Perusing Peru – Musings on Lima, Mistura and the 50 Best
Peru is Mexico’s little cousin, the pipsqueak with the funny glasses. It looks up to the big bad land of the Aztecs with awe, admiration and a bit of envy. It isn’t a great power, doesn’t have a Carlos Slim, a Riviera Maya or a megalopolis of 20 million. It’s small, quiet, and a large percentage of the population is poor.
But that said, it has produced a magnificent body of culture; art, music, literature and last but not least, cuisine. Peruvian cooking has much in common with ours: it’s a true fusion of Spain and the indigenous but with a surprising dose of Asian thrown into the pot.
I attended the September inauguration of 2014’s edition as well as other kitchen-oriented events last week in Lima. Mistura, set up on the beach in Magdalena del Mar near central Lima, is like a state fair without the rides. Food stalls, none of them corporate and all of them Peruvian, are arranged by type or geography: norteño begets sureño, ceviches segue into Amazonica. A market under a tent offers everything from purple potatoes to artisanal piscos. Smoke emanates from cylindrical ovens, which grill lamb, drippings anointing earthy potatoes below. Proud black ladies sporting do-rags who run local fondas stir earthen pots of goat stew and ají de gallina. Aspiring young chefs, arms-pre-tattooed, prepare ceviche a hundred different ways. The mood is joyous: taxi drivers from the working-class Magdalena barrio brush elbows with ladies-who-lunch from tony Miraflores. Everyone loves food. No one leaves dissatisfied.
Wednesday, while the crowds chomped anticuchos, the star-chef studded Latin American 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony was underway. Sexy chefs (some sporting tattooed arms and necks, others dreadlocks) their fans, and hordes of press and paparazzi all converged on the glowing Lima Country Club in a Cannes-worthy display of gastronomic glamor. Champagne flowed, copious trays of fancy little hors d’oeuvres sailed by. And then the winners were announced.
Lima’s spectacular Central, whose tasting menu is as much a visual experience as a gastronomic one, won first prize – adorable chef team of Virgilio Martinez and Pía León beamed as they accepted their trophy to applause that might well be a standing ovation, if most of the pisco sour toting crowd weren’t already casually afoot.
El D.F.’s own Enrique Olvera took home a prize for his Pujol, as did ten other Mexican venues. Rosetta’s Elena Reygadas snagged the “Best Female Chef” award. I would have just called her ‘best chef’, but, as only eight of the fifty are women, who’s to argue.
A series of mind and body numbing all-night parties followed at various hot spots throughout the city such as La Picantería, a funky old-house bar/resto that happens to serve great, unpretentious food, and the Big Bash, at Astrid y Gastón’s new spectacular venue, Casa Moreyra, a post-modernly restored 17th century mansion. This all-nighter saw stars and acolytes staggering from one bar to the other in a happy ceviche and pisco filled haze. My report stops here, as memories are as cloudy as the perennially overcast Lima sky. Grand it was, as
the celebration was about food. And, I say it again: food makes people happy.
The next evening, Chowzter (http://www.chowzter.com), the organization that recognizes the best in casual dining and street food worldwide, announced the winners of Latin America’s Tastiest Fast Feasts Awards. At a private multi-course dinner at Astrid & Gastón’s Casa Moreyra, the awards hailed a list of the best dishes in Latin America as selected by experts from key cities across the continents including Rio, Mexico City, Santiago, Bogotá and Buenos Aires. This author, who happens to be regional director of Latin America for the group, took home a trophy for the amazing Alonso sisters of Mexico State for their archetypal tamales. (See post, below)
Lima’s high-end restaurant scene, which was investigated by a multitude of visiting chefs, food writers and journalists, is nothing short of spectacular. The menu de degustación at number one 50 Best winner Central is a series of small works of art – created by individual chefs – and curated by the owners. Based on and arranged according to Peru’s geography (i.e. low to high), each little dish is a feast for the eyes. I hate to use the clichéd term ‘molecular gastronomy’, but that is the nearest reference here, as basic foodstuffs are at times scientifically altered to conform to their creators’ conception of form, texture and taste. The mind is blown by these little sculptures. And many, if not all, taste good too.
“Exotic” is, of course, in the mind of the beholder. At Malabar and its sister venue Amaz, ingredients unknown to all but the most experienced Amazon trekkers are magically re- and de-constructed by chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino. Though it is an area of low-density population and simple fare, the river and surrounding jungle produce a bounty of eye-popping aromatic fruits, gigantic roots that resemble meteors, paiche, a huge sweet-fleshed river fish, and prawn-sized grubs called suri, usually served grilled on a skewer. At the refined Malabar, the grubs are only recalled, as their form appears as a dessert made of a sweet potato-like Amazonic tuber. Similar tubers are dug out of the herb-laden dirt of a clay oven, tableside. The aforementioned fish is presented sashimi style with a crumble of a mysterious something, green and perfumy. It’s a show, but you leave assured that there’s so much more to life than “chicken or beef.”
Closer to earth, in the “real food” category is La Picantería, the hipster spot full of funk in a less than pija neighborhood. The word emanates not from picante but from the verb picar, that is, to nosh. So plates are simple and classic but textbook perfect. To tear into an anticucho, here, the famous brochette of grilled, marinated heart, is to dive into a pool of carnivorous divinity, juicy, tender and redolent of beef flavor.
And at the unpretentious Fiesta, a cast iron pot of arroz con pato, is the best herby rice and juicy duck your can imagine. Diners fight for the crunchy scrapings at the bottom.
“Beyond category,” to quote Duke Ellington, is the dynamic Renzo Garibaldi, who flatly states “I’m not a chef; I’m a butcher.” At Osso, his butcher shop cum restaurant, in the lofty La Molina district, meat and nothing but is taken to heavenly heights while feet stay firmly planted on earth. Trained in the US, Renzo is an artist who takes meat seriously and is compassionate in his views of life. “I believe in the quality of these animal’s lives and only buy from humane producers in Peru and abroad,” he assures. A seat was snagged for me at the coveted paper-topped butcher table – literally the place where meat is ordinarily carved. A carnivorous tasting menu was presented by Renzo himself to a group of ten international journalists. Starting with house made embutidos – cold cuts – we were treated to a rich tartare, a fall-off-the-bone Texas-style pork rib, and a parade of grilled beef which culminated in a sample of 300-day aged sirloin, ten times the norm, a bit cheesy tasting to this palate – The 200 days fared better. Plates and silverware are dispensed with: hand-to-mouth, South Indian-style is the order “so you can have a connection to what you’re eating.” It was a meal of epic proportions.
Asian fusion, another term I normally despise, is true in Peru, that is, generations of Chinese and Japanese have formed their own particular and heartfelt cuisines. Chef Micha Tsumura, whose Japanese/Peruvian cooking is called nikkei, does wonderful things at his Miraflores venue Maido. An example: an Andino market specialty, rocoto relleno, which is a red, mildly spiky pepper filled with picadillo, is here turned inside out and upside down and presented as a bite-size morsel of crisp tempura. Two popular and humble classics are truly and well fused and one wishes for another dozen servings. Or, sushi-tierra is a little nigiri with grilled pigeon, references both sushi and the vast Peruvian category of asados – grilled meats.
At the much lauded Chez Wong, set in the simple home of its chef, septuagenarian Javier Wong, chifa – Chinese/Peruvian cooking - is celebrated. It’s an amazing show, pics snapped by all, in which Sr. Wong is the star. Standing at a simple table, aided by a well-trained assistant, he uses only one unvarying key ingredient: flounder. In front of the diners, he expertly flays, disembowels, chops, slices and transforms the sparkling fish into food. All are served the same dish at the same time. There’s no rice, no bread, nada--just Mr. Wong’s creations. A classic, simple ceviche, a gold standard to which all other ceviches must be subsequently held, starts the proceedings. Hot dishes are stir fried in a single wok, and resemble what we have come to call “Chinese-American”, i.e. sweet and sour, simple soy-led brown sauces. But there are indeed Peruvian touches: tropical fruit adds fragrance and sweetness to one stir-fry, potatoes the starch to another. Mr. Wong, the recent grand prizewinner of Chowzter's World’s Tastiest Fast Foods ceremony in London, is a National Living Treasure by anyone’s standards.
While downing my sparkling almost raw fish, a vendor from a nearby vegetable stand sat down for a plate of seafood pasta. He looked happy, as Peruanos and visitors are prone to be when something great to eat is served. This reporter left Lima sated, enlightened and five pounds wiser.
Por Siempre Tacos Veganos
(corner Chiapas & Manzanillo, Roma, open m-sat 6:30 p.m. to midnight) delivers what it promises, that is, vegan tacos. They're just like the "real thing" only made with tofu, soy cheese and other non-carny foodstuffs. The faux chorizo is outstanding.
Conde Sandwich, at the corner of Alvaro Obregón and Córdoba in the Roma, is a cute American style nuevo sandwich shop run by the owners of the adorable nearby Fournier Rousseau. The Rueben, done with house-made corned beef and sauerkraut vales la pena of which there is little.
Guzina Oaxaca, at Mazaryk 513 (tel. 5282 1820) in Polanco is chef Alejandro Ruiz' venue for great Oaxacan cooking. It's worth a visit.
☻ Asian Food in el D.F.
☻ Shopping Gourmet
☻ Rosetta - Nearly Perfect
☻ Máximo Bistro
See: POSTS, above for 2008-2012
☻The Tamal Queens
☻Sesame - where pan Asian pans out
☻ Mercado Roma: where to eat
☻Mercado Roma - shopping
☻Morelia en Boca 2014
☻Best Cocktails part I
☻Best Cocktails part II
☻Chowzter's London awards
☻ Lusitano - Portuguese
☻Dominique is now a bistro
☻ Estiatorio Mythos
☻ Taco Hopping: el Centro
☻The Best of 2013
☻De Mar a Mar
☻Yuban great Oaxacan Cooking
☻ Acapulco puts on a party
☻Rokai brings a little bit of Tokyo...
☻Angelopolitano: poblano Condesa
☻Mushroom season in Mexico
☻Touring the world's best barbacoa
☻World view: Anatol takes the cake
☻Dim Sum at Jing Teng
☻ Food trucks in Mexico City, ...
☻Celebrating July 4th in Mexico
☻Lincoln stays mid-century
☻ “Best taco in Mexico"
☻Close to home: Maximo Bistrot
☻On the Town: Tapeando
☻Q&A With Máximo's Chef
☻The Best Thing I Ate This Week:
☻Tacos de Pescado
☻And the Angels Sing: Turtux
☻The Women of Mexican Cuisine
☻The Feria de Tamales -Coyoacán