Peruvian food has been heralded as the next “it” food trend off and on over at least the past ten years and why not? It has great flavors, exotic ingredients and incredible diversity. When I visited Peru with my family back in 2007, the food was sensational. Though there have been some shining moments and and excellent Peruvian influenced restaurants like Matsuhisa Nobu’s Peruvian inflected eponymous Japanese restaurants or Boston’s Peruvian-Italian Taranta, somehow, it still hasn’t hit the mainstream in the U.S. That may be about to change.
Gaston Acurio is clearly the biggest name in Peruvian Gastronomy and one of the biggest names in the global restaurant scene. While I didn’t get a chance to eat in any of his restaurants in Peru, I did get to dine at the delicious Astrid y Gaston in Madrid a few years back. Not too long ago, Acurio opened his first restaurant in the United States, a branch of his Lima based cebicheria, La Mar. With predominantly positive reviews, Acurio has branched out yet again – this time to NYC, taking over the space that used to be Tabla to open another branch of La Mar.
For a chef to have a successful group of restaurants, it is not done by that person alone. There has to be good people, very good people behind that person, making things happen, allowing that chef’s vision and culinary ideals to shine through. For Gaston Acurio, the single most important person behind him is Victoriano Lopez. Lopez, the opening chef of La Mar in NYC, is described as Acurio’s “right-hand man.” Lopez, Andes born, moved to Lima when he was 18 to opeerate a street cart. Along the way, he started working at Acurio’s flagship restaurant, Astrid & Gaston, gaining notice and rapidly moving up the ranks. He is the man Acurio entrusts to open his restaurants around the world and for now, at least, the widely traveled Lopez’ home is in NYC, where he is in charge of the kitchen at La Mar.
Though it is described as a cebicheria, the NYC La Mar is much more than that. It is really a Peruvian fine dining restaurant that happens to serve cebiches amongst other Peruvian dishes. I recently dined there with my friend Judy during the recent StarChefs Congress in NYC. Dining a few tables over at the same time was Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz. We wound up having the same menu that he and his party had. That was not a mistake.
We started with some cocktails. A Pisco Sour might sound like a cliche like a Margarita at a Mexican restaurant, but it is anything but. Like a well made Margarita, a well-made Pisco Sour is a true classic. Not surprisingly, the Pisco Sour at La Mar was well made and quite delicious.Our first bites brought me right back to Peru. The “Elegance” cebiche was relatively simple, but the essence of Peru. Leche de tigre is the acidic liquid that is the result of the cebiche process. Generally including citrus juice, the final concoction also usually has some Pisco or other alcoholic component, aji chiles and the juices from the seafood that has commingled with the other liquids. It is this liquid that becomes the backbone of a cebiche and is often drunk on its own as a shot. The leche de tigre resulting from the Elements cebiche was outstanding with great citrus flavor, a slow, late onset burn from the aji and tremendous complexity. The seafood component of the cebiche, warm water fluke was of excellent quality and delicious infused with the leche de tigre. Also balanced with red onions, yams and choclo(giant Peruvian corn kernels), the dish was a winner. The only flaw compared to cebiches I had in Peru was the choclo. An essential component of many Peruvian cebiches, this choclo lacked the flavor depth and crisp, juicy texture I recall from having it in Peru. I suspect that it simply isn’t easy to replicate that quality outside of its local environs. That said, this was really the only significant culinary flaw of the entire meal. Tiraditos are a Peruvian form of sashimi. The similarity of tiraditos to sashimi is no accident, as the form reflects the influence of Japanese immigrants to Peru from early in the 20th Century. In fact, as intimated in the opening paragraphs, above, one of the special attributes of Peruvian cuisine is how well it has integrated the cuisines of a number of immigrant cultures with native Peruvian ingredients and native Peruvian cooking to form a widely nuanced, varied and deliciously unique cuisine. While tiraditos are certainly remindful of Japanese sashimi, it is not the same. Incorporating simiar flavors as the cebiche, tiraditos are cut in thin strips, whilst the fish in cebiche are more chunk-like. The “sauce” here is less of a marinade than with the cebiche. This one used aji amarillo, a yellow chile pepper that gives a nice, smooth sense of heat. The flavors and textures are so vibrant. The next dish reminded me of a Chinese dim sum dish – shrimp fried with taro root, however, this used Peruvian flavors and ingredients such as a well balanced chicha moradadrizzle and acidic diced mango and red onions. The chicha morada was a sweet reduction made from purple Peruvian corn. The acid from the cebiche kept the sweeter elements from overwhelming the dish. The combination worked very well and had a pleasing crunchiness. Salmon tends to be reliable and so long as the quality of the fish is decent, it is difficult to do badly. Rarely though, does it excel. This salmon, a special off-the-regular-menu dish excelled. The most interesting, surprising and delicious salmon I’ve had in a long time, this is a dish that I would never have ordered on my own. While the flavors were bold and delicious, the real magic of this dish was with the texture. The exterior was crisp and marvelous, while the interior was buttery with a melt-in-your-mouth finish. This dish was a stunner! Lobster is another ingredient that is difficult to make stand out. I enjoy lobster and eat it whenever I can, but with so many good preparations out there and being such an iconic ingredient, it too is a product difficult to make stand out. Lopez was on a roll, because this lobster was absolutely terrific and surprisingly unique in my experience. It had been grilled to about 75% of being fully done then taken out of its shell and mixed with these bright Peruvian flavors and light smoke from the grill that heightened the flavors and natural sweetness of the lobster without drowning it. It also had a bit of a nice burn on the finish. The texture of the lobster was perfect with a good bite, but still consummately tender. Even the presentation was special. It is certainly not unusual in a fine dining restaurant for lobster to be picked from the shell and presented in an elegant and easy to eat fashion, but this one with the pieces precut and mixed with the sauce and placed back in the shell added a pleasant rusticity to the dish with great color and visual appeal to go along with its gustatory pleasures. This was a total delight. The dish also came with a side of Potatoes Victoriano with small potatoes and a sauce that seemed to contain some cheese. This was a very tasty side that highlighted one of the main products of the Peruvian pantry. The lomo saltado, a Peruvian Chifaor Chinese-Peruvian dish was very good too, though it was not as extraordinary as the previous two dishes. This is a standard dish in Peru and as per usual came with rice to be added to the dish.. While it was a very good version, it did not set a new standard for me. I did like the addition of the fried quail egg. Two desserts were brought at the same time, each highlighting what makes Peruvian cuisine so exciting. The larder of unusual in ingredients in Peru is exceptional. Even products that seem familiar to us like potatoes and peppers are completely different than what we typically expect. When fruits and other vegetables are added, the diversity becomes even more profound. This meal didn’t even touch on some of the unique meat and fish proteins available in that country and I don’t know if La Mar will ever go so far as to offer meats like Alpaca and cuy (I doubt it) or various Amazonian fish. While it would be fun if they do, it really isn’t necessary at this point that they do so to provide a tastefully exotic dining experience for most New Yorkers let alone Americans from other parts of the country. While these desserts didn’t have anything too exotic besides the chicha morada and alfajores, they were still well conceived and delicious. I have to suspect that because of the relative newness of the restaurant, their supply lines from Peru are still relatively limited. That they are still able to make food as exciting as this with a limited Peruvian palette of ingredients is impressive. I can only imagine how much more fun the restaurant will be if and when their ingredient list expands to include even more unique items from Peru.
Judy and I enjoyed a delicious and unique meal at La Mar, especially given how new the restaurant was. That written, there is still room for improvement and I expect much will come. La Mar is billed as a cebicheria, but it is priced and as far as the food is concerned it delivers beyond that. Where it falls short has to do more with the set up and some aspects of the service. Tables are tightly packed and privacy is limited. That, however, is not unusual for restaurants in NYC at this price point nor is it really a significant complaint for that reason. Nevertheless, the experience would be that much better with a tad more space. The other area that left a bit to be desired was the experience upon entering the restaurant. The hostess stand appeared to be a bit out of sorts and not terribly welcoming, but this was rectified once we were seated in the far more desirable space upstairs. Again, given that the restaurant had only been open for just over a week, I consider that very forgivable, especially since the table service was warm and efficient. Overall, I expect La mar to be a big hit in New York. The food is approachable yet novel. Most importantly, it is delicious. If this doesn’t herald a new era for Peruvian cuisine in NYC and the US, then I’m not sure what will.