It’s well known that Peruvian cuisine, with its diverse cultural influences – from Spain, Germany, China, Italy, Japan, and of course the indigenous Peruvians who have made it their home for centuries before these new arrivals – and incredible wealth of endemic ingredients, is a jewel of the global foodscape. The trouble is that it has been difficult to explore the many facets of Peru’s beauty without actually going there. While there are plenty of good ethnic Peruvian restaurants in New York and around the world it’s difficult to find a restaurant dedicated to any of the Peruvian-fusion cuisines that are so prevalent in the motherland. Granted, Barcelona is a wholly different destination, but Albert Adrià’s work at Pakta is making it possible for a whole new set of visitors to experience some of the best of Nikkei, Peru’s famous Japanese-fusion cuisine.
He is not doing it alone; maestro that he is, one could hardly expect a Spaniard to recreate an authentic ethnic cuisine from outside his heritage from scratch. In addition to his guidance as an innovator, restaurateur, and all around culinary übermensch, Pakta is in the very good hands of Peruvian cook Jorge Muñoz Castro and Japanese cook Kioko Li. Together with the front of house, they make a fine team, making and presenting exquisite food. The flavors are sometimes bold and sometimes reserved, together with the Adrià’s playful textures, the food was consistently delightful. A meal at Pakta maintains the fine balance of thrilling surprise and exemplary consistency that only the best chefs can execute.
And that brings us to the focus of this report, i.e., the near-perfect meal we shared at this fine Adrián establishment. The service was en pointe, the drinks superb, and the food demonstrated the balance and verve that the Adriás are known for.
At the suggestion of Chef Adrià himself, we selected the “Macchu Picchu” menu so that we might enjoy the full experience, and we also chose some cocktails to start. Daddy-o drank a Yuzu Pisco Sour – a proper Nikkei take on the drink that’s been Peru’s popular alcoholic ambassador for years now.
I tried the Chicha Nikkei, a wonderfully balanced drink made with Chicha, Pisco’s lesser known, corn-based liquor. Yum.
Our palates stimulated, we began in earnest. Two servers each brought out the Honzen Ryori, a platter laden with five small bites, and suggested the order in which to eat them.
We began not with the most delicate dish, but the dish that practically begged for the first bite our full palatal freedom to enjoy – a small, rectangular piece of the lushest toro, ignited with a touch of wasabi and a spicy gel.
Moving clockwise from left, we moved on to the delectable corn tuile with caviar,
…baby scallop with a zesty chalaca sauce,
…marvelously rich avocado tofu with some more of that incredible Galician sea urchin
…and wrapped up with a light peas salad with okra and olluco. The avocado tofu was truly special – while I’m usually neither a huge fan of tofu nor of uni, I have a new found respect for both of these ingredients thanks to the Adrià touch.
The meal continued with a goma dofu dumpling, a playful twist on a more traditional dumpling, utilizing the unusually chewy texture of the sesame dough.
Next up, an exercise in refined decadence: fresh uni with truffle broth, united tableside. The subtle, fragrant broth set off the bright sweetness of the sea urchin, served in its shell. I couldn’t help but pick it up and drink the last drops, stabbing my nose and chin in the process. It was worth it.
With its long coastline, Peru is a goldmine for coastal cuisine. The next plate was an assortment of fresh seafood in a yellow aji sauce. The tiraditos included more uni, a cockle, and my favorite were the percebes, a deceptively delicious barnacle presumably harvested from the northern coasts of Galicia.
The kitchen brought us back to the Pacific with a selection of three nigiri, featuring perfectly cooked white rice, wonderful fish and a hint of soy. Grating authentic wasabi tableside, they finished the toro piece with a tiny green mound. Beautiful, simple, natural.
We were presented with small cubes of gelatin to refresh our palate.
Quickly after, we found ourselves with more tuna in front – tuna te-maki, or thinly sliced tuna, with a shimichi sauce and a crispy nori chip to give texture.
It was our job to bring the elements together before eating – an unusual, Peruvian montado, perhaps?
By this point we were well into the sake coursing. Sadly, I don’t know much about sake and don’t recall exactly what we were drinking and why. I only remember that there was great diversity in what we drank, and that each sake drank well with its dedicated pairing. This is a field of knowledge that I will have to improve.
Our server placed a gorgeous bowl of ceviche in front of each of us. Ceviche, with its acid kick and springy, crispy textures, is one of my favorite things to eat. This marvelous specimen was as vibrant and bright as any I’ve enjoyed in the past.
The next elongated plate arrived with a morsel on each side – causa makis. These bites are a sort of Peruvian take on the decadent sushi roll; one was fried with chicken and huacatay (aka Peruvian black mint), the other a crab maki causa with umeboshi mayonnaise. The pickled, salty plum brought just the right balance to the rich crab and avocado piece.
One of my favorite dishes of the night was something that I could eat over and over and over – the fish “sanguchito” with nikkei “acevichada” mayonnaise.
This deceptively simple fried fish sandwich, complete with iceberg lettuce and a tiny little brioche bun, was so good that it would have been a sin to eat it in one bite. Adrià knows I wanted to.
A more elaborate plate followed, reminiscent of a pine-forest floor. Baby tempura mushrooms lay scattered on a plate decorated with pine boughs. In the center lay a little ramekin filled with delectable potato foam – that Adrià signature, dusted with Porcon fungus. The umami is strong in this one.
Suckling pig is such a classic Spanish dish, and also one that I enjoyed for the first time on our family vacation in Peru eight years ago. At Pakta, the cochinillo arrived on a bamboo steamer, as gyoza. Lacking the crispy skin and sumptuous juices that I’ve come to expect with cochinillo, this plate was one of the only disappointments of the night. Delicate and refined as it was, it fell flat compared to my expectations based on the previous rounds and my love for cochinillo.
A warm ceviche arrived in a reedy raft on a wooden bowl, a sea of acid, tender fish and crispy fried rocoto pepper. It was so good I picked up the reed with my hands so that I could drink every last drop of tiger’s milk.
We eagerly awaited the Adriàn interpretation of the Peruvian anticucho, a traditional skewer of grilled meat. Specifically, we were hoping for some corazón, marinated and grilled beef heart that one can find both on the street and in some of the best Peruvian restaurants. Through no fault but our own, we were lightly disappointed when Pakta’s anticucho was merely a skewer of marinated chicken, served over smoking coals with lime wedges. Delicious as it was, I felt they could have done more.
The last savory course tonight assuaged our doubts that the meal might end on a low note. Rockfish, filleted and rolled with the head still on, was fried and served with a Nikkei escabeche – a light pickled sauce that presumably used some of the juice released when they prepared the fish. The meat was perfectly done, soft and meaty, with a wonderful panko crust. We ate it to the bone, cheeks, eyes and all.
It occurred to me that this Macchu Piccu menu was more substantial than many of the tasting menus I’ve enjoyed over the years. The portions were generous, and the food, luxurious. However, even after fifteen and change courses, I never became full or wanted it to end. We still had some sweet courses to come, but it was sad to think that we were emerging from such an incredible experience, able to access it only with photos and our imperfect memories.
Like dinner, the pastry courses put a modern spin on Nikkei cuisine. After an intermediary cocktail, we were greeted with a beautiful arrangement of sweet bites, including a picaron, the classic Peruvian sweet potato doughnut (we were instructed to eat it immediately), a wonderful umeshu jelly ensconced on a banana bon bon with-in a not-to-be-eaten banana leaf (that proved difficult to eat with the chopsticks), a frozen mango rose on a green tea biscuit, and a sugary “leaf” hanging on a “Pakta” tree. It was a black sesame biscuit with a yogurt sponge with lime on top. We were dutifully instructed not to consume the accoutrements, including the twigs and pine cones that accented the desserts.
Next, a perfect, tiny quenelle of lucuma and coffee ice cream sitting on a delicate chocolate cone. Adorning the top of the ice cream were crispy caramelized amaranth nibs. The flavors were subtle, the textures, extraordinary and delicate.
The final presentation was a small bamboo box, the lid branded “Pakta.” A nod to Albert Adria’s morphs at elBulli, this box contained a vermillion gel of chicha morada and an edible white chocolate and sakura (cherry blossom) tea flavored wafer emblazoned with the Nikkei motif and the images of the chefs, Jorge and Kioko. These were nestled among delicious-looking pebbles that we were again advised not to eat.
Having reached Macchu Piccu, Dad and I returned to Barcelona, taking in the fresh evening air as we walked back to the hotel.
All photos by John M. Sconzo, M.D. For all the photos from Pakta please click here for the Flick’r Photoset.