Archive for the ‘City Snapshot – Lima’ Category

Astrid y Gaston – #35 on the List of Top 50 World Restaurants

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Alas, we come to Part Tres in my trio of reviews on the great culinary capital of Peru. For those eager to hear about Boston restaurants – we will return to our regular programming shortly. For those swept up in a fantastical food romance about Lima and dreaming of choclo, ceviche, and pisco each night – you will be pleased with this segment.

ABOUT THE CHEF: Gaston Acurio is a gifted chef-cum-activist. He is the culinary ambassador of Peru. He is also a pretty darn good businessman with a food empire that spans television, books, a host of restaurants around the world, food festivals, and associations.

ABOUT THE RESTAURANT: After studying the culinary arts in France and meeting his German schönheit Astrid, the duo went back to Peru and opened this phenomenal restaurant bearing their names in Lima.  Astrid y Gaston is one of the finest examples of “Novandina” cooking, which is essentially a fusion of traditional Peruvian ingredients and dishes with global influences and techniques. The service is perhaps the best you will receive in Lima, the atmosphere is unpretentious luxury, and the price tag is formidable but worth every centavo. These days Gaston is tied-up in his many other ventures and is not actively involved in the kitchen here, but he hired an El Bulli alum to head the cooking operation and redesign the menu. That’ll do just fine for me. In 2012, A&G Lima was honored with the #35 spot on the San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants List. Rumor has it they are also in the running for some coveted Michelin stars.

ABOUT THE PRIX FIXE TASTING MENU: The prix-fixe tasting menu at Astrid y Gaston is a one-of-a-kind dining experience that recounts the main tenants of Peruvian history and culture through 17 marvelous plates. The menu is formulated on a seasonal basis and leans molecular based on the El Bulli influence, and transports the diner through five major time periods:

I.         Nature

II.         Man

III.         The Encounter

IV.         The Haven

V.         Today

Every minute detail of the experience has been attended to with care and artistic appreciation. The dishes are served in vessels rather than plates, their forms ranging from “nests” to smooth rocks, to hand-made bowls. The menu is accompanied by a hand-made booklet with tasteful photographs and a 2-minute DVD that introduces the restaurant concept.

You can pair the feast with an excellent selection of booze that ranges from Andean Pale Ale to French champagne, to Chilean red wine, to a dessert wine from Uruguay. Highly recommended.

THE DISHES:

Warning – the images you are about to see may contain graphic food pornography. Viewer discretion advised.

NATURE

Dish #1: A “bird’s nest” with treats nestled within: 1) Achira, herbs and garlic 2) Kiwicha and seaweed 3) Cashew – sweet and sour 4) Apple begonia 5) Maracuya-granadilla sour

What's Edible Here?

Probably the only dish I’ve ever eaten that required a 5-minute tutorial on what the food actually was and which parts of the dish were edible. Good thing, because I may have started chewing on a twig and written it up as “nutty, tough, and a little hard to eat.”

MAN

Dish #2: Wild Tomato – purslane, toasted quinoa, tomato water

Tomato Essence.

A beauty of a dish that was one of our favorites. Toasted quinoa with tomato essence everywhere you turned.

Dish #3: Huamantanga Potato – rocoto pepper aioli, pine mushrooms

Potato #25 of 3800

Not one of the best dishes on the menu, but another taste of one of Peru’s 3800 varieties of potato.

Dish #4: Lima Bean – brazil nuts, red oxalis, broth

Oddly Phallic.

Definitely one of the most deliciously mind-boggling dishes of the night. Those “lima beans” were actually globules of excellent lima-bean puree. Amazing dish. Oddly phallic.

Dish #5: Peruvian Corn – sea scallop, coral oil, coriander

Two Types of Corn Duke it Out.

Two types of corn duke it out in corn meal form while a tender sea scallop and it’s friends chill out on top.

THE ENCOUNTER

Dish #6: Ceviche Carretilla – sea snail, clam, lime, chili, and traditional accouterments

Beautiful dish and another awesome ceviche. Really appreciated the sea snail worked in there.

Dish #7: Raw – catch of the day, artichokes, leche de tigre (parmesan), olive dust

Molecular taken a little too far. The raw fish was spectacular and I would have loved it on its own as sashimi. The nitrous-frozen puffs of parmesan and kalamata olive dush overwhelmed the dish though.

Dish #8: Blue Tumble – blue fish, mussels, yellow aji pepper, roasted onion, sea lettuce

And on the third day, God created the sea.

Wow. The tomato core itself blew my mind. The essence of the sea on a plate. Bravo.

Dish #9: Andean Ocean – shrimp, potatoes, cheese curd, broad beans

Very interesting dish – loved the inventive mix of ingredients and the subtle hint of mint hidden in there.

THE HAVEN

Dish #10: Dashi – toasted octopus, black sesame, daikon, avocado, red shiso

What's Up at Table 5?

Japan.

The restaurant collectively stopped and observed our broth being steamed before our eyes before we enjoyed what was my favorite dish of the evening.

Dish #11: Peking Cuy – guinea pig, purple corn tortilla, sweet and sour, pickled vegetables

Fusion Cuisine.

This was my #2 pick. Guinea pig was morphed into what looked like a thin slice of peking duck and served in a thin corn tortilla. True fusion at work here.

Dish #12: Carbonara – arracacha, egg yolk, guanciale, black pepper

Don't Be a Wise Guy...

Those “noodles” are actually thinly-sliced potato. Mind-blowing.

Dish #13: Secrets of the Pig – native potatoes, peanuts, chocolate

Tendor pork with a nice mix of African flavors.

TODAY

Dish #14: Chirimoya – caramel ice cream, crispy caramel cake, orange

Ohhhhh I love chirimoya. The “puffs”  were out of control good and that caramel ice cream should be sold wholesale.

Dish #15: Lucuma Popsicle – chocolate 60% native cocoa, Andean granola

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favorite dessert of the night. That popsicle vendor trick was pretty cool and this was so much fun to eat.

Dish #16: Beso de Moza – camu camu, butter scotch, meringue, chocolate

After several drinks and 15 courses, I forgot to snap a picture of this one. But tasty nonetheless.

Dish #17: “Peruvian Candy Box”: Lucuma tuile, pumpkin cake, mango-basil camu camu jelly, algarrobina truffle, pisco cup.

Finale.

These were an assortment of little treats to finish off the meal. I made up the title.

City Snapshot – Lima, Peru (Part Dos)

Friday, March 1st, 2013

It’s your favorite world traveler here, back to tell you more about Lima.

Now that I’ve composed a loving testament to the food of Peru, I will get down to logistics and tell you just what (and where) you need to eat in the great city of Lima. Behold, a breakdown of my favorite items consumed.

1.     CEVICHE – AT LA MAR.

The Real Thing.

I thought I should start with the dish that Peru is most famous for internationally, and then crush any hope you had of tasting anything nearly this good and authentic outside the country. This is unequivocally the best ceviche I had during my brief stint in town, and during my brief stint in life. Some ceviche factoids:

  • Though you’ve likely had many variations elsewhere, in Peru ceviche is simply made with fresh raw fish, the juice of several tiny Peruvian limes, a little salt, and aji (hot peppers). The dish is typically framed by sweet potatoes, red onion slivers, and big fresh kernels of choclo (giant sweet white corn).
  • Cevicherias are only a lunchtime affair in Lima. In fact, you will be cautioned not to eat ceviche for dinner because the fish will not be as fresh. They literally catch the beast the morning of the day you eat it. And you can taste the freshness. Typically Peruvian sea bass or another hearty white fish will be used.

And why was it so good you ask? It comes back to the three reasons why Peruvians are culinary ballers. Those limes? They’re better than what you get at home. Those peppers? Varieties you don’t get elsewhere. That fish? Would make even a Japanese sushi snob proud. Finally, this is a dish that is in Peruvian blood. It’s theirs. They own the real thing. Gaston’s cevicheria La Mar serves up the best ceviche a Gringo from Boston will ever have (and we know our seafood pretty well too).

To see Gaston prepare a real ceviche, go here.

Other good ceviche can be found at Pescado Capitales and El Mercado.

2.     TIRADITO – AT LAR MAR.

Where Sashimi Meets Ceviche

You can tell I liked this spot. Tiradito is a style of Ceviche that borrows from the Japanese influence in Peru. The fish is sliced real thin like sashimi and smothered in a spicy light sauce. Outstanding. Another classic example of fusion gone right.

3.     PISCO SOUR – AT BACHICHE.

A Creamy Margarita

 

I was a little afraid when I first heard about Pisco knowing it is a high-octane booze made from grapes – I’m not a big fan of Grappa. But I frickin’ loved Pisco sours. Picture something that tastes sorta like a good margarita made with only lime juice that is creamier with a little more bite (courtesy of a lil’ egg white and bitters). I’m definitely adding this drink to my regular repertoire.  This one was at Bachiche (an Italian restaurant owned by – you guessed it – Gaston) but you’ll find good renditions of this classic cocktail all over town.

 

4.     MOLECULAR PASTEL DE CHOCLO – AT MARAS.

Booyah.

Pastel de Choclo is a very traditional dish that is difficult to compare to anything back here in the states. The classic version is basically cooked in a tiny clay dish and involves braised meat covered by a thick layer of fluffy cornmeal slightly crusted on top. I liked the more modern version we had at Maras – a supertastyfunkalicious restaurant run by Chef Rafael Piqueras (an El Bulli alum). Rafael serves up a big menu with many classic Peruvian dishes artfully prepared with a little molecular and gourmet charm. He applied this technique to our Pastel by serving it in a shape mocking a cake layered with braised oxtail and topped with a little foam. Call it fusion. Call it Novandina.

It was just really good food.

For the more traditional version of Pastel de Choclo, try a little café called Claribel in Miraflores.

5.     EMPANADA ESPECIAL DE CARNE – SAN ANTONIO.

You Make Me Want to Be a Better Man

Oh. mah. gawd. Every once in a while I will bite into something that changes my life.

Usually these experiences are accompanied by a slow moan, a delighted giggle, heavy eyelids, and more moans. This was one of those things. And a surprise it was too – I honestly did not expect to have the best empanada of my life in Lima. But ohhhh this bad boy was stuffed with flavorful ground beef, a little onion, and secrets. Most empanadas are crusty or hard on the outside – but not this one. The “crust” was more like a soft, thick, lightly-sugared corn dough. With a slight squirt of Peruvian lime – this empanada was earth-shatteringly good and so simple. I washed it down with a chicha morada (a popular sweet purple corn drink).

6.     “THE SANDWICH” – AT ZIMMERMANS.

"The Sandwich"

While I’m talking about surprises, I should mention “the sandwich.” Zimmermans sounds like a deli in Jersey and rolls out sandwiches that could impress even the most meat-headed shore-dweller. Zimmermans is a small shop with a few locations in Lima that sells goodness like herbed porchetta, pig neck, and other roasted meats sliced into juicy morsels and tucked into your sammie. And then there’s the sauce – a little aji, a little chimichurri, and a little creamy goodness to slather all over. One wasn’t enough.

7.     SEA SCALLOPS – AT MATSUEI.

Scallops 'N Sake-Butter

Remember when I said Nobu got his start in Lima? This is that place. And this is that dish. Seared sea scallops served in-shell swimming in a buttery sake liquid. Flaming salt in the middle of the plate. Flaming flavors in my mouth.

8.     CORTADO – AT TOSTADURIA BISSETTI & AT HAVANNA

Who knew? Those little espresso drinks served up at Simon’s and Dwelltime are also enjoyed liberally in Lima. Sipping a cortado overlooking the Pacific Ocean was one of the highlights of my time in this great country.

Keeps me awake 'till the next meal

I had originally intended this list to be a “Top 5” but got carried away. I haven’t even gotten to the third part of my Peruvian trilogy – Atrid & Gaston – which deserves a post of it’s own as one of the Top 50 Restaurants in the World.

City Snapshot – Lima, Peru (Part Una)

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Where to begin friends, where to begin.

This Gringo just ventured far from the snow-covered tundra that was once known as Boston…sneaking out on one of the last flights from Logan before the historic blizzard they called Nemo buried our great city in white powder.

I touched down in warm and sunny Lima, Peru to explore a city teeming with culinary treasures. In case the news hasn’t reached your desk yet, Lima is in the midst of a major food revival.  Over the course of a short series of posts here on the blog, I will catch you up to speed.

The first of these posts presents a food essay on three reasons why the restaurant scene and cooking in this city is so fingerlickin’ good:

1.     BIODIVERSITY.

Peru pimps 28 of the 32 distinct climate zones that exist in the world. To put that into food terms, this country produces everything from coffee to chocolate to quinoa to sea bass (Chile isn’t the only country in that market). This is the original home of the humble potato, which was spread throughout Europe by the conquering Spaniards. They now grow 3800 types of the round thing, along with 55 varieties of corn, and nearly 20 varieties of commercially available native fruits that you’ve never eaten before. You thought acai was the next cool yuppie antioxidant? Let me tell you, there are five to ten more down here in Peru that haven’t even hit the market yet.

Below you’ll see a small selection of the bountiful spread of produce bestowed upon this country by the Pachamama:

2.     CULTURAL DIVERSITY

The major immigrant groups entering Peru over the years have left a footprint on the palates of the people here:

  • Japanese farmers voyaged here en masse and brought their love of raw fish and agri-skillz with them.
  • The Italian influence really made a mark here as well – most restaurants (even traditional Peruvian ones) will have a small section of their menu devoted to pasta and/or pizza.
  • The Spanish brought over European cooking techniques and a zest for excellent seafood dishes.
  • The African community gifted us dishes like tacu tacu, an amazing rice and beans concoction.
  • Finally the Chinese influence has manifested itself in what Peruvians call “Chifa” – a fascinating mix of South American and Eastern influence that is so popular you’ll find a chifa joint on just about every major road in Lima.

And let’s not forget the array of interesting dishes that were here before any of these groups arrived – roasted guinea pig, alpaca steaks, anticucho (skewered beef heart and potato), and my favorite: ceviche.

But Peru is not great at food because all of these influences exist separately. Peruvians are exceptional behind a stove because they have allowed everything to fuse and meld together into their recipes, their homes, and their identities.

In fact, if you ask a Peruvian what their roots are, they will likely respond “el que no tiene DE INGA tiene de MANDINGA”. This is an old saying where “INGA” refers to Incan or indigenous blood/heritage, and “MANDINGA” refers to West African people sometimes also called “Mandinka” or “Mandingo”. In Peru people use this phrase to say that everyone is mixed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.     SERVICE AS “METIER”

The French have an excellent word to describe the unique mix of art, science, craft and calling that make a true profession. This word applies perfectly to nearly every individual position within the restaurant business in Lima. The top Lima restaurants (dare I say) may even put some of their French counterparts to shame in the service department…ahem, excusez-moi…monsieur…where is my effing café au lait?

Let me paint a picture for you – the more upscale joints in Lima (of which there are many) will have a small army of servers tending to your dining needs. The service is always attentive but not overbearing, composed but not snobby. A quick glance and eye contact with not just your server – but any food service professional on the floor – will bring them to your table within a few moments. And I’m not just talking about the haute-cuisine joints in town – some of the best service I encountered here was at small local pastry and sandwich spots.

I would also certainly extend the word métier to describe the approach that Peruvian chefs in Lima take to their trade. The food is artfully prepared, obsessively fresh, painstakingly thought-out, and well-executed from a technical perspective. Fun facts:

  • Le Cordon Bleu opened their first school in South America in Lima.
  • Robert DeNiro discovered Nobu Matsuhisa (of THE Nobu Empire) after eating at his restaurant Matsuei in Lima.
  • Some of the diaspora of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli (of Michelin 3-star, #1 restaurant in the world fame) have settled their chef’s knives in the city of Lima.
  • One of the most respected figures in modern Peru is Chef Gaston Acurio, a man renowned for heralding the food of his country and celebrating the goods of small farmers and food operators (more on this amazing person later).

If that doesn’t start to get you interested in Peruvian cuisine, read the next post on the best restaurants, food trends, and dishes that I encountered on the trip.