Destination Lima

The Creative Cuisine of Lima

Lima boasts three restaurants on the controversial “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list. This is the story of dinners eaten at each of two iconic restaurants that make up part of the global boom in creative Peruvian cuisine: the Japanese-influenced Maido, and Astrid y Gastón, where an inventive fried egg becomes a designer item.

By Julián Varsavsky
Photos: Julián Varsavsky y cortesías restaurantes

I ate the best fried egg of my life at Astrid y Gastón. Fried egg? Actually, it was so complex that I can’t quite recall it all: I need to consult the notes I took on the commentary by the restaurant’s food advisor, a white-shirted young man who dropped by the table throughout the meal just to explain every dish.

“This next dish consists of a fried egg on top of smoked puree of Andean Huamantanga potatoes, mushrooms from Cajamarca’s Porcón valley, crispy potato skins, baby spinach, truffle salt, and fennel flowers and watercress leaves with oil of semi-dried tomatoes, all bathed in a duck and cardamom broth,” states our elegant advisor in a sonorous voice.

In other words, at the “fourteenth best restaurant in the world” —the third best in Latin America— according to the English magazine Restaurant, a fried egg is something else entirely. Despite the egg being deconstructed and reconstructed —and reformulated every year— I recognize it for what it is when I discover the yolk under the camouflage of leaves and orange-toned petals that make the whole thing resemble a mini-burger at first glance.

Each ingredient was chosen for its flavor, color, shape, or texture: tempura for crunch; the hot puree and warm, runny yolk for a creamy, unctuous feel; glossy vegetables and fennel pollen for a burst of freshness on the palate; and truffle salt for a subtle dose of umami, one of the five basic tastes of Japanese cuisine —this is the glutamate flavor that gives mother’s milk its taste— leaving a lingering aftertaste in the throat and a velvety feeling on the tongue.

The aroma of the plate evokes the blends of artisan perfumery: it is delicate and clearly intended to “recall the nostalgia of childhood, like a grandmotherly kiss on the forehead,” says Chef Gastón Acurio via e-mail from México. The flavor spreads slowly through your mouth with gentle insistence. Even with all the nuances, the taste of fried egg remains.

In creative cuisine every dish aspires to create sensations that go beyond mere taste. Even though this is just a fried egg, it must be unique and better than any other fried egg in every way: this small and original artistically-inclined creation was destined to be a cutting-edge egg. Considering that there are only thirteen restaurants in the world rated higher than Astrid y Gastón —all unlikely to offer this dish— I can brag about having savored “the best fried egg in the world.”

The Dessert of Desserts

Maido served me the best dessert I have ever tasted: balls of ice cream in exotic fruit flavors sprinkled with unusual crumbles. This Lima restaurant —forty-fourth in the much-debated world ranking and fifth in Latin America— has its own food advisor who provides explanations to ease the anxiety of not knowing what you are eating: the Postre Amador consists of Bahuaja chestnuts, eggfruit, and shica shica (an Amazonian fruit), ice cream, chocolate sabayon, sticky rice cakes, yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), and cocoa nibs, all served in the half shell of a cacao pod. Bon appétit.”

The detailed description is rather mysterious, so the words go in one ear and out the other: it is so sophisticated that I immediately forget it. But the actual taste puts any description to shame, convincing this hardened gourmand that I have never tasted anything like this nor anything so delicious: wonderfully sweet without being cloying and combining dissimilar flavors masterfully into a coherent whole.

A Japanese Peruvian

On a corner in the Miraflores neighborhood stands Maido, a small two-story building with a geometric modern style that invokes Japan: the structure is meant to be as artistic as the food served inside.

We climb a glassed-in spiral staircase to a dim dining room that appears to be a large cube with mirrored walls and a ceiling hung with 1,200 ropes tinted by colored lights. We will enjoy a ten-course tasting menu of Japanese food with Amazonian touches. The starter is a vegetable arrangement resembling a bonsai: elegant “trays” with three bite-sized items, one per person. Flowerpots holding a plant that stores water —traditionally drunk by indigenous peoples— are brought to the table. The plants support a vine-root basket and half of a bamboo stem by way of a plate. The verbal description is suggestive: “Crispy chicken skin, pachikay sauce (ginger and garlic), rice crackers, chorizo, fried plantain, and tamarillo (tree tomato) emulsion.”

Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura (“Micha”), Japanese in appearance but Peruvian in manners and speech, comes to the table. He explains that Peruvian and Japanese food complement each other: “If you combine two strong cuisines, the flavors compete with each other and you may not know what you’re eating. Japanese cuisine is delicate and pure like classical music, balanced and subtle. Peruvian cuisine is more like hard rock in that it is characterized by intense flavors and spices; together the cuisines reach equilibrium.”

The second course comes on an S-shaped tile that frames a soy-basted churo: a four-inch snail from the Amazon River. Going to a creative restaurant entails the risk of not liking the dishes served. For some of the diners in our party, it was an act of bravery to try this snail that had been cooked for six hours. The chef disguises the fleshiness with foam made from the jungle tuber known as dale dale, soy sauce, and chalaca (yellow chile pepper). I grab the stick stabbed into the churo, pull out the shapeless foamy mass, hesitate for a second, and then chew. It has a light, indistinct flavor; I think I like it.

Amazon Delights

The waiter serves a local dish of “pig with yucca,” metamorphosed by Micha into a “stewed pork pancetta with yucca and a reduction of ramen with sweet chile and cocona (an Amazonian fruit).” I ask the chef about the genesis of this delicacy: “I was in the town of Lamas, researching cecina, a dish of smoked pork. People recommended I visit a certain woman. Once there, I asked her: ‘What are you cooking?’ pointing to a pot on the fire. It was a meal for her family: ‘It’s only pork and yucca,’ she said, and gave me a taste. It was incredible and I left thinking about this dish rather than her cecina. I wanted to bring that flavor to my restaurant in Lima. I could not just plop down a spoonful of rice and another of stew; I needed to plate it attractively, to refine the flavors, and to add texture. I put the stew on a crust of bread so it doesn’t spread all over the plate and covered it with pork skin fried until it turns into a kind of cracker.”

The Birth of Fusion

The Astrid y Gastón restaurant rises on a hillock: the former mansion is a palatial, 300-year-old white building in a majestic Moorish style crowned with a turret. We proceed to the reception area, which calls to mind a boutique hotel. The maître d’ leads our party of eight up a wooden staircase to the private La Torre room, furnished with an immense table and decorated in the French style; boleros play in the background.

The food advisor explains that we will be served a five-course tasting menu drawn from the main menu. Our starter is wheat and rye country-style bread with tomato butter and Puno honey with purslane. I am fascinated by the pâté: lard whipped with Cape gooseberry compote.

The dishes all come with names and geographic origins in this very verbal gastronomic experience. This descriptive approach entails a certain risk for the chef: now he needs to keep his promises. In this case, the pâté lives up to its billing; it is the best I have ever tasted.

The first course is ceviche, the national dish, but we are tasting it in the very restaurant that represents the global boom of Peruvian fusion cuisine. The ceviche is made of sea bass caught just this morning combined with vanilla-infused apple, crispy sea urchin, and leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk,” or a blend of lime juice, onion, chile, salt, pepper, and fish juice) with tree pepper and Peruvian corn. This ceviche is milder and more refined than the usual version; it is a masterwork of pure subtlety that caresses the tongue.

Then we have the fried egg and a northern dish of conger eel with sautéed vegetables bathed in Peruvian curry, accompanied by sesame, mamey, eggfruit, and plantain.

The meat course is Angus beef served with turnips pickled with beets and vodka, along with mung beans, leafy choy sum, and kai lan or Chinese broccoli. The flavors of certain culinary creations cascade in subtle gradations of taste, like an intricate Baroque suite, without startling contrasts or sudden salvos of flavor: the chef does not stray far from a middle ground, achieving a Zen balance.

Desserts bring a festive mood to the table: crème of eggfruit with puff pastry of Macambo Amazonian chocolate accompanied by raspberry, purple corn ice, and orchid leaves. Our gourmet bacchanal ends with chocolates with liquid centers; the chocolate coating is so fine that the bonbons explode on the tongue. There are also green spheres of emoliente (a popular drink of barley and herbs),  meringues with balsamic vinegar, and chocolates with tree pepper.

Culinary appreciation is similar to art appreciation in that it is all a subjective matter of taste. After two days of nibbling my way through the alien world of these restaurants, my journalistic biases and caution were overtaken by the reality: a gamut of flavors vivified me.

After four decades of eating fairly sophisticated dishes, I had to wait for a sybaritic trip around Perú to enjoy the best dessert, the best pâté, and the best fried egg of my life. It is definitely a good start.

Astrid y Gastón’s 5-course tasting menu costs US $78 (US $127 with beverages paired to each course). The 10-course menu runs US $111 (US $180 with paired beverages).

Maido’s 10-course menu costs US $80 (US $130 with paired beverages). The 15-course menu is US $120 (US $172 with paired beverages).