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Lima claims a galaxy of star-quality restaurants

| Saturday, March 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Peter Haigh

Peru gives us quinoa, Pisco and Leche de Tigre — Tiger's Milk, the citrus-based ceviche marinade that cures seafood, hangovers and love lives.

Consider visiting this intriguing South American country: Its capital, Lima, has been winner for the past two years of World Travel Awards' Best Culinary Destination.

Visitors have long flocked here as a jumping-off point for Machu Picchu and the glories of the Andes. But Lima, today, also draws masses of culinary tourists. It's Peru's gastronomic epicenter — and probably a touchstone for food culture throughout Latin America.

The chefs

Lima's dining scene bursts with energy from a new generation of chefs. Many are American- or European-trained, but they're passionately focused on the lush trove of native ingredients. Devoted to awakening the world to the splendors of this diverse and delicious cuisine, they travel, they do TV, they bask in stardom — and they're super-serious about their roles as cultural ambassadors.

The place

The country's privileged geographic location, encompassing the Pacific Ocean, coastal valleys, the Andean highlands and the amazing Amazonian region, hosts a terroir rife with natural biodiversity. Its rich, indigenous food culture, drawn from a multitude of Incan and pre-Incan micro-cultures, sets the stage for an open-minded population readily absorbing influences from waves of immigration — Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and African. Add inspired and aspiring chefs eager to explore global flavors and techniques, and a distinctive Peruvian food culture emerges, one staunchly maintaining a sense of place while continuing to evolve.

What to expect

In the inaugural 50 Best Latin American restaurants awards, seven of the Top 15 awardees are in Lima — No. 1 Astrid y Gaston; No. 4 Central; No. 7 Malabar; No. 11 Maido; No. 13 Rafael; No. 14 Fiesta; and No. 15 La Mar. Numerous notable restaurants thrive beyond this list, along with more modest traditional kitchens. With the ever-accelerating pace of new openings, the roster of choices cannot be exaggerated.

Restaurants fill various niches: Cebicherias celebrate seafood — especially citrus-marinated fish, or ceviche (cebiche); Anticucherias offer grilled skewered meat, particularly beef heart; Pollerias specialize in roast chicken; Nikkei blends Japanese and Peruvian; Chifas fuse Chinese and Peruvian; and the mix of Spanish, African and Andean influences produces flavorful Creole cuisine. Some restaurants focus on products of the Amazon. Many star chefs cook novoandina, the new Andean melding of sophisticated, contemporary perspectives and native ingredients.

Some standouts

La Picanteria ( www.picanteriasdelperu.com ) showcases chef-owner Hector Solis' progressive takes on Peruvian traditions. Retro decor, casual atmosphere and lively socializing define this popular bar and eatery. There's a chalkboard menu, an open kitchen and a fine bar. Go with a group and sit at long communal tables, ordering wave after wave of updated classics to be shared. Lunch happily fills an entire afternoon.

Astrid y Gaston ( www.astridygaston.com ), recently relocated, rebranded as Casa Moreyra and splendidly expanded, is the flagship restaurant of wild-haired celebrity chef Gaston Acurio and his wife, Astrid. Now housed in a meticulously restored historic noble hacienda, the complex includes advanced-technology kitchens, alluring dining halls, private dining rooms, a 60-seat gastrobar plus large experimental gardens. Expressing Acurio's grand vision, the restaurant is the ultimate fusion experience, a veritable composite map of Peruvian possibilities, elevated and transformed by Acurio's inventive genius and cutting-edge technique. A blockbuster team is in place — including the remarkable executive chef Diego Munoz. Reserve for a challenging tasting menu, or go for small bites at the bar.

Casual but upscale, Acurio's Cebicheria La Mar (www.lamarcebicheria.com/lima ) assembles modern decor, a stylish clientele, a buzzy bar and impeccably fresh ceviche, rice-based dishes and whole fish. True to cibicheria tradition, it's daytime only and no reservations.

Rising star chef Virgilio Martinez and his chef-wife, Pia, operate the ingredient-driven Central (centralrestaurante.com.pe). This modern, intimate restaurant features dramatic presentations and a view though a window wall into the lively kitchen. Martinez celebrates biodiversity and intensely explores wild and native ingredients. A 15-course tasting menu narrates travel around Peru, through different climates, altitudes, landscapes and products — all innovatively integrated into a memorable meal. You may encounter a suckling pig raised on high-altitude grass, a lower Andes water shrimp or wild quinoa. Even the bread plate has a delicious story.

Maido ( www.maido.pe ) delivers an outstanding experience of Nikkei — fused Peruvian and Japanese — cuisine. Chef-owner Mitsuharu Tsumura is a man of precise skills, product purity and elegant presentations. Japanese by ancestry but born and raised in Peru, Tsumura ventured to the United States to study culinary arts and business. He later pursued nearly three years of grueling training in Osaka, Japan, before opening his Lima restaurant. Relax in a stylishly minimalist space. Enjoy a superior Pisco Sour, then give yourself over to the 15-course tasting menu — ranging from grilled octopus and guinea pig confit to duck and braised short ribs.

Javier Wong and his restaurant, Chez Wong, are hugely idiosyncratic — a 20-seater, in a gritty neighborhood, in his former home garage, no signage, reservations only, no menu, no choice and pricey. But Wong is a Lima institution. His Chifa restaurant — blending Chinese and Peruvian — serves up a memorable performance. You'll get two courses, probably a tasty mixed cebiche of octopus and sole, followed by a saltaldo — Peruvian stir fry. Chef Wong sits to the front of the dining room, deftly filleting fish and chopping vegetables. He then sets a grill to blaze for the stir fry amidst a throng of diners popping cellphone photos.

Pedro Miguel Schiaffino is known as The Jungle Chef. His obsession with hard-to-find, high-quality, sustainably harvested Amazonian products leads him to strange roots, odd shellfish and spiky fruits. Even most Peruvians have never heard of some of his ingredients. His first restaurant, high-end Malabar (malabar.com.pe), showcases these products, as well as his artistic sensibilities and his understated Mediterranean style gleaned from his five years in Italy. At his most recent venture, Amaz ( www.amaz.com.pe ), he again relies on the vast Amazonian pantry — and even some obscure village cooking techniques. Here, decor and ambiance reinforce the jungle experience.

Jaime Pesaque may be Lima's Drinks King. His stylish, and expensive, Mayta (www.maytarestaurante.com) draws a hip bar crowd with trendy cocktails — 35 flavors of Chilcanos, drinks made with his family's own Pisco and ginger ale. His tasting menu tours updated Peruvian regional cuisine and pairs courses with interesting beverage choices, including craft beers. Diners rave about his signature: poached egg with potato emulsion, portobello mushroom and smoked duck.

Flavors of Peru

Marked by diverse influences from immigrant populations as well as regional variations of geography and climate, Peruvian food is the ultimate fusion cuisine.

Staples of quinoa, potatoes, corn, peppers, chiles, tomatoes and fresh seafood predate the Incans, as do certain herbs, exotic fruit and wild mushrooms. The Incans hunted wild game, pig and duck and domesticated llama, alpaca, goat and cuy (guinea pig).

The Spaniards introduced onions, garlic, other herbs and fruit trees, including citrus and olive. They also brought in rice, wheat, domesticated livestock — chicken, cows, rabbits, goats and sheep — and, significantly abetting the Peruvian sweet tooth, cane sugar.

Much is made of the Peruvian national dish: whole roasted or deep-fried, head-on guinea pig. But this is, traditionally, a special-occasion delicacy and for non-natives an acquired taste — perhaps best consumed as small bites on a tasting menu.

Pristine seafood appears under many guises and especially as cebiche — lime-marinated chunks of fish with onions and chiles, served with corn and sweet potatoes; or tiridito, thin slices of raw fish, cured in lime juice, with ginger and aji chile. Other common dishes: chupa — chile-seasoned stewlike soup; rocoto relleno — red pepper stuffed with meat and cheese; causa rellena — potatoes layered sometimes with tuna, chicken, mayonnaise, vegetables, avocado and eggs.

Popular desserts range from exotic fruits to dulche de leche (caramel cream), picarones (deep-fried squash donuts with cane syrup), pies, cakes, puddings and ice cream.

The potato

You say “potato,” the Centro Internacional de la Papa ( www.cipotato.org ) says “papa,” and it tracks more than 4,500 varieties. In addition to the cultivated ones, thousands more grow wild. Headquartered in suburban Lima, CIP is a member of CGIAR, a global agricultural research partnership for a “food secure future.” The organization's research and outreach activities serve many of the world's populations.

Potatoes were first domesticated about 7,000 years ago in the Andean mountains. Considered the world's third-most important food crop, after rice and wheat, the plant is essential to Peru's mountainous peasant population because it's the only food crop able to grow at elevations reaching three miles above sea level. With frigid mountain temperatures, as early as six centuries ago, the Incas developed natural freeze drying — a brilliant preserving technique and the basis for many traditional dishes.

Not surprisingly, potatoes are embedded in Peruvian culture and customs, with an endless menu of potato-based dishes. One variety, Yana Pina, or bride's tears, is used to test the culinary deftness of a future bride. The potential mother-in-law judges the aspiring bride by her skill at removing the peel from this starchy knot, in one piece,�with minimal flesh attached.

— Peter Haigh

Ann Haigh is co-host — with husband Peter — of “On the Menu,” a program that explores the world of food, wine, travel and lifestyle. Catch up with them at www.onthemenuradio.com.

Classic Pisco Sour

The national drink is Pisco, a brandy distilled from Pisco grapes. It appears in many cocktails often paired with fruit juices, but the classic is the Pisco Sour.

3 ounces Pisco

1 ounce simple syrup

1 ounce key lime juice

1 medium egg white

Ice cubes

2 to 3 splashes angostura bitters, optional

In a cocktail shaker, mix the Pisco, syrup, lime juice and egg white. Add ice cubes to fill, and shake vigorously. Strain into an old-fashioned glass. Splash on bitters and serve.

Peruvian Cebiche (Ceviche)

1 pound fresh flounder, sole or halibut, cut into 1-inch cubes

Lettuce leaves, for serving

For the Leche De Tigre (Tiger's Milk):

2⁄3 cups fresh lime juice (preferably key limes)

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves, chopped, plus more for garnish, if desired

1 aji (or habanero) chile, seeded and halved lengthwise

1⁄2 small red onion, chopped, plus more for garnish, if desired

1⁄2 cup bottled clam juice

Kosher salt, to taste

In a blender, puree till smooth the lime juice, garlic, cilantro, chile and onion. Strain into a medium bowl. Stir in the clam juice, season with salt, cover and chill.

Add the fish; refrigerate and let marinate for 2 hours.

Place a lettuce leaf on each of four plates. Using a slotted spoon, divide the ceviche and place on the lettuce. Drizzle the fish with some leche de tigre. Garnish with additional cilantro and onion if desired.

Usual accompaniments include thick slices of boiled sweet potato and chunks of cooked corn-on-the-cob. Sometimes, the remaining Tiger's Milk is served alongside in small glasses.

Makes 4 servings.

Peruvian Chicken Quinoa Soup

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 1⁄2 cups chopped onion

1 1⁄2 cups chopped carrot

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

1⁄2 cup raw peanuts, diced fine

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, with juice

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 cups diced, peeled, yellow-flesh potatoes

1 1⁄2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels

3⁄4 cup quinoa, rinsed

2 cups diced zucchini

2 cups shredded, cooked chicken breast

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large pot, melt the butter. Add the onions and carrots and cook, stirring, for 6 to 8 minutes, over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, cumin, paprika and peanuts and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.

Stir in the tomatoes with juice and the broth. Bring it to a boil. Stir in the potatoes, corn and quinoa. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, leaving the lid ajar, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook for an additional 10 to 15 minutes.

Stir in the chicken, cilantro and lime juice. Simmer for 5 minutes, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes 6 servings.

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