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Peru -- Lima, Cusco (Cuzco), Aguas Calientes, Puno report

I just got back from eight days in Peru. As one can see from my reviews below, especially my gushing reviews of Cicciolina, I dined very well. I typically ate at upscale, contemporary restaurants with dishes influenced to a varying extent by traditional Peruvian cuisine and ingredients. Ironically, I have eaten more authentic Peruvian food at several restaurants in the U.S. The primary reason for this is that online reviews of restaurants in Peru, on which I based my dining decisions, focus on trendy, cosmopolitan restaurants and exclude more traditional, down-to-earth restaurants. For better or for worse, my reviews follow this tradition. I apologize for their brevity, which is due to lack of time and a pinch of laziness. I will try to capture my objective opinion of each restaurant in a rating from 1 to 10. Restaurants rated 6.5 and above are recommended.

Every restaurant below is very cheap by American standards -- generally at least 50% less than what one would expect to pay in the States. As a reference point, a four-course meal at my top-rated restaurant, Cicciolina, with two glasses of wine, a glass of pisco, mineral water, and a 15-20% tip (which I believe to be very high in Peru) cost about $60.

LIMA

Pescados Capitales. 9.0. An excellent contemporary cevicheria in Miraflores, open only for lunch. Wonderful open dining room. Great service. Good to great food. The best dish I had was the three-fish ceviche, which consisted of salmon, tuna, and whitefish bathed in a creamy aji-pepper sauce, served along with some boiled Peruvian corn (which I happen to love). Also very good was a lucuma tart with a thin chocolate icing. The grilled octopus was good too, but I found the texture slightly more chewy and slimy than the best renditions.

Panchita. 8.0. I told my taxi driver the address of this restaurant in Miraflores and he responded "Panchita Panchita Panchita." When I arrived, the spacious restaurant buzzed with activity in both the dining area and the lounge. The restaurant has a new and glamorous feel. I dined at the bar. The food was generally good. Only one dish stood out, however -- the arroz con pato (rice with duck). This is a traditional Peruvian dish in which the rice is cooked in stout and spices, which makes it quite savory. The duck was nicely browned and cooked to perfection.

CUSCO

Cicciolina. 10.0. Outstanding restaurant -- by far the best in Cusco. After dining at a few other places in town, I tried Cicciolina and found it so good that I dined there for every remaining meal in Cusco. Other diners seem to appreciate Cicciolina as well. The relatively spacious restaurant was always full for lunch and dinner (though there is usually space to dine at the bar). The open kitchen perpetually bustled with activity. (It was very enjoyable to watch the chefs make dishes, especially fresh pasta, which they hang to dry on strings in the window.) At least when factoring in price, I would pick Cicciolina as my favorite restaurant in the world.

I had 6 meals at Cicciolina, including two light breakfasts. The lunch and dinner menus (which consist of a tapas menu and a regular menu) are extensive, wide-ranging, and fascinating. I ate three or four course meals and never ordered the same dish twice. Every dish was excellent. My favorite dish was the grilled tuna in a complex red aji pepper sauce. The tuna had a remarkable smoky flavor that adds even more complexity to the dish. (This smoky flavor was present in every grilled item I tasted at Cicciolina.) The tuna was accompanied by delicious yellow potatoes mashed with mild yellow aji peppers and huacatay. Also wonderful was the beetroot-flavored ravioli in a creamy walnut sauce; the squid-ink tagliatelle with shrimp in a Thai coconut-milk sauce; the duck prosciutto on top of grilled polenta; the freshwater ceviches, and numerous other dishes. Desserts were outstanding as well. My favorite was the strawberries in a thick, condensed port sauce, accompanied by pisco ice cream. The mango pastry with basil ice cream was also great.

My breakfasts at Cicciolina consisted of a bagel with smoked trout and herbed cream cheese and a basket of bread with jams and butter. Both breakfasts were good, though not as remarkable as the dishes I had for lunch and dinner. However, the breakfast menu had numerous items more interesting than those I ordered.

Incanto. 7.5. This restaurant has the best bar in Cusco. I was quite impressed by the craftsmanship of the bartender. It is a great place to explore the world of piscos and pisco-based cocktails, or to have a classic cocktail. My dinner here was good and interesting. I will note, however, that the chef's take on tarte tatin was, to me, a huge disappointment.

Limo Cucina. 7.0. Good food, nice upscale, yet casual, atmosphere. The causitas with cilantro-infused oil were the best of four or five causas/causitas (i.e., cold dishes of mashed yellow potatoes with some topping, often including diced fish) I tried in Peru.

Inka Grill. 5.5. The biggest disappointment for me in Peru, my lunch at this top-rated TripAdvisor restaurant was a dud. The aji de gallina was lukewarm and bland to boot, and the accompanying rice tasted dry and old. My impression was that both were reheated. Better was the appetizer causa with diced fish and avocado. (As a side note, this restaurant, along with Incanto, Limo Cucina, and two other restaurants, the names of which I forget, is owned by the same Lima-based investment group. I learned this during conversation with an employee of one of these restaurants.)

Bistrot 370. 4.0. Very out of sorts. I ordered arroz con pato as my main dish. The waiter said it would take 30 minutes. I said that was fine -- I would have some soup and an appetizer first. The pureed wild mushroom soup was tasty at first but got boring quickly. The appetizer gnocchi were a gloopy disaster. When I finished those dishes, the waiter asked if I would like to order something else. He said he had told me earlier that they don't have arroz con pato. I got annoyed by this and left.

AGUAS CALIENTES

El Indio Feliz. 7.0. A pleasant restaurant owned by a French husband and Peruvian wife. The menu is more French than Peruvian. The trout ceviche was quite good. A French chicken with black pepper sauce was pretty good as well. Perhaps most enjoyable was the basket of warm, complimentary bread and big dish of whipped butter.

The Treehouse Restaurant. 6.0. This restaurant appears to strive high and has an ambitious, interesting menu. However, I found the dishes rather basic and a bit disappointing, though not bad. The restaurant had a new manager and my impression was that the chef was inexperienced.

(I will also note that a grilled chicken sandwich at the snack bar just outside Machu Picchu, along with chicha morada and a cerveza, made a pretty good lunch. Near the snack bar is a sit-down restaurant serving a buffet, which I did not try.)

PUNO

La Casona. 6.5. The most genuinely Peruvian restaurant I ate at in Peru. The menu was wide-ranging and had numerous interesting dishes and beverages. The food was generally very simple and certainly nothing to write home about. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the basic, true flavors, especially of the french-fried yellow potatoes and grilled kingfish (which I presume was freshly caught in Lake Titicaca).

Casa Andina Private Collection (hotel restaurant on the lake). 7.5. Very nice atmosphere. Looks out over the lake and has two fireplaces. The food and service were generally good. My favorite dish was the dessert -- fried dough balls called "buñuelos" stuffed with caramel and served with ice cream. It was nice that this restaurant had a wine list that extended beyond South American wines. (As an aside, I tried numerous South American white wines on this trip, including several Peruvian wines. Generally I found them tart and lacking body. The best wine I had by far on the trip was a bottle of orvieto at Casa Andina.)

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  1. No cuy in Cusco? No chicharones? Poor you :) We ate in mid and low end places and loved it all. I won't even eat a bagel in California. I'm sure not gonna eat one in Peru :( Blech :) But glad you had a good time.

    2 Replies
    1. re: c oliver

      Just fish and poultry for me. This explains why there is no mention of cuy, alpaca, or chicharones in my reviews, as well as my choices for breakfast. The bagel at Cicciolina was a bagel in shape only. However, the flavor and texture were enjoyable.

      1. re: aventinus

        Interesting. I never saw alpacas in that part of Peru,only llamas and I didn't know they were raised for their meat. Learn something every day on CH.

    2. Nice report. Although I also prefer to eat in the local places, I am sure this report will be helpful to others, with pricing and recommended dishes. I did notice that food in some of the tourist restaurants seems "toned down" in seasoning. I guess they have learned from experience.

      Alpaca is delicious and seems quite lean. It is popular in "Nuevo Andino" restaurants.

      At least you had something with huacatay.

      3 Replies
      1. re: mlgb

        We saw lots of llamas but no alpacas. Maybe cause they're just raised for their meat and coat perhaps.

        1. re: mlgb

          Interestingly, the three-fish ceviche at Pescados Capitales -- perhaps the restaurant's signature dish -- was very spicy to Western tastes. I reckon this to be because the restaurant serves more wealthy Limeños than tourists. As for the restaurants in Cusco and Aguas Calientes, they were extremely touristy. I met one local repeat diner at Cicciolina, however, and the bartender at Incanto estimated that 10% of his restaurant's clientele are locals.

          It would be great if some CH'er would post about restaurants in Peru that serve traditional Peruvian cuisine. That said, I see no shame in eating nouveau pan-continental cuisine. And while most of the dishes I ate were clearly not traditional Peruvian, they nonetheless were dissimilar to what I have eaten elsewhere, and indeed were a culinary adventure.

          1. re: aventinus

            Here's the CH search for Peru if anyone is interested:

            http://search.chow.com/search?query=p...

            I know the place where we had chicharones and beer in Cusco was upstairs in a building on a side street and we were the only tourists. I remember there were two cops there. I remember we had a nice time even tho' our Spanish is deplorable :)

        2. I also just returned from a week in Peru -- and we ate at different places! I won't go into a lot of detail, but here are some highlights.

          By far my favorite place in Cusco was the restaurant at the MAP (the Museo Archeological Prehistorico, I think). The service was slow getting organized -- but the meal, oh, the meal...

          I started with the Khapchi, their signature dish. It's a kind of mushroom stew, w/puff pastry on the top. The waiter cut open the puff pastry to reveal a single red pepper on top of a lovely bright yellow stew decorated w/mushrooms. The mushrooms -- all local and fresh -- were rich and flavorful, and the sauce, made w/white wine and aji amarillo, I think -- was incredible. I couldn't get enough!

          I thought the khapchi was the best meal of my life...until the waiter brought the ceviche I ordered! Again, the presentation was stunning, a bright yellow sauce surrounding a hot rock in the middle of the bowl. The shrimps were delicate and perfectly cooked, and the sauce was citrusy -- you could definitely taste the lime, and maybe some orange, too.

          Of course I had dessert -- which was, again, amazing! I ordered Lucuma Kisses Done Five Ways -- a treatment featuring the local fruit in foam, syrup, candy and cookie format (plus one more). All of these treatments were wrapped up in a hard chocolate shell, w/coffee ice cream on the side. I *love* chocolate, and I *love* ice cream -- but to be honest, they were completely superfluous here. The highlight was the lucuma, which was SO lucious and rich. Amazing.

          All of this for $40 -- and a beautiful outdoor setting.

          In Lima, I ate at Restaurant Huaca Llana; great setting, good food.

          I have to say that I was kind of disappointed in the food I had at two of Gaston Acurio's restaurants (Chi Cha in Cusco, and Astrid y Gaston in Lima). Maybe I didn't order well -- I had a seafood appetizer that was incredible, but the rest didn't make me want to use exclamation points -- felt like the flavor was really kind of bland. Still, I think he's a great ambassador for Peru.

          And what a wonderful country! Not just for food, but for history, culture, and the people. A fabulous visit.

          1. Oh, also, another place that deserves to be mentioned: In Lima, El Ricon Que No Conosces (which translates as THe Corner No One Knows).

            Not at all fancy and well off the beaten path -- definitely worth seeking out.

            I was there on Saturday, July 17, and they were celebrating La Fiesta de Frijos (the festival of beans). Several long buffet tables, laden with 20 or 30 different kind of bean dishes. I thought that was plenty, but when I got back from the buffet, the server brought out a large plate w/meat, eggs, emanadas and more "to accompany the frijoles." The flavor on everything was incredible -- and what a fun, interesting variety of tasy dishes.

            The place was packed, mostly w/locals. The owner/chef came over during the meal to introduce herself and say hello, and I'm really glad she did. I was grateful for the opportunity to complement her and tell her how special the meal was.

            1. i had to laugh at your review: once i discovered cicciolina i started to eat there and nowhere else as well. best food i´ve had in peru over 5 weeks (including small dusty towns and tourist meccas). the only place i went that has a truly current food-lover´s sensibility...one gets the sense that the owner/chef has spent some time in new york or san francisco or another firstworld, first-city of food.

              ok, ok, go eat the alpacas and the cuys and broasted chickens, as i have and will continue, but when you need comforting with real good modern no old school food with a gringo bent, this may be my favorite for-the-foreigner restauruant in the world. their black tagliarini that you pointed out is an awesome dish. (too bad you just have to acknowledge the shrimp have travelled to get here, and take your chances). the onion soup is killer. the wines are well-selected. the service is if anything too-attentive.