New Capitals of Cuisine: Peru: Next Stop: Lima

  • Jack Smith

 

If you were to transport an Inca chief from the steps of a pre-Columbian pyramid to the bar of the Club Nacional in Lima, Peru, he would feel right at home. Give him a coat and a tie, and he would fit right in among the city’s power elite. The long flights of steps, the high pillars, and the sense of pomp would all be familiar. So, too, would the lunchtime menu: The featured dish this afternoon, just as 500 years ago, is ceviche.

"The Club Nacional has the best ceviche in Lima," says my host, Bernardo Rehder—a prominent Limeño businessman—as he leads the way to the dining room.

This is no mild boast, considering that in this city of nine million, wherever you look you see people drinking pisco sours and nibbling on lightly marinated seafood. But only at lunch. "You can drink pisco sours anytime," says Rehder, ordering two, "but a true Limeño would never eat ceviche at dinner. And no good restaurant would offer it after lunch. You have to eat it when it is fresh, right off the boat."

Our ceviche arrives, prepared to order, the pristine sole marinated barely a minute in garlic, onion, and the juice of tiny Peruvian limes many times more acidic than American limes. The fish is adorned with a dollop of mashed sweet potato and a sprinkling of crunchy choclo, the giant corn kernels from the Andes, and the flavors are remarkable: briny, citrusy, bright with contrasts, and unlike any ceviche I have ever tasted. It is a revelation. Who knew this simple dish could be so complex, so nuanced?

Instantly, it is clear why Peru has become a world-class gastronomic destination, with tourists traveling thousands of miles to experience Lima’s chifas, Chinese-Peruvian restaurants; cebicherias, restaurants dedicated to the many styles of ceviche; huariques, small, unmarked family restaurants; cocinas japonesas, Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurants; and cocinas peruanas, classic Peruvian restaurants. And it is clear why Peru’s cuisine and ingredients are becoming prominent far beyond its borders. Noteworthy Peruvian restaurants are opening around the United States, including a New York branch of La Mar, the cebicheria of Peru’s superstar chef Gastón Acurio. More than 30 years after Nobu Matsuhisa made waves serving Japanese-Peruvian dishes such as tiradito, and 100 years after Auguste Escoffier proclaimed Peruvian cuisine one of the three great cuisines of the world, along with French and Chinese, the rest of us are finally catching up.

"The same people who used Lima as a stopover en route to Machu Picchu and Cuzco now want an extra two days in Lima to visit Astrid y Gastón, Malabar, La Mar—places that are enjoying an international buzz," says Carlos Fida, president and cofounder of Pan American Travel Services in Salt Lake City, which specializes in high-end trips to South and Central America.

As you might expect from a metropolis with a history of conquest, Lima is chockablock with monuments to saints, generals, politicians, and at least one Inca chief. There are, so far, no monuments to chefs, but that seems likely to change soon.

 

REVOLUTIONARY CHEF

"Remember the martini bars of the 1990s?" Gastón Acurio asks, smiling across the table. "Take it from me. The next big thing is going to be pisco bars."

To be sure, the eponymous sour is popular in Peru; it is the national cocktail, a frothy amalgam of pisco brandy, lime juice, simple syrup, egg whites, and bitters. I happen to be holding a pisco sour in my hand at this very moment.

We are at Astrid y Gastón, the white-linen restaurant that many consider the finest in South America. And there is reason to take Acurio seriously: The 43-year-old chef and proprietor is one of the most famous men on the continent. His bold approach to Peruvian food and drink has built him a critically acclaimed empire of 32 restaurants in 14 cities around the world, including the La Mar cebicherias in San Francisco and, as of this fall, New York. Astrid y Gastón is his flagship, which he runs with his wife, German-born pastry chef Astrid Gutsche.

The curly-coiffed Acurio brings new meaning to the expression "celebrity chef": If you’re in Lima, you cannot escape him. He has a television show, La Aventura Culinaria (The Culinary Adventure), and his cookbooks are prominently displayed even at the airport. He is on the covers of magazines and working the crowd at Mistura, the gourmet food festival he founded. He is revered for teaching illiterate farmers how to reach the gourmet market and for sharing the spotlight with unknown street vendors. He is so popular that during Peru’s 2011 presidential campaign, the newspaper Perú21 reported that a coalition of politicians and businessmen would draft him to run for the presidency on the Fuerza Social ticket.

In short, he is a national hero, the philosophical opposite of Spanish superchef Ferran Adrià, whose El Bulli in Barcelona was a byword for exclusivity. Indeed, Acurio’s self-imposed mission is to train and inspire 100,000 new Peruvian chefs worldwide. Whether he does or doesn’t, thanks to Acurio, Peruvian cuisine is poised to take its place in the pantheon of the world’s great cuisines. But the chef’s mission transcends notions of food and drink; it is nothing short of revolutionary.

He and Gutsche opened Astrid y Gastón in 1994, after returning from Paris, where they met at Le Cordon Bleu. His menu was initially French but by 1999, Acurio was creating dishes from camu-camu, a tart, pink Amazonian fruit; doncella, a meter-long Amazonian catfish as delicate as swordfish; yellow and purple and striped potatoes; and alpaca, whose firm, sweet flesh is as versatile as lamb or pork.

Surprisingly, given its world-class status, Astrid y Gastón is a remarkably casual place. You enter via the bar, and the dining room is all earth tones and wine racks and tables holding baskets of breads baked with such Peruvian staples as aji amarillo and rocoto peppers and huacatay, a black mint from the Andes. Soon comes a series of causas, a classic Peruvian preparation of seafood served atop bite-size pieces of mashed potato, and an asado de tira y el maiz morado, beef short ribs with purple corn in a red-wine reduction. "We are home to 80 of the world’s 104 distinct biozones," Acurio says, just in case I had not heard that several times since my arrival in Lima. "This gives our cuisine a diversity no other country can rival."

 

RAW INGREDIENTS

Therein, as I learned at an outdoor market in Miraflores the next day, lies the conundrum—particularly in the case of the potato. Given the enormous variety, how does anyone decide on a spud? Will it be the papa cóctel, a small, sweet tuber? The papa huamantanga, an Andean tuber? The papa amarilla, fine for eating plain? The papa huayro, especially good for absorbing sauces? The papa nativa, often made into two-toned potato chips? The papa negra, a black potato popular for stuffing? The papa Perricholi, named for a Peruvian stage actress? The papa peruanita, best with a light yogurt-herb sauce? The púrpura, the purple potato called the "Gem of the Andes" because in pre-Hispanic times it was reserved for the Inca emperors?

"If none of these are what you’re looking for," offers Adolfo Perret Bermudez, my guide and the proprietor of the Punta Sal cebicheria, "Peru produces an additional 4,300 kinds of potatoes."

Then there are the fish, which abound off the 1,500 miles of Peruvian coastline. "You find fish here you don’t see anywhere else in the world," Bermudez says. That is partly because of the Humboldt current, whose cold, low-salinity waters run along the west coast of South America and support vast amounts of plankton. And since plankton is what many fish eat, these waters produce the tenderest calamari, the most succulent scallops, and crayfish like small lobsters. As we move through the market, Bermudez points out the endless array of herbs, tubers, and berries and their uses. Around a corner, a vendor proclaims the virtues of huacatay, indispensable in Peruvian kitchens.

With almost unlimited raw ingredients like these, it is easy to see why Lima is the place to be for a new generation of chefs, no matter how diverse their backgrounds and interests. It is also one of the most enthusiastic dining cities in the world. While an older generation never stayed out late—the curfew imposed by Lima’s military government kept everyone off the streets after 1 am—for today’s young fashionables, dining out is what life is all about.

"Just like in Manhattan, people make a big deal about getting to a hot new restaurant before it opens," says Giacomo Bocchio, the 26-year-old chef and proprietor of Manifiesto, a chic, minimalist restaurant in Miraflores. Restaurant hopping is so popular, he says, it has dictated a new social norm: "In North America there is a stigma attached to living at home after you’ve graduated from college. Not in Peru. We would rather spend our money on fashion and going out with our friends at night to try the latest restaurant."

Federico Ziegler, chef at the Miraflores Park Hotel’s Mesa 18 restaurant, came to Lima by way of the Domaine des Hauts de Loire in France and La Bourgogne in Buenos Aires, where he was head chef. He was drawn by the incredible raw materials and now he creates dishes like Peruvian crab cannelloni, and passion-fruit-scented ceviche. Rafael Piqueras, a 35-year-old graduate of Lima’s Le Cordon Bleu and chef at Maras in the Westin Hotel, is known for pairing Peruvian dishes like corn tart filled with oxtail ragout with wines such as Zuccardi Q Malbec, from the Mendoza region of Argentina.

Chef Jacinto Sanchez, who heads the kitchen at the Country Club Lima Hotel, grew up in the Andes speaking Quechua, an indigenous South American language. At 14 he left home and came to Lima, where he worked washing dishes and paid close attention to the chefs, the sauciers, and the sous-chefs. One night, so goes the story, a chef and sous-chef failed to report for work and Sanchez fearlessly stepped in.

The rest is history. In 1997, Sanchez took over the kitchen at Perroquet, where he now heads a team of 40 and—according to Summum, a publication devoted to the Limeño dining scene—has become the perennial "top hotel chef" in the city. He still uses many of the herbs and peppers native to the highlands in his tasting menus, which typically begin with a selection of causas topped with tuna tartare, baby octopus, and salmon. His pièce de résistance might be short ribs braised for hours in red wine, but his personal favorite is deep-fried cuy—guinea pig. "It’s on the menu at Perroquet," Sanchez says, "only we don’t serve it with the head and tail, the way Peruvians like it."

One of the most charismatic of the young chefs is Pedro Schiaffino, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and now proprietor of Malabar in San Isidro, a restaurant that is getting international attention. He is also Peru’s leading exponent of Amazonian cuisine, and the executive chef for Aqua Expeditions, which explores the region by river. "In 2001 I returned home from doing master’s work in Italy," he says, "and I was fascinated by the people and the food and the animals of the Amazon."

That led him to start harvesting the Amazon, bringing freshwater fish even Peruvians had never seen before into city markets. A few years later, he opened Malabar, and in 2008, when Aqua Expeditions’ first ship floated up the river, Schiaffino was on board to prepare the flavors of the jungle: delicacies like giant river snails the size of baseballs; Andean caviar; maca (a root known as "Andean Viagra"); and guinea pig—but only in season. Much of the menu at Malabar is built on the same Amazonian ingredients. "During cruises," Schiaffino says, "it’s 80 percent."

It is hard to say if the Michelin inspectors have caught on to this new gourmet market. But if they do, Schiaffino may soon add "Top Chef on the Amazon" to his kudos.

Astrid y Gastón, +511.242.4422, www.astridygaston.com; La Mar, +511.421.3365, www.lamarcebicheria.com; Malabar, +511.?440.?5200, www.malabar.com.pe; Manifiesto, +511.249.5533; Maras, Westin Hotel, +511.201.5000; Mesa 18, Miraflores Park Hotel,+511.610.4000, ext. 224, www.mesa18restaurant.com; Perroquet, Country Club Lima Hotel, +511.611.9002, www.hotelcountry.com/dining/perroquet; Punta Sal, +511.242.4524, www.puntasal.com

PISCO, PORFAVOR
The Peruvian grape brandy has polished its rough edges to become the fastest-growing spirit in the United States and a favored ingredient of creative bartenders.

Pisco, once a staple of the California gold rush, is back. Only it is no longer the rustic, two-fisted spirit of prospectors and dance-hall girls. In the 1850s, America’s Pacific coast was awash with pisco, the clear grape brandy that Peru shipped north to California. It was not just alcohol that gave pisco its kick: It was said to also contain cocaine from Peru’s coca fields. Prohibition put an end to the pisco trade, and after that it remained a novelty, more travel souvenir than genuine drink, a way of saying, “Ask me about my trip to Peru.”

But the modern obsession with cocktails is changing that: Pisco has become the fastest-growing spirit in this country, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, with upscale brands designed to tempt a more sophisticated palate. “A couple years ago we carried two or three piscos and only one premium brand, Barsol,” says Leo Robitschek, head bartender at the elegant New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Now his cocktail menu features 10 brands of pisco, and there are more coming onto the market every year. One of them, Pisco Portón, is preparing to make an even bigger splash: Master distiller Johnny Schuler, a Peruvian television personality and restaurateur, and his partner Bill Kallop, a Texas oilman, plan to spend millions promoting it in the United States.

A good pisco, Robitschek says, has a perfect balance between subtle fruit notes, minerality, and floral aromas. There may also be hints of grassiness, and other fruits, such as pear. The spirit, which is usually 80 proof, should be round and have a smooth finish. Among the pisco cocktails on Eleven Madison’s menu is the Painted Lady, a blend of pisco Quebranta, yellow Chartreuse, lemon juice, and house-made grenadine and bitters.

But the most famous pisco cocktail is the sour—traditionally made by shaking together pisco, lime juice, egg whites, and simple syrup, and topping the frothy concoction with drops of bitters. It is worth noting that in Peru, they celebrate National Pisco Sour Day on the first weekend of February. You might want to mark your calendar.

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