North American travelers often merely gaze at this sprawling city from above. They fly in and out of the airport en route to Machu Picchu or the
Hundreds of restaurants, from high to low end, serving either traditional dishes or their gourmet versions, are thriving in the midst of a food explosion. Peruvian cookbooks take up more than half the shelf space at bookstores, and there are radio shows, blogs, and cooking shows on TV, all centered around Peruvian cooking.
"Peruvian food is a mixture of Japanese, Chinese, African, Spanish, Italian, and Inca. It's a fusion, not from the night before, but a very balanced fusion made over the last few hundred years," says Gastón Acurio of Astrid & Gastón, a well-known Peruvian restaurant. As his assistants work the stove behind him, Acurio adds that in addition to its unique fusions, Peruvian food is unusual because of its many indigenous ingredients: herbs, chili peppers, potatoes, limes, fruits, and maizes that don't grow anywhere else.
Dining in Lima can be daunting to visitors because of the volume of restaurants, and hotel concierges don't always know where to point a visiting gourmet. For help navigating, I turned to Novalima, the electronica Afro-Peruvian band of nine native Limeños. Two of them, Ramón Pérez-Prieto and Grimaldo del Solar, have followed the city's evolving restaurant scene from the start, as their short-lived club served food from the seminal Pantagruel, the first new Andean restaurant in the city, more than 10 years ago.
Besides the very posh Astrid & Gastón, where every dish is a beautiful sculpture, many of Novalima's musicians suggest La Gloria, Osaka, and Huaca Pucllana. Each boasts its own Peruvian fusions and interpretations. Main courses run $12-$25, wines average $5-$7 a glass, and each restaurant can provide an English menu.
La Gloria, with Mediterranean-Peruvian cuisine, is spread over three cozy rooms, each abuzz with what appear to be the capital city's movers and shakers. The walls are covered in art, and waiters rush by with plates of steaming food such as the outstanding yucca gnocchi, topped with Andean herb pesto; grilled tuna steak with eucalyptus aromas; braised suckling goat in an earthenware pot with chickpea puree; and an appetizer of veal brain. The wine list is enormous and there are 70 kinds of the Peruvian liquor, pisco.
"It's a whole different world of tastes," says chef Luis Alberto Sacilotto as several baby octopuses sizzle on the grill. Sacilotto, who is from Argentina, had to learn Peruvian flavors. Besides studying formally (Lima, with a population approaching 8 million, has about 30 culinary schools), he traveled all over the country tasting dishes.
Osaka is an intimate Japanese-Peruvian place, perhaps the favorite restaurant of del Solar.
"You can go very Peruvian, or very Japanese, but there is a lot to play with in the middle," says chef and owner Jann van Oordt as he brings out a plate of tiradito, a traditional Peruvian dish of fish strips cooked in lime juice. The fish is cut so thin, the orange chili sauces are visible underneath.
Osaka's captivating sushi rolls look like what North Americans might be accustomed to, save for the creamy chili pepper sauces drizzled on top. The ingredients are a mixture of unusual tastes: shrimp with mango and soft cheese and scallops with roasted parmesan cheese. Twelve pieces of sushi roll are about $10.
For modern gourmet twists on typical Peruvian dishes, Huaca Pucllana is a good choice, despite being "full of tourists and executives," according to Pérez-Prieto. The seating overlooks the Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Incan ruin of beige bricks. On the menu are dishes such as grilled sea bass in a quinoa crust, cilantro risotto with chunks of duck confit and magret, and Patagonian lamb chops over pumpkin gnocchi. Huaca Pucllana is so traditional, it even offers the famed Peruvian guinea pig, served "crunchy," according to the menu. But not all eat it. "I am not too fond of that," says Pérez-Prieto. "It's like a big rat."
Located on the same street are two of the best fish restaurants: La Mar and Pescados Capitales. Novalima members almost unanimously recommend the trendy La Mar, although there are grumblings about it being too fashionable. The restaurant, a beautiful, industrial-like space, softened by its thatched roof, swarms with diners. For just under $10, there are 12 types of fresh ceviches to choose from, all swimming in a spicy concoction of lime juice, salt, cilantro, garlic, onion, and tiny chili pepper pieces.
Another Peruvian staple is the "causa," balls of reformed mashed potatoes of various yellows and oranges that have been mixed with lime juice, onion, and chili peppers. "Causas are very popular in Peru, from rich to poor; the difference is what is put inside," says José Cárpena, the restaurant's manager. La Mar's causas, which average about $10, are exceptional, usually stuffed with avocado, topped with either shrimp, clams, octopus, tuna, or crab, and dripping with various creamy chili pepper sauces.
Pescados Capitales's lovely indoor-outdoor spaces always teem with eager diners. The menu is full of creative causas, ceviches, and other seafood dishes.
"I like restaurants with good food where you feel comfortable. I like to be relaxed," says Nacho Cisneros, Novalima's manager. Canta Rana, a favorite of his, is a funky space with an old tiled floor and primitive wooden tables with tablecloths. The cheery atmosphere reflects the affable owner, Vicente Furgiuele, a soccer fan, evident from the floor-to-ceiling paraphernalia of soccer shirts, posters, photographs, and flags. Slurping his black clam ceviche, Cisneros says, "The food is so inventive, creative, that sometimes they make a dish for a week here, and they don't know what they made." The menu is a mix of seafood and pastas. Main courses run $6 to $10.
For visitors who want more familiar dishes, La 73 and La Mas Antigua, formerly La Dalmacia, are hip restaurants offering pastas, risottos, hamburgers, sandwiches, and large selections of beer, wine, and pisco. La Mas Antigua's mushroom risotto - rich, buttery, with hunks of three kinds of mushrooms, topped with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese - should not be missed.
"Chifa" is the word used for Chinese restaurants in Peru, a popular option for financially challenged musicians. A visit to the original Salón Capón in Chinatown is fun but advisable only for lunch, as it's on the edge of a bad neighborhood. Chifas have subtle Peruvian twists on some of the Chinese dishes that would be familiar to North Americans. Salón Capón's arroz choupa, a simple traditional rice dish with crunchy bits of carrot, mushroom, asparagus, and egg, is perfect for a light lunch, but there are far more adventurous dishes, such as fish head soup. Prices average $4 to $9 for main courses.
T'anta is a casual, beautifully designed cafe option with a take-out counter and a gourmet shop. Traditional, gourmet Peruvian dishes are served, such as rice with duck, stuffed Peruvian red chili peppers, and a scrumptious "ají de gallina," a plate of tender chicken stew over rice, with a creamy yellow chili pepper sauce for $10. The desserts are outstanding. Leave room for the "chocolúcama," a dome of chocolate covering a crunchy coconut base, with layers of chocolate and creamy "lúcama," a Peruvian fruit, reasonably priced at about $3.
Lima has many little clubs, called peñas, and Don Porfirio is a Friday night favorite of locals, especially musicians. The stage is wedged into a corner and features traditional Peruvian music, from waltzes, to polkas, to more rhythmic Afro-Peruvian music. Guests sing, dance, drink, and eat, but be forewarned, food is usually served after midnight.
"Don Porfirio has the best lomo saltado in Lima," says Cotito, another cajón player and singer in Novalima. The traditional Peruvian dish with Chinese influences consists of beef strips with herbs, chili peppers, and onions over cut potatoes. What it lacks in presentation, as it's served on a red plastic tray, it makes up for in taste.
Nina Roberts, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at ninaroberts.net.