Monthly Archives: May 2016

Bouchon Bistro: The French Laundry’s more accessible sister pulls its weight

If you are a resident or visitor to San Francisco or New York, you’ve probably heard of Bouchon Bakery. If you are a foodie anywhere, you at least have a passing familiarity with the name The French Laundry. You might not pay much attention to its sister restaurant, Bouchon Bistro – unless, of course, you’ve had the pleasure of visiting its Beverly Hills or Las Vegas incarnations. And that’s a shame. Because Bouchon is exceptional, yet (relatively) accessible French comfort food that shines in its own right.

Scoring a reservation at chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry is a distant dream of mine. The restaurant has been labeled America’s best restaurant by some. Their prix fixe menus and wine pairings are the stuff of legend. Strategy (and a willingness to fork over a premium for their pricy meals) is critical. And too much effort for me thus far.

But after an acquaintance in the restaurant industry claimed that Bouchon Bistro was his favorite restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, I knew I needed to try it. So I booked a Thursday night reservation for three people – two weeks in advance, mind you. So let that be a reminder to make reservations well in advance!

Bouchon is located about 15 minutes’ drive north of the city of Napa in the quaint (but very bourgeoisie) town of Yountville. Yountville must have one of the highest concentrations of fine restaurants per capita in all of the U.S. Though options are plentiful, tourists and locals flock to Bouchon Bakery by day and, the fortunate few, to adjacent Bouchon Bistro by night.

  
Walking through its unassuming entrance, one immediately is transported from California to France, with deep red hued walls, classic (but classy) French decor to include an antique clock, and the obligatory chalk menu board (for specials). A knotted Bouchon Bakery baguette awaits diners as they are seated, as does an extensive cocktail and wine list with an abundance of good French and Californian wines. But the daily special red wine “by the carafe” is a great deal. We paid $50 for 1 L of California Cabernet Sauvignon, which by French bistro standards for house wines would be ridiculous, but by fancy American standards was a more than decent wine for a decent price.

  
We devoured our baguette with wine as we awaited our appetizer – escargots. This appetizer was delightful – the snails removed from their shells, drowned in mini pots of garlic and parsley butter, and topped with possibly the world’s tiniest puff pastries to help soak up the butter. I missed having the shells as part of the presentation, but not for long once I tasted them. They were well cooked and not at all tough, and the garlic butter was in perfect balance.

  
In lieu of a main course, one of my friends and I decided to order each a salad and a starter. But these weren’t just any run of the mill dishes; they are my two favorite French standards, each with Bouchon’s interpretation. The traditional salade chèvre chaud took a lighter touch than the oft overdressed French version. Instead of pungent, double creme goat cheese, Bouchon used a single medallion of a more crumbly, young Californian cheese. While I prefer the texture of a melting double creme, Bouchon’s salad was a delicate revelation.

  
And the appetizer? Foie gras, of course. Foie gras is easy to do poorly. Did I expect mediocrity? No, but the precision with which the smooth, intense portion of foie gras was seared, paired with a single stick of savory pain perdu (French toast) expertly battered and seared, married with a sweet-tart rhubarb coulis was mind-blowing. It is the second-best version of foie gras I’ve ever tasted (read about the best here!).

  
Our other friend ordered steak frites, and we swiped more than a few shoestring fries from the heap that accompanied the juicy meat.

  
We couldn’t resist dessert, so we all shared the most unique offering: a rhubarb Napoleon with tart creme fraiche ice cream. It was a wonderful combination: fruit and cream, sweet and tart, with a hint of pastry.

Though our reservation came at the end of the night, our service was on point, as fresh and hospitable as if we were the evening’s first guests. Whether you choose to visit Bouchon for a romantic evening, a celebration, or simply to share in the joy of French cuisine with a hint of California, you will not leave disappointed.

Costanera 700: A hidden gem for the best of Peruvian-Japanese seafood fusion in Lima

The best of Peru’s Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian fusion) is evident at Costanera 700. A wide selection of seafood dishes combine Peru’s love of exquisite cooking with the flavors of Japan, China, and Southeast Asia.

When I spent a full month in Lima, Peru a few years ago, I was impressed with Lima’s restaurant scene. From its celebrity chef-produced stars to family-owned chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) fast food establishments, Lima does not lack in an abundance of fantastic food. I knew I had more restaurants to try, but I was reluctant not to revisit my favorites to try something new. But a lovely lunch at Costanera 700 convinced me that I have barely scratched the surface of Lima’s great cuisine.

 

View of the Miraflores coastline about 3/4 km south of Costanera 700 on the Malecon

 
Costanera 700 is no tourist restaurant. With its entrance almost hidden from the busy Avenida del exercito, one must be on a mission to find it. Inside, it reminds me of a 1980s Manhattan restaurant with sleek, dark formality (I mean that only in the best sense). Look around and find well-heeled locals – both the business lunchers and families, savoring a multi-course meal, often sharing family-style.

  
I ordered tuna ceviche, Costanera style – marinated with spicy peppers and red onion in soy sauce and olive oil. I couldn’t find anything critical about it and savored every bite with a glass of Sauvignon blanc. 

  
My friends ordered one of the restaurant’s house specialties, Chita a la sal. Chita is a rock-dwelling, firm white fish. In this preparation, the entire fish is roasted in salt, then deboned and served tableside with a garlic and ginger melted butter. This level of showmanship is necessary for a fish that grand. I tried it myself, and it was perhaps the most tender cooked fish I’ve ever had.

  
Their son went for the chaufas, wok fried rice, from which he chose the mariscos (seafood version).

The overwhelming menu offers almost every fathomable preparation of fish, shellfish, calamari, and others. If steak is your fancy, never fear; you can have yours and eat it too! Had I dined with a larger group, I would have relished the opportunity to try more of Costanera 700’s bounty. All the more reason to revisit it whenever I make it back to Peru!

Apres-surf cuisine in Punta Hermosa, Peru

Where and what do Peruvian surfers (and their friends!) eat after long rides down El Pico Alto? Find out here!

I consider it the ultimate privilege to have been let into a secret few but the most worldly of surfers or locals know: the gem that is the area surrounding the Pacific seaside town of Punta Hermosa, Peru. I sincerely hope my friends don’t wish me ill for sharing a few great spots with you.

Though technically it is not even 40 km (around 25 miles) from the center of Lima, sleepy Punta Hermosa feels a world away from the extreme traffic and congestion of Lima. For comparison, driving between the two is somewhat like driving from Pasadena to Malibu in the Los Angeles, California metropolitan area (time wise, with arguably better traffic conditions in LA. Those who know LA traffic know just how insane this comparison is. Worse traffic? Lima is the equivalent of a mass of people in the boarding line at an airport elbowing each other out of the way. Physical contact happens regularly. But I digress…)

   
  Hence a daily drive to Lima for dinner and drinks is not the greatest idea if you choose to visit Punta Hermosa. The area, moreover, has only a couple of hotels, which most international travelers would find more like a hostel and not up to typical standards. Instead, if you’d like to visit as a foreigner, check out AirBnb, especially during low season (remember: summer in the Southern Hemisphere is December to March) for a long weekend getaway. Many houses or condominiums are rented by their owners, and many are configured to accommodate large or multiple families vacationing. During summer months, families often rent units for the entire summer, so availability is limited and prices are much higher. Early fall is a good time to visit.

  

 Lounging by the beach (remaining mindful of the equatorial sun), stand up paddle boarding, surfing, and ATV riding are popular pastimes – and the latter is a key mode of transportation around the dusty roads encircling the beaches north of town. Cooling off with a cold Cusqueña or Trujillo beer – especially paired with some chips de camote (sweet potato chips) or Habas (dried, fried fava beans, my personal favorite) is a great antidote to the tiring sun. If you’re lounging at Playa Caballeros during summer months, a small beachside stand offers fresh oysters, by which my friends swear (oysters are not my jam, so I can’t attest).

Our group enjoying Cusqueña quinoa beer at Marcelo Sea Food waiting for our ceviches

So what does one eat? In the mid-afternoon, surfers flock to Marcelo Sea Food in Playa Señoritas for fresh ceviches and tiraditos made to order from seafood caught that morning by Marcelo himself. I have eaten there many times, and each time, the corvina (sea bass) and lenguado (sole) ceviche is perfect, firm and tart, not fishy. Though you’ll wait a bit for your food, pass the time with oyster and scallop appetizers and Cusquena’s earthy (and gluten free!) quinoa beer. Ocean to table doesn’t get more direct than that!

 

Two custom pizza halves – mushrooms, basil, bleu cheese, and more

 
For dinner, Tio Richi’s pizzeria is a must. With a beachy, tiki hut-like ambiance, their pizzas are unexpectedly delicious. They offer an impressive array of toppings, from bleu cheese (queso azul), fresh basil (albahaca), and prawns (langostinos) to leeks and corn. But their specialty pizzas shoudn’t be missed, either. Their seafood pizza is like a creamy shrimp scampi on flatbread.

 

Lomo Saltado pizza (rear left) and seafood pizza (lower right)

   
But best of all is the lomo saltado pizza, which converts Peru’s national dish into an interesting and flavorful pizza. Soy-marinated beef, peppers, and onions combined with cheese? The seemingly discordant flavors marry exceptionally well and make it difficult to stop after a slice…or two… Paired with Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, I could eat the lomo saltado pizza every day.

For a more upscale pizza experience, Moana Restobar is a classy, open air restaurant right on the sand at Playa Caballeros. By night, it becomes a bustling nightclub with DJs or live music and a wide array of cocktails you wouldn’t expect outside of Lima.

If you look hard enough (and ask around), you can find plenty of other hidden gems, especially along the Antigua Panamericana Sur towards Lurin and on the way to and from the Panamericana Sur freeway. The road is lined with restaurants, some of which locals will dismiss, but a few even taxi drivers from Lima will point out enthusiastically.

But the best meals perhaps are those made at home. If you’re staying in a rented home, you likely are perfectly equipped for a DIY barbecue or ceviche. Numerous markets in the area sell fresh, ripe produce – palta (avocados), choclo (Indian corn), papaya, mangoes, bananas, chirimoya, and more. Wait, chiri-what? you ask? Chirimoya was a new discovery for me on this trip, when a beach hawker stopped by our rental home and our landlord decided I must try it. Large and green on the outside, the flesh is almost snowy white, studded with large, black seeds that must be picked out. It is incredibly soft, sweet and juicy, its flavors seemed to me like a cross between pear and papaya. I wish we had it in the US. My friends tell me you can find a similar fruit in India, but the South American version is superior, so they say.

My perfect breakfast (desayuno perfecto) was homemade: fresh, soft brown bread spread with creamy, mashed avocado and slices of salty queso fresco. Ultra-sweet, Orange-hued mango added a sweet counterpoint. Words can’t describe how good the Peruvian mango was. Sigh, another item that is hard to find in the U.S. Our mangoes are dull, hard, and lifeless in comparison.

In past visits to the town, I’ve had incredible homemade ceviche and helped grill steak, chicken, and vegetables that somehow taste better grilled in the salt-tinged ocean air. Assuming you wash your produce correctly, I can think of few better ways to experience the bounty of Peru and the majesty of the Pacific.

Have I put any grand ideas about a trip to Peru and visit to Punta Hermosa in your mind? It is truly a special place for so many locals and their friends – and certainly for me. If you do visit, please do your part to be a respectful guest and keep it spectacular!

My friends’ grande y loca Peruvian wedding

La hora loca, Peruvian causas and tiraditos, Pisco sours, Fernet Branca and cola, quinoa salad, and a dessert table piled high with chocolates and sweets laced with condensed milk, all set against the backdrop of a Pacific sunset: Those were highlights from a memorable CD moments from a truly grand Peruvian-Argentinian wedding.

Does the title of this post sound familiar? You’re not seeing double; in this post, I’ll share a wonderful cultural experience: a multicultural Argentinian-Peruvian wedding at a Peruvian beach. Breaking bread with people from other countries or cultures certainly helps bring people together, but sharing in a marriage ceremony – breaking bread, cake, and dancing – is another level altogether.

Five years ago, I met a brave Peruvian soul who dared to venture to the US for an all-English language graduate program. His optimism and wicked sense of humor helped our team forge a strong bond during our two-year program. Two years ago, during that group’s first post-graduation reunion in Peru, I met his girlfriend (now wife), a poised Argentinian woman with an adventurous spirit. This great couple, M&M, guided me through a subsequent month in Peru shortly thereafter. It was only after my recent journey back to Peru for their wedding that I truly appreciated their constant assistance and impeccable English skills.


M&M are fortunate to live on the beach outside of Lima, Peru. The slower pace of a surf town is the perfect setting for a for a wedding. While I expected a laid-back affair similar to American beach weddings or destination weddings, the actual wedding was an unexpected mix of the formal and informal; traditional and contemporary; Peruvian and Argentinian.


The one-hour traditional Catholic ceremony was performed in a quaint seaside church. What it lacked in grandeur one would find in a cathedral, it made up for in charm with pastel peach stucco walls and simple adornments – and a jovial priest suited well for a town renowned for surfing. The wedding guests added variety and color. The men almost uniformly wore full, dark-colored suits, while the Peruvian and Argentinian women contrasted in a range of styles and bright colors reflective of the formal Peruvian and more casual Argentinian approaches to weddings. One problem, no, two: 1-the service was en español and 2-the church had no air conditioning. I know enough Spanish to be dangerous and attempt to figure out what was said – enough to make my brain hurt!


We proceeded to the reception site, an oceanfront club. Assorted chilled beers and Spanish Cava awaited us. A nearby table was piled high with a stunning display of imported cheeses (from Manchego and Parmesan to Brie and bleu), breads, fresh and dried fruit, exotic marmalades and charcuterie.

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Upon the bride and groom’s arrival, a second – and significantly shorter – legal wedding ceremony took place at the beach club. Immediately following the signing of the municipal marriage certificate, the bride and groom began their flawless first dance, their parents entering and exiting the dance with smooth choreography. And the fiesta thus began: hour upon hour of continuous music and dancing ensued.

Passed hors d’oeurves satisfied the dancing guests’ hunger until the buffet opened two hours later. Traditional Peruvian favorites, such as causas de cangrejo (a Peruvian specialty consisting of puréed or mashed potatoes filled or topped with seafood – in this case, cangrejo, or crab); brochettes (skewers) of lomo (beef), topped with a vanilla and Aguaymanto chutney; a white fish tiradito (ceviche without onion); shrimp tempura; tuna tartare; stuffed mushrooms; and other small bites to help offset the ample bar.


The bar’s offerings were representative of the bride and groom’s heritage. Peruvian Pisco cocktails – the well-known Pisco Sour and the Chilcano contrasted with the Fernet Branca provided for the Argentinians to mix with cola (a combo really only Argentinians would love! Kidding, sort of!) Argentinian Chardonnay and Malbèc wines represented the great reputation of Argentina’s wine country, particularly Mendoza. For me, it was a surreal moment when I, an American, explained the Chilcano to an Argentinian guest. Chilcanos – traditionally a combination of Pisco, ginger ale, lime juice and Amaro bitters – have a special place in my heart and memories of my previous trips to Peru. #honoraryPeruvian #Groanhashtag!

With so much drinking and dancing, a full meal was a requirement. The main buffet featured international foods – crab and cheese ravioli, Camembert and caramelized onion tart, roast beef, salmon, cold quinoa pilaf, and ensalada Huerta peruana (a Peruvian succotash of Lima bean, artichoke, corn and cheese salad) were hearty enough to sustain my – I mean everyone else’s – dancing.


I knew that the two dessert tables would be my own weakness. Beautifully molded chocolate truffles, marzipan, condensed milk bonbons, and dark and white chocolate and hazelnut pyramids were spread artfully, mingled with various puddings, including lucuma mousse (read my post from last week for more in lucuma) and a suspiro de limón – a light custard bearing the distinct caramel sweetness of condensed milk and a hint of lime, and topped with merengue. The suspiro was a bit too sweet for my tastes, so I could not finish it. But I was in chocolate heaven otherwise – especially pairing gran marnier truffles with a bit of Malbèc.

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The food and drink were wonderful, but the truly memorable experience of the night was La Hora Loca (Crazy Hour), a Peruvian tradition. For us Americans and Argentinians, it was a wondrous novelty. Allow me to explain. Every couple picks a surprise theme, and colorful props, masks, and music turn a party into a fantasy.

This Hora Loca’s theme was appropriate – beach and surf. The hour began with the launch of confetti cannons to the song “Wipeout”. A parade of costumes – a shark, a surfer, and others came out. Shark hats, plastic flower headbands, beach balls, princess wands, and other props suddenly appeared on and in the hands of the crowd. A retro conga line materialized to the sounds of the Beach Boys. The mood, already up tempo, became light, like cotton candy. I couldn’t help but see this moment as a reenactment of Katy Perry’s Super Bowl 49 halftime show in 2015 (does anyone remember the dancing sharks?). I mentioned that resemblance later to the bride and groom, and the blank looks on their faces indicated that was a happy coincidence. Nevertheless, this fantasy environment brought three countries and regional cultures together. Levity, music, and dance were our common language.

Lest anyone think La Hora Loca was the reception’s grand finale, the party was at that time closer to its infancy. While I couldn’t make it much past midnight, I heard the party continued until almost 3 am – a commonality in South America. It’s a far cry from the structured 3-4 hour blocks of the typical U.S. reception venue.

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It was a truly memorable cultural exchange for me and a perfect celebration of life and love between two of my dearest friends!

Huana Pucllana: Where archaeology, and fine dining meet in Lima

The CD finally traveled outside the US again, and you reap the benefits! Today, we travel (back) to Lima, Peru, arguably the food capital of the Andean community of South America, for an impeccable experience dining at the Incan ruins of Huana Pucllana.

“Napa and Sonoma need a break,” my father texted me after reading last week’s post. Well, I have to agree. After a year of no travel outside the USA, I have to admit this blog has bored even me. I needed to get back to this blog’s roots with real international food and travel experiences. So when I traveled recently back to Peru for a wedding (more on that in a coming post!), I took copious notes and photos. I look forward to sharing a few of these experiences with you.

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Many museums may take pride in their in-house restaurants or cafes, but few – if any others – can boast that the artifacts become backdrop for a spectacular meal and attentive service as can Huana Pucllana, an indoor-outdoor restaurant set amidst Incan ruins.

 
Huana Pucllana, in the heart of Lima, Peru’s coastal Miraflores department, would be ranked as one of Lima’s top restaurants in its own right, but surrounded by intricate, ziggurat-like structures and ongoing archaeological dig sites, it gives the diner a glimpse into native Peru. Having reached the 35th anniversary of the initial excavation of the site, the project remains a work in progress, but it would be difficult to improve upon the restaurant’s Peruvian dishes.I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Huaca Pucllana twice in a two-year period, and both visits exceeded my expectations.

  
The dining room includes a fully enclosed area and a larger, canopied outdoor dining space perfect for large parties of business colleagues l, tourists, and celebrating locals alike. At night, the ruins are well lit and provide a dramatic backdrop to food worthy of such a setting. 

  
Their Pisco Sour is a perfect aperitif to start an evening. To start the meal, the restaurant has two pages of smaller starters and larger appetizers (first courses).

 

fried ceviche with fried onions and pureed camote (sweet potato), along with canchita (fried Indian corn)

 
On this second visit, we tried the fried ceviche. That dish is exactly as it sounds: tender fish “cooked” in a citrus marinade, coated with a thin layer of breading, and then deep fried, topped with fried red onion, and accompanied by sweet potato puree and canchitas (dried/fried Indian corn). It was surprisingly light, not greasy, and tender inside without a hint of acrid fishiness. It put any other fried fish to shame. 

 

traditional Peruvian causas

 
Other starters include corn croquettes, potato and seafood causas (photo below), traditional ceviche, and more. If you’re feeling more adventurous, try the chicharron de cuy (Guinea pig – yep, that Guinea pig), an Andean specialty.

  
Its wine list featured an impressive selection of South American wines – even those from Peru (not known for its wines, as most grapes are grown for Pisco – you can read more about Pisco in a previous CD post here), but more extensively, from Chile and Argentina. We selected a 2013 Malbèc from producer Terrazas de los Andes for our meal.

  
For my main course, I couldn’t turn down the alpaca steak, a rare delicacy I cannot find outside of the Andean community. For those who have never heard of or tried alpaca meat, think of it as the llama’s smaller cousin. While llama meat more resembles pork in color and texture, alpaca is a more tender red meat, more like rare beef or non-gamey venison. Most of you probably have not had access to either meat, but if you have the opportunity, try a medium rare to rare alpaca steak. It is tender and inoffensively meaty. The steak was served simply with a mushroom au jus reduction and a small, airy corn soufflé. I’m fairly certain that I also ordered the alpaca on my first visit, but I vaguely recall that it may have been served with a barley risotto instead of the corn soufflé.

 

Peru’s signature dish, lomo saltado

 
One of my friends chose Peru’s (and Huana Pucllana’s) signature dish: Lomo saltado. This dish consists of strips of beef steak, sautéed with tomatoes, red bell pepper, and onion in oil and soy sauce. As is typical, is served with both French fries and white rice. Why two starches? The carb overload boggles my mind. Huana Pucllana’s is one of Peru’s best renditions, its steak far more tender and flavorful than in most restaurants.

 

aji gallena

 
Another friend ordered aji gallena, another Peruvian specialty. Essentially it is a mildly spicy chicken stew, resembling yellow curry in appearance but not flavor. Its thick aji Amarillo (yellow) sauce is more sweet and creamy than one might expect. In some restaurants, that flavor is almost single-noted, but it is far more complex at Huana Pucllana.

 

a very adult main course for a nine-year-old

 
My friends’ relatively adventurous son ordered an adult main course of pork belly over stir-fried rice, a nod to Peru’s Chinese chifa” (also known as “chaufa”) culinary fusion.

The menu offers so many more tempting main dishes, including fish, beef, duck, pastas, and vegetarian options. It would take many visits for me to try everything I wanted to try.

  
With a tantalizing menu of postres (desserts), I couldn’t turn down what I did two years before. We ordered two desserts for the table. The first was a dark chocolate “truffle bar” (more like a slightly less sweet brownie) topped with lucuma mousse and served with a side of homemade chocolate sauce (similar to but less thick than that served with churros). Sidebar: Lucuma, in my opinion, is a fascinating fruit. It has the smoothness and texture of pumpkin but almost as if that pumpkin had a hint of vanilla or floral character. I absolutely love it paired as a delicate, cool counterpoint to chocolate. 

 

a trio of dessert pots (from left to right): rice pudding, lemon suspiro, and chocolate-lucuma mousse

 
In fact, our second dessert was a trio of dessert pots (literally served in miniature flower pots) and included a lucuma-chocolate parfait. A subtly lemon-flavored suspiro (custard made with condensed milk) was served atop the slightest bit blink-and-miss, fluffy cake and topped with merengue comprised the second pot. The third was rice pudding flavored heavily with cinnamon and vanilla. He three pots would have been enough for the four of us, but we would have lost out on unique flavor combinations had we not ordered both desserts.

I had a short window during which to dine in Lima on this visit, but I was more than happy to have made a return visit to the lovely and historic Huana Pucllana.