bit of an oasis, where you can escape the noise and the crowds. Favored by suits from the headquarters of the newspaper El Comercio, the Lima Stock Exchange, and several government ministries, all located in the immediate vicinity, the Manhattan offers excellent service, fine cuisine, and great drinks in a refined atmosphere. (Do a search in this blog for more about the Manhattan).

And so, this concludes our first three days in Lima, known during the colonial times as the City of Kings. For those interested good food, Lima does not disappoint, and is still quite regal.

More later!

Click here for the Peru Food main page.

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

Friday, June 08, 2007

Peru Food In Peru

We have been in Peru for over a week now, and I thought it would be easy to blog while here, but it has turned out to be a bit harder than I expected. Nonetheless, as soon as I get a chance, I will write about some of the culinary adventures we've had so far. Happy eating!

Click here for the Peru Food main page.

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