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Jun 15, 2010 12:38 PM

Busting the Hype on Food in Peru: Extensive Reviews of the Peruvian Dining Scene

Hey guys,

I've noticed a few other posts about Peru, but most have focused on restaurants in Lima. I'd like to contribute to the discussion by talking about the country as a whole. Before actually visiting Peru, I really didn't realize just how rich the cuisine was, though it combines ingredients and recipes from the indigenous population, modern Peruvian culture, and numerous immigrant communities, especially the Japanese. While I was abroad, I began to understand as I went through traditional (and not-so-traditional) Peruvian dishes, eating at restaurants in Lima, Cuzco, Arequipa, and Puno.

I'd like to post up my notes/reviews from my journey, so that hopefully it can help anyone else who has a thirst for everything Peruvian. I hope you all enjoy!

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  1. I'll start things off with a review of the legendary Astrid & Gaston, probably the best-known restaurant in all of Peru.

    Astrid & Gaston
    Modern Peruvian, Fine Dining
    Entrées run about 35 to 80 soles ($12.50 to $28). Expect to pay about $30-$50 ($50 with drink and dessert)

    175 Calle Cantuarias, Miraflores
    Lima, Peru

    Ambience: 8.5/10
    Service: 6.0/10
    Taste: 7.5/10. The cocktails were a special treat.
    Value: 5/10. Costs an arm and a leg for mediocre food.
    Overall Score: 6.0-6.5/10. This restaurant costs way too much for what you’re getting. It may be one of the nicest-looking in Peru, but it sure isn’t the best-tasting.

    In Peru, there are very few restaurants that are universally acclaimed. One of the few is Astrid & Gaston, named after the world-renowned celebrity chef couple that owns it. It's also probably the most exclusive/famous restaurant in Peru. Now, whatever Gaston touches, at least in Peru, is gold. He owns not only the most reputed fine dining experience, but also several other restaurants at all price ranges throughout Peru, including Cebichería La Mar, where I had what was hands down not only the best ceviche of my trip, but probably the best dining experience in all my travels last year. And it was after that high I experienced from lunch at Cebichería La Mar, I was convinced that Gaston was a culinary mastermind, and I decided that I just had to try Gaston’s ultimate creation, Astrid & Gaston, the very same night. Unexpectedly, though, whereas Cebichería La Mar, a traditional Peruvian ceviche joint, was near perfect in every way, Astrid & Gaston was the exact opposite—a failure in almost all regards.

    As you enter Astrid & Gaston, the ambience does impress, in contrast to so many other places in Peru. It has a controlled, simple modernity to it, with minimal decorations, but bright coats of paint, a nice bar, and in general just a nice seating arrangement. The only reason it stands out, though, is because you don’t get to see so many nice-looking restaurants like it in Peru. Otherwise, it’s nothing extraordinary. And the service, at least initially, seems fine—prompt and very formal/professional, unlike in most Latin American restaurants.

    So where does this legendary restaurant fail? First, and most importantly, the food. The food was decent but boring. In fact, only the cocktails stood out as something extraordinary—and oh were they extraordinary! Never before have I seen so many pisco cocktails, and all of such high quality, too. Unfortunately, where it counted, the restaurant failed. It’s food is meant to offer a modern take on Peruvian cuisine, but instead what I saw was a lot of innovation for the sake of innovation—i.e. going for presentation and uniqueness instead of for taste. For example, they might use duck instead of chicken in a traditional recipe or add a few cloyingly sweet components to an already sweet dessert. Not all of it is bad, but there is quite a bit of stumbling, especially in terms of flavor combinations, especially for such a supposedly fine restaurant.

    And perhaps worst of all was a service issue I had with my waiter. The wine menu is supposedly phenomenal, especially for Peru, but I didn’t even get to see it because my waiter didn’t give me the wine menu when I asked for it. Instead, he said he would get a recommendation from the sommelier, and instead of running it by me or even letting me see the wine as he poured it, he brought out his recommendation—some garbage wine, no less—pre-poured in a glass for me, without even letting me try the wine to see if it was fresh or giving me any information on the wine. It was not only a horrible wine, but the waiter came off as downright patronizing, overstepping his bounds completely. For a restaurant this formal and this expensive (even by American standards), it’s downright sinful to be so careless to the customer. Needless to say, I didn’t finish the wine, and I stuck to cocktails from then on.

    Overall, then, for the uninspired food, the lack of professionalism, and the outrageous prices, I would have to recommend avoiding Astrid & Gaston, contrary to what you may read in all the travel guides. Astrid & Gaston is way too overhyped. Nothing lived up to the reputation of the restaurant, and the wine thing was a complete joke. I really wanted to like this restaurant, especially after my experience with Cebichería la Mar, but it was probably the worst dining experience I had in Peru, sadly.

    What I had:

    Bread: great variety—breadsticks, raisin bread, corn bread, chili bread, potato bread, and nut bread. All with chimichurri, butter, and chili. Very hit or miss, though. Chimichurri was fantastic—cheese, oil, tomatoes, and basil mix for a really nice flavor. The potato bread was the only one that struck me as fantastic—rich, oily, starchy. Nut bread was nice and sweet. None of the sauces worked well, and most of the bread was a miss. Disappointing.

    Appetizer: Anticucho (pieces of meat on a golden potato) of 4 varieties: cow, chicken, heart, and chicken liver. Served with 3 sauces: tomatoes in lime/lemon, chili, and bean. Sauces in general were a little weak, especially the chili. The tomato lime/lemon sauce was okay but simple and underwhelming. The beans were good but just didn’t go with the flavor of the anticuchos. The meat, on the other hand, was cooked well all around. The chicken was outstanding. The golden potatoes worked well, too, with the flavor of the meat, adding a nice starchiness, but they’re kind of bland/mushy in texture. Heart was a little too rough for me, but not bad. The liver just seemed a poor choice—too strong, greasy, and flavorless. Overall, disappointing. 6.0/10

    Rice cooked in cherries with duck: Actually, a great dish. Reminded me of a nice risotto. Rich, creamy, flavorful rice. The duck was also very well-cooked, with the skin falling off. The meat was a little tough and gamy, but I’m not a big fan of duck, to be honest. Still, it was good. The problem was in the mix, which felt contrived. The rice was great on its own and just needed a protein component, but it seemed like duck was chosen merely for the sake of creating a “gourmet” version of a traditional dish (it’s normally with chicken). Still, intense, flavorful, and unique. Crackling on the duck is fantastic. 8.5/10+

    Chocolate soufflé of exotic fruits with a chocolate crocante: Good for a fruit desert, and a solid soufflé. It’s really quite well-made. And the presentation is great. The flaw, however, is that there’s not enough flavor, and the flavors there are clash. The dark chocolate doesn’t mix too well with the raspberries—typically they do, but here the raspberries just gave a sourness to the dish. Moreover, for a chocolate dish, this has far too little sweetness to it, even for dark chocolate, and the slightly sour raspberry fruitiness only makes it worse. 7.0/10

    Arroz con leche especial (special-style arroz con leche), served with compote, some meringue, and fruit: Interesting taste. Definitely better than the soufflé. Great mix of flavors, actually—unlike the other dishes, things don’t seem tacked on. I can’t say it’s amazing, though. The arroz con leche is too sweet and rich for me. It has the texture and taste of a chunky custard, but far more intense. The fruit and cream don’t really help to balance it. If anything, the meringue makes it even sweeter. 7.5/10

    Uruwaska Cocktail: Pisco, assion fruit juice, lime, and lychee liquor. This is just plain delicious. I could taste the pisco, giving it a strength that’s great. At the same time, it’s fruity and sweet enough that someone with a sweet tooth, like me, can really enjoy it. Lychee flavor comes out very well. Bitterness of pisco canbe offsetting, but overall a very nice combo, with great synergy and flavor. 9/10

    Limeña Mazamorrera: Pisco Moscatel, purple corn, sauco cream (sauco is an indigenous fruit), morello cherries macerated in pisco. This cocktail is phenomenal! Thick and sweet, with chocolaty overtones from the dark chocolate-like bitterness. Perfect combo. No complaints, and hands down, the best part of the meal. 9.5/10+


    Take care,
    Edmund Mokhtarian
    Food and Wine Blogger

    1. Next up is La Mar, Gaston's other major hit in Lima.

      Cebichería La Mar
      Traditional Peruvian. Specializes in ceviche and only open for lunch.
      Entrées run about 25 to 35 soles ($8.75 to $12.25). Expect to pay much about $25 with a drink and an appetizer.
      Av. La Mar 770
      Lima, Peru

      There is nothing quite so Peruvian as ceviche, a dish that I personally love. So when I was in Peru I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go taste ceviche at some traditional Cebicherías, or ceviche restaurants, which are traditionally only open for lunch. Unfortunately, I only had one day in Lima (where Peruvians say the best ceviche is found), so I had to make it count. I had compiled a list of some of the best ceviche places in town, but I still couldn’t choose—that is, until I started talking to the locals. On my way to my hostel in the cab, I didn’t even mention that I was looking for ceviche specifically, just for some Peruvian food, and my cab driver began to go on and on about ceviche and specifically about one place, Cebichería La Mar, the brainchild of celebrity chef Gaston. With that type of praise, I just couldn’t avoid this place, and I headed over for lunch.

      When I entered, I was immediately impressed. It was absolutely hot, with tons of space and seating but still full almost to the brim. It was semi-outdoor dining, with a very hip, modern vibe to it—modern architecture (diagonal lines, etc.), spacious, with a very nice bar area, and just casual. The service, however, didn’t suffer at all. My waiter was perhaps one of the best I’ve had in any restaurant in South America. Not only was he extremely amiable, but, upon seeing that I’m a foreigner, he really took some time to explain the dishes to me clearly and give great recommendations. Upon finding out that I was writing down notes about the restaurant, he even gave me a whole menu to take home with me! And this was a gigantic, hardback menu!

      As for the food, just thinking about it makes me hungry. La Mar had a nice beer and liquor selection, with so many cocktails and pisco variations that it’s ridiculous. The tropical juices were also fantastic. The menu had a large variety of food as well, highlighting the majority of traditional Peruvian dishes, including tacu tacu (explained below), ceviche, causa (small bites of meat with potato), and tiraditos (Peruvian sushi, more or less). Moreover, everything was of the highest quality, even what I didn’t particularly like. Topping all that, the portions were humungous and very affordable. I paid about $52 for a cocktail, 2 tropical juices, a shot of pisco, and 3 dishes that were far too much to finish.

      And for all you interested foodies out there, this restaurant is actually a chain, though I was at the original. One location has recently opened in San Francisco, so if you have the option, you might want to check it out, though I really can’t attest to the quality, never having been to that branch.

      Overall, it was a phenomenal experience, from the ambience to the service to the food, and it easily one of the best meals of my life.

      What I had:

      Complementary appetizer in bucket: potato and sweet potato chips (Fantastic and plenty of it) with 3 different levels of spiced sauces and roasted, unpopped corn seeds. Sweet potato and plaintain chips are phenomenal, 2/3 sauces are irresistible, and the corn seeds are even better than popcorn and unforgettably good. I just can’t stop eating these, especially the corn seeds. 10/10

      Degustation of 5 Ceviches

      - Clásico/Classic: Great chunks of fish, but spicy as hell, to the point that I almost can’t eat it. Delicious, though. The fish is as tender as sashimi, and the tanginess/citrus is perfect and balances the spice nicely. 9/10

      - Miraflorino (Classic version leche de tigre with fruits of the sea, i.e. a wide variety of seafood): Phenomenal! Octopus, calamari, and tuna are so fresh and add so much extra flavor and nuance to the traditional ceviche. More rubbery texture of the octopus and calamari is especially nice. Sauce is perfect—mild, tangy, and a little creamy. 9.8/10. Best ceviche I’ve had ever!

      - Nikei (leche de tigre “nikei” version + tuna): Refreshingly sweet. You wouldn’t think sweet ceviche works, but it does. Especially interesting is how the citrus and sugar balance each other so nicely. Tuna is perfect, and the sweetness a nice uniqueness to the ceviche. Kind of like of a desert. 9.2-9.4/10

      - Potente/Potent: This is powerful stuff. Nice mix of seafood, but the flavors are more bitter, and the spiciness only makes it worse. Seafood is chopped too—so it loses a lot of the texture and even flavor of the big sashimi-type pieces. 7.5/10

      - Elegante/Elegant: Nice, big pieces of seafood again. And yet again, the spiciness is off-putting. Sauce, however, is rather creamy and mayonnaise-like, which helps to offset the spice but at the same time makes the dish cloying. Still, the seafood is great. 8.0/10

      Super saltado tacu tacu—This is plain, simple food at it’s finest, and it is a near perfect dish. It’s a gigantic dish of rice with beef and seafood “a la criolla,” or Creole style. Perfectly spiced and cooked. Vegetables have a nice kebab-type, smoky/savory flavor to them. The rice is somewhat mushy and too starchy because it has beans mixed in with it. In conjunction, though, everything has a nice dirty ricefeel to it, and it exudes a nice smokiness. Seafood is perfect as always, and the beef was cooked extremely well, too. The beef could have used some salt and spice, but it was so tender and flavorful that it was comparable to Argentine-quality steak. This dish is pure comfort food at its best, and it would have been near perfect without the mushiness of the rice and bean combo. 9.5/10

      Dessert: Picarones (Dough mixed with sweet potatoes and sugar, then deep fried and served in fig honey): Wow! Enough said—just read the ingredients! Takes me back to my grandma’s homemade desserts, with a great combination of doughtiness, sweetness, and fruitiness. The fig honey works extremely well. Only loses points for being monotonous, but, again, this is fantastic comfort food. 9/10.

      Ambience: 9.5/10
      Service: 10/10
      Taste: 9.5-9.6
      Value: 9.5/10. A bit pricey, but completely justified for the portions, innovation, and quality you get.
      Overall: 9.7/10-9.8/10. This was, without a doubt, my favorite restaurant in all of my travels (not just in Peru)!


      Take care,
      Edmund Mokhtarian
      Food and Wine Blogger