LIMA, Peru – The earthenware dish was set before us, samples of raw potatoes, sourced from more than 3900 meters above sea level, were pointed out by our server, who spoke in both halting English and fluid Spanish. On a stone in the center of the plate, three small discs, resembling grey skipping stones with jagged edges, reminded me of something you’d find at the side of a lakeshore, but these were completely edible. Each one represented a silky puree of those potatoes, coated in edible chaco clay from some remote part of Peru. No, this was not René Redzepi doing a pop-up, but rather, young Robbie Benson look alike Virgilio Martínez Véliz and wife Pía León’s take on their native Peru, in which they utilize ingredients that are foraged or grown in the Andes and then manipulated or processed to create a new level of Peruvian cuisine at Central Restaurante; it’s light years away from the causal cebicheries and chifa restaurants (Chinese-Peruvian) you see all over this city of 10 million.
Central is one of a handful of local restaurants – Astrid y Gaston is another (and not a fan, by the way) – striving for Michelin stars and global recognition. It captured the #1 spot on the Latin America’s 50 Best List last week, and it pushes boundaries like few restaurants in this slightly food-obsessed city can. Even my non-alcoholic pairings (called the Nectar Experience, and presented to me in menu form after the meal with all nine of the original drinks) were stunning. Looking at my notes, I see a jumble of roots, fruits and herbs I can barely recall: taperiba, mashua, huarango, maca, pacay.
Another high-end option in the Miraflores District – which is where you want to stay when in Lima – is Maido. Mitsuharu Tsumura’s dad was from Osaka; his mom, however, is Peruvian, which makes him a Nikkei. This delicious fusion cuisine has yielded quite a few restaurants in town, but nothing like Maido, where you can start off with a cocktail containing pisco, Campari and sake, before segueing into grilled bites of pigeon nigiri or sea urchin, compressed with gelatin, presented with bits of salmon roe and squid:
One of my favorites was a simple scallop nigiri, topped with a shiny emulsion of maca, a root vegetable from the high Andes. One of the reasons Nikkei cuisine works so well here is the geography. They say it has something to do with the currents or the Jetstream, but whatever it is, the seafood plucked from the Pacific waters right at Lima’s front door is as good as anywhere else in the world. The uni, which we also tried as sashimi, was as firm and sweet as anything I’ve had from Hokkaido or Santa Barbara. Even Tsumura’s cuy (guinea pig) is a revelation. The critters are usually deep fried or grilled in Peru, but at Maido, he first confits, then de-bones and finally, wok-fries with a sweetened barbecue sauce and pairs a tiny puck of it with a silky yucca cream.
Seafood’s dominance in Lima is usually expressed through ceviche. Unlike Panama, where they bury their corvina in cream and dressing, in Peru, it’s all about the fish. A dribble of oil and a kiss of lime juice is all this seafood needs to really shine. At La Mar Cebichería, one of my favorite meals was a ceviche-laden lunch, containing everything from grouper dressed with aji Amarillo (yellow chiles) and arnaucho chile, to conchas negras (black snail), lobster, crab and even sea urchin, showered in lime and red onions.
Before we even got our first ceviche, the trio of chile-laden sauces set before us had my table enthralled: aji amarillo is a given, as is rocoto, a spicier red chile sauce you see everywhere. But the leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) was really unique. Typically, it’s used to make ceviche, and it’s derived from the fish juices, as well as citrus and chilies. But at our table, this dip for thinly-fried plantains and yucca chips was made with ocopa, a different type of chile, plus huacatay, a fascinating herb that resembles tiny marijuana leaves; also, milk, garlic, onions and pureed Animal Crackers, which somehow balanced the gentle heat with a sweetness I would never have placed in a million years.
Al Toke Pez is not only hard to find, it’s even harder to get a seat at, since there are just six chairs. But wait you must for 33 year-old Tomas Matsufuji’s creative ceviches and fried seafood. Located in the Surquillo District, this literal hole-in-the-wall is manned by three cooks, plus Tomas’ mom. Diego Salazar (pictured, at left above) is the Editor of Perú 21, a local paper, and he knows the backstreets of Lima like few others. He graciously took me around to a few places one Sunday, chatting up the bartenders and chefs along the way. The menu at Al Toke Pez is extremely limited with just a daily ceviche, a chicharron (fried fish) and a fried rice. They also sell tiny Styrofoam cups filled with leche de tigre that are topped with a few shards of fried squid or octopus. I had a chance to eat there with Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten (pictured, in the middle above), who was researching places for a story. Man, I thought my wife asked a lot of questions…but he was a convivial soul who was just as into devouring everything on our plates as I was. Get a cooling, inky dark chicha morada (sweet purple corn drink with cinnamon and lemon) but don’t linger too long, because chances are someone is waiting for your seat.
Another hard-to-find spot is Chez Wong, a serious chifa restaurant located in someone’s home. There is no sign here, just a door. I had to ask a few people in the area where I was going, since all I had was a pin on Google Maps and not much else. Javier Wong’s dad was a Chino (Chinese) and his mom was Peruvian. He opened his narrow, casual restaurant on the first floor of his house in 1994, and to this day, still serves a set three or four-course lunch only. (Note: many cebicherias in Lima are only open for lunch, typically 12 – 5 p.m., so be sure to check hours before heading out). Ours began with large hunks of flounder and discs of octopus, swimming in bright lime juice; we added some aji limó – the classic red chile that provides heat to ceviches – and devoured the plate in about 4 minutes.
Finally, another lunch-only spot (by that I mean 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.) is La Picanteria. Also located in Surquillo, not far from Al Toke Pez, this communal-style restaurant features larger, heartier dishes meant for sharing. Considered a bit of an outlier by peers, this restaurant opened up somewhat controversially, since it charges higher prices than comparable family-style restaurants, but the skills in the kitchen – and the sourcing of ingredients – are without peer. Whole fish stuffed with herbs and chiles; sides of pork that pull from the bone with the slightest tug of your fork; duck “ceviche” with roasted potatoes and sides of steamed rice with peas…everything that hit our table could have been shared with three more folks; it makes Chicago’s avec look stingy.
We did have to wait about an hour for our table – it’s first-come, first-served – but thankfully we had just come from eating at Al Toke Pez, so we weren’t famished. We did, however, sip chilcanos, my new favorite drink, made from pisco, ginger ale and fruit purees – we all agreed the aguaymanto (Gooseberry? Tiny yellow tomato? Cousin to the tomatillo?) was the best.
At around 4 p.m., Renzo Garibaldi (the Meat Prophet of Peru), owner of Osso Butcher Shop, walked in with some of his buddies. They were all looking famished and ready to order a ton of food. I have no idea if the restaurant decided to stay open past 5 p.m. that day, but considering they’re on Lima time, a little delay in the proceedings and a relaxation of the rules wouldn’t be surprising. I just want to know what the dude ordered.