Peru Proves the Next Big Destination for Foodies

  • Scallops at Surquillo Market, which showcases the country's dizzying array of produce, seafood, and meats.

    Scallops at Surquillo Market, which showcases the country's dizzying array of produce, seafood, and meats.

  • Astrid y Gaston inhabits a 300-year-old mansion.

    Astrid y Gaston inhabits a 300-year-old mansion.

  • A butcher at the same market.

    A butcher at the same market.

  • A recent tasting menu at Lima's Astrid y Gaston included a course of Andean potatoes baked in an adobe brick.

    A recent tasting menu at Lima's Astrid y Gaston included a course of Andean potatoes baked in an adobe brick.

  • Central's Octopus in the Desert features grilled octopus with an emulsion of airampo (prickly purple pear).

    Central's Octopus in the Desert features grilled octopus with an emulsion of airampo (prickly purple pear).

  • Diversity of Corn, one of the 17 courses on Martinez's elevations-themed tasting menu.

    Diversity of Corn, one of the 17 courses on Martinez's elevations-themed tasting menu.

  • Peruvian ingredients on display at Central.

    Peruvian ingredients on display at Central.

  • Chef Virgilio Martinez in his garden at his acclaimed restaurant Central.

    Chef Virgilio Martinez in his garden at his acclaimed restaurant Central.

  • The kitchen at Chez Wong.

    The kitchen at Chez Wong.

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The 2.0 version of the movement prescribes dishes like doses of edible art, primed for an audience riding the wave of a robust economy. To judge by the waiting lists for the multi-course meals served at Martínez’s Central and Acurio’s Astrid y Gastón, the formula seems to be working. Thanks to a couple of last-minute cancellations, I managed to bag reservations at both, one for lunch, the other for dinner. But first, I needed to exercise my palate: tackling a marathon requires warm-up runs.

Hidden behind a high concrete wall in Lima’s bohemian Barranco neighborhood, Amoramar is a discreet, open-air restaurant with tables arranged on a shaded wooden deck. As its name playfully suggests, seafood is a specialty here, and my lunch began with a fine sole ceviche accompanied by salsa criolla—the ubiquitous condiment made from red onions and peppers in lime juice—and a trio of octopus tentacles grilled to a smoky char and enlivened with strawberry reduction. Then came a fall-off-the-bone duck leg and a butcher steak prepared pachamanca-style (cooked in the ground) with Andean potatoes and rocoto peppers.

In need of a stroll afterward, I stepped out in the Miraflores neighborhood, where my hotel was located. Lima, with a population of 8.5 million, isn’t a classically pretty Latin American city—it lacks the dilapidated splendor of Antigua Guatemala’s church ruins, or the ubiquitous postcard-ready colonial courtyards and narrow streets of Cartagena—and parts of it are a hodge-podge of architectural genres that include Baroque, Art Nouveau, Soviet-era Brutalist, cowboy-builder hatchet job, and increasingly generic modern glass buildings. But some areas are truly memorable, like the grand central square Plaza Mayor. Another is the Miraflores boardwalk, which traces the cliffs above the Pacific and takes in handsome little parks.

That evening at La Picantería, a rowdy joint designed like a classic picantería (small, family-run restaurants that serve local specialties) from the country’s north and south, plates of shockingly fresh ceviche and sandwiches of crispy, immaculately fried silverside fish pepped up by herbs and lemon appeared and disappeared. I looked around at the simple interiors, the beachy thatched ceiling, the communal tables, the candidly unsophisticated chalkboard menus, and recognized that the food, as one would hope in a restaurant, was allowed to be the star of the show.

Suitably acclimatized, I was ready for the 28-course lunch at Astrid y Gastón. First opened in 1992, Acurio’s flagship restaurant relocated last year to a meticulously restored 17th-century hacienda—Casa Moreyra—in the tony San Isidro district. Fronted by a garden of herbs and vegetables, the building’s elegant interiors are speckled with contemporary art, including a canvas of a naked woman tight-roping along railway tracks and a colorful mural that reads Somos Libre, Seámoslo Siempre, the opening lines of the Peruvian national anthem. Before being shown to my seat, the host, Carlos, took me to the kitchen. It was as quiet as a library, the chef and his crew calm and smiling.

The theme of the tasting menu, which changes every six months along with restaurant’s decor and crockery, was Memories of My Land, a journey through Peruvian life that would run through 28 “elaborations,” as Acurio calls his courses. School-year memories were evoked by a tin filled with snacks of chocolate-covered lucuma (an Amazonian fruit) ice cream, crispy squares of sweet potato, meringues that tasted of anchovies and olives, and peanut bars redolent of garlic, chili, and coriander. A drink of the nispero fruit, or loquat, cheekily placed inside a large ice cube—hurry, hurry, drink it before the ice melts—signified coming home from school. Another elaboration featured suckling pig with bitter hints of mustard, accompanied by flower petals and pomegranate, while “grandma’s torrejita” of asparagus, caviar, chives, and wasabi was remarkable in its subtlety of flavors. Courses and memories kept coming—ice cones with syrups of fruit; a medley of salted carrots, quinoa leaf, gorgonzola, radish, and candied pecans; a ceviche of apple, rocoto pepper, sea urchin, and airampo flower; and a homey comfort dish of mashed potato with fried eggs and chicken sauce. Two courses in particular stood out: an impossibly tender carpaccio of avocado with sour cream, crispy onion, a touch of chili, sesame seeds, and tiny pearls of intense coriander; and a dessert involving granules of chilled chocolate-coated sugar that exploded in my mouth like Pop Rocks, adding a dash of childish jocularity to the proceedings. After three hours and forty-five minutes, I closed the meal—which cost a mere US$135 without the wine pairing—with the house version of emoliente, an herbal digestive drink popular in Lima’s winter. Before I left, Carlos handed me a small bound book that recounted everything I’d eaten and doubled as a memento. It was touching, and not something I’d ever received at a restaurant—a token that made the entire experience all the more pleasurable.

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