Tag Archives: #Peru

Healthy Diplomat: Vegetarian Quinoto-stuffed peppers

Tired of boring old quinoa? Need new ideas for healthy entrees – vegetarian or not, or just an impressive side dish for guests? Try this Peruvian inspired delicious bell pepper stuffed with a goat cheese quinoa risotto, also known as quinoto. It is rich, yet light – typically under 300 calories per serving and a great alternative to traditional risotto.

At the end of my first trip to Peru a few years ago, I tried quinoto for the first time. The creamy quinoa dish was Peru’s answer to Italian risotto. It was velvety, nutty, and very heavy. 

  
Determined to make it at home, I transformed my typical quinoa pilaf into a lighter version with the addition of a few ounces of tangy chèvre. A small amount goes a long way and makes it taste far more decadent than it actually is. Lest you think it too light, the high protein, high fiber content in the quinoa, along with a full, sweet bell pepper gives it enough substance to really satisfy you – or your guests.

Tips: I prefer to use chicken broth if cooking for carnivores, but vegetable broth adds plenty of flavor and depth for vegetarians. 

  
Also, quinoa can be very messy. When rinsing (which removes the bitterness from the husks surrounding the seeds), F you don’t have a fine sieve, I like to line a sieve or colander with paper towel to ensure the seeds don’t escape, and then scrape the seeds off the paper towel. You’ll certainly lose a few, but fewer of them!

  
Not a fan of goat cheese? Try parmesan or cotija cheese for a similar texture – and different flavor.

The quinoto can be made in advance. Stuff the peppers, then tightly wrap and refrigerate overnight before baking.

  

Quinoto stuffed bell peppers


Servings=4
Difficulty=Easy

  • 4 large red, orange, or yellow bell peppers
  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1/4 c. dry white wine, optional
  • 1 Tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 c. Sun-dried tomatoes, julienned finely
  • 1/2 small red onion or 1/4 large red onion, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 1/2 c. Crimini or button mushrooms, washed and diced
  • 1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
  • 2 oz. chèvre cheese, plus additional for topping

Place the broth and quinoa in a 2 quart (medium) saucepan and bring to a boil over the stovetop. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, stirring every two minutes or so. Meanwhile, remove the caps, ribs, and seeds from each bell pepper. Set aside.

  
While the quinoa cooks, sautée the vegetables: Over medium heat, place about 1 Tbsp olive oil into a nonstick or cast iron skillet. Once the oil is hot, sautée the garlic and minced onion for about 4-5 minutes or until translucent. Add in the tomatoes and mushrooms. Sautée another 3-5 minutes or until the mushrooms have reduced in volume by about half. 

  
Remove from heat and set aside.
When the quinoa has absorbed all but a small amount of liquid, add in the wine if using and allow it to heat and evaporate. Next, stir in the vegetables until fully incorporated, over medium low heat. 

  
Fold the goat cheese into the quinoa mixture. Remove from heat. If serving immediately, preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

  
Stuff each pepper with roughly one cup of the quinoto, leveling off. Spread a few teaspoons of goat cheese atop the quinoto. Wrap each pepper in aluminum foil. If not serving immediately, refrigerate until approximately 45 minutes before serving; preheat oven to 400 degrees.

  
On a baking sheet – or placing the peppers upright in a large muffin tin – bake the peppers (covered) for 20 minutes. Remove the sheet/tin from the oven. Unwrap peppers and return to the oven for 10-15 more minutes. Remove them from the oven and cool for about 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with a garnish of roasted red pepper coulis and basil for drama! Disfrute!

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!

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.

  img_6189

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.

Pisco, national spirit of Peru…or is it?

If, for no other reason than as the namesake of the Pisco Sour, cocktail of (often upscale) Latin restaurants, you are probably familiar with pisco.  Many may associate the pisco sour with Peru.

But did you know that Chile produces, consumes, and imports more pisco than anywhere else? Fun fact: Pisco originated roughly at the same time in Peru as Chile in the 16th century.

So what is pisco, exactly? Pisco is yet another type of brandy made from grapes, and actually is made by distilling wine. So it then may make sense why Chile produces over 30 times as much pisco as Chile – they certainly have enough grapes around!

The difference is in Peru’s stricter control over pisco production. I won’t say it’s not an art in Chile – that would be ignorant of me, but pisco production is serious business in Peru. Specific varieties are created in reference to the variety of grapes used; only eight grape varieties, or a blend of those, are permitted. Peruvian pisco is distilled once from wine, while Chilean can be distilled multiple times.

In Peru, pisco puro is made from a single type of grape; Aromaticas are made from single uh, aromatic varieties of grape (e.g., Muscat or Italy). Acholado is a blend of any number or proportion of the eight grape varieties. Mosto Verde piscos are made from grapes that have not been allowed to ferment completely, which produces a sweeter product. Quebranta is both a type of non-aromatic Peruvian grape, distilled puro without blending, and it also is a primary grape blended in acholado versions. Muscatel and Torontel are both specific aromaticas, varietals made from grapes that connoisseurs characterize by lemon and floral notes, respectively.

While in Peru, it would have been helpful to have done this research before trying to buy pisco – both for a gift for friends and to bring to a Peruvian beach costume gala for Carnaval. Bring to a gala? Why yes, that was a surprise to me. With a gala-like ticket price, band, and setting, I was surprised that alcoholic drinks were strictly BYOB (bring your own beverage). So of course, I had to contribute. As the only non-Lima resident in our group, I wanted to avoid an amateur mistake by choosing the wrong kind of pisco for chilcanos.

Sidebar (but an important one at that): Many of you may not have tried a chilcano, but they are fantastic. Chilcanos commonly are made with pisco, ginger ale, and lime, though fancier, more complex versions exist. I’ve also seen them made with lemon-lime soda, but I prefer the ginger-pisco combination.

Chilcanos in Lima.

Chilcanos in Lima.

Anyway, I wished I knew pisco varieties before trying to purchase them. I was overwhelmed by the breadth of varieties and dearth of descriptions at a fairly tiny supermarket. I was too embarrassed to ask someone, though it wasn’t exactly the level of store with uber customer friendly staff to ask in the first place. So I chose a quebranta for the chilcanos and an acholado for a gift. Oops, so the puro quebranta was fine to mix, but the flavor wasn’t particularly memorable. They call it puro for a reason! It didn’t seem to matter. Our large group had several bottles to choose from and combination of sodas. We made piscolas (pisco-cola, what you’d expect from the name), chilcanos, and other concoctions based on what everyone brought. Varieties? Nobody complained; it was all good. It was a bit odd, though, to be squeezing limes and retrieving ginger ale from a cooler to make my own cocktails at an impressive gala. Yet it made for some great memories, as we won big for our group costume and danced to reggaeton, salsa, merengue, and other great music from a lively band.

An enchanted night under the sea for Carnaval, unofficially sponsored by pisco.

An enchanted night under the sea for Carnaval, unofficially sponsored by pisco.

I may not be able to weigh in to a discussion of who does pisco best – Peru or Chile, but I can definitively say that I’ve experienced firsthand that pisco is part of Peru’s cultural identity. The next time you see pisco on a drink menu, try a pisco sour or chilcano for a sip of Peru.

 

LIMO – creative nikkei fusion in Cusco

Nikkei is a Peruvian term for Japanese-Peruvian fusion. Peruvian harvest staples – such as corvina (bass), prawns, corn, potatoes, avocado, and tropical fruit – meet Japanese cooking styles. Typical nikkei fare includes tiraditos – basically Peruvian sashimi – in addition to sushi rolls that incorporate Peruvian ingredients, corn and potato causas topped with fresh seafood, and ceviches with Asian flavorings. Nikkei’s sister style is chifa – Peruvian-Chinese fusion, and its staple dish is “chaufa” – basically Latin chow fun.

While one might expect nikkei and chifa to be a safer bet near the Peruvian coast, I was impressed by landlocked Cuzco/Cusco’s LIMO. The restaurant’s name refers to the variety of aji (chili pepper) most often used in ceviches. Not surprisingly then, LIMO specializes in nikkei fare and premium Piscos. It also offers its own spin on chaufa, tuna tartare, and more traditional Andean dishes, like a contemporary presentation of cuy (guinea pig). Located just off of the Plaza de las Armas, the building’s colonial facade belies the restaurant’s modern decor and sleek red walls inside. This combination of architectural styles is fitting for the type of cuisine it serves.

Plaza  de las Armas

Plaza de las Armas

Our group was exhausted from a very long day of touring that took us from Urubamba in the Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley) to Macchu Pichu and back before continuing on to Cusco. At the end of that long day, we were grateful that our friend’s recommendation was still serving dinner after 10:30 pm. We were even more grateful that the food was excellent.

Our long day of touring  included beautiful  landscapes  like this one.  It's easy to see why Peruvian food is so delicious  - especially when you've worked up quite an appetite!

Our long day of touring included beautiful landscapes like this one. It’s easy to see why Peruvian food is so delicious – especially when you’ve worked up quite an appetite!

A group of 12 that included two vegetarian teenagers and their vegetarian mother, we equally raved about each dish. My friends’ menu choices included traditional Andean fried yucca (“roots of the jungle” as another restaurant translated into English) with huancaina sauce, alpaca steak, various tiraditos and sushi rolls, vegetarian ceviche, causas, and other delights. For my own meal, I chose alpaca carpaccio and a vegetarian sushi roll that contained asparagus, roasted peppers, and onions atop a sweet and tart maracuya (passion fruit) sauce. The carpaccio was my first – and not my last – taste of alpaca. I was shocked at its tenderness and mild flavor – less like venison than I expected, imperceptibly gamey. I chose a maracuya and chile Pisco sour to accompany it, and wow, was it a powerful drink. I’m sure the altitude of Cuzco had something to do with it, but one was more than enough, despite that it was one of the best I had.

One friend and another’s son took up the challenge to try one of Peru’s hottest chiles (aji). I can’t recall which variety it was, but it may have been a rocoto pepper. As they were of Texan and Indian heritage, respectively, both were more than ready for the challenge; however, the pepper was much more deadly than anticipated. I’m used to seeing reactions to spicy food, but their reactions were priceless. They were both on the verge of tears, as was I – though laughing at/with them. Not because I would do better, but for two self-proclaimed heat lovers to become so flummoxed by the pepper was entertaining. For the record, I was smart enough to know not to chance trying it.

Levity and spice challenges aside, the meal was no joke. We left ready to sleep and fortified for another day of high altitude touring of Cuzco and adjacent Incan ruins. I highly recommend Limo. Though I may have had more critically acclaimed nikkei in sushi in Lima, LIMO’s creativity and balance between tradition and innovation made it one of my most memorable Peruvian meals.

View. of Cusco from  surrounding hills

View of Cusco from surrounding hills

Gaston Acurio, Peru’s famous culinary diplomat

Who is Gaston Acurio? If you are Peruvian, travel throughout South America, or read The Washington Post (USA), Wall Street Journal (USA), or Telegraph (UK), you may have heard about Gaston, the Peruvian celebrity chef and restauranteur known to most by only his first name.

Parisian Le Cordon Bleu trained, Gaston has become the emissary of Peruvian haute cuisine, expanding his culinary empire of more than 40 restaurants northward and east – through South, Central, and North America, and even to Europe. Gaston is helping elevate non Peruanas’ experience with Peruvian cuisine beyond the fast-food pollo a la brasa (roast chicken) chains encircling the globe like kudzu vines through a neighborhood. I have nothing against pollo a la brasa. I just believe there’s just so much more depth and sophistication to Peruvian cuisine than one great hangover meal. The concepts of Gaston’s restaurants vary widely (including, yes, pollo a la brasa) to high-end anticuchos, to French-Peruvian fusion at flagship restaurant Astrid y Gaston – the latter of which is named for both the chef and his German-born wife. What unites each of these establishments (at least the ones within Peru) is their farm-to-table local sourcing and a clear focus on Peru’s agricultural bounty and cultural traditions.

To illustrate the influence and impact of Gaston, I’d like to share my experiences with three of Gaston’s restaurants: two in Lima and one in Cuzco. While none of them vaulted to the top of my list (see my last post for the winner, Danica), I enjoyed each experience. Unfortunately, I managed to save no photos, so you’ll have to trust my word pictures and links to their websites to help you explore further. Gaston’s passion is evident in each. I look forward to trying Gaston’s North American La Mar franchises closer to home, such as the Mandarin Oriental in Miami. My guess, though, is that Gaston’s food tastes best closest to the source – in Peru. I hope that any of you reading have the opportunity to taste Peruvian cuisine at its best.

Panchita
If I walked into Panchita with no prior information, I would instantly recognize in its decor and ambiance the masculine signatures of a sleek, modern steakhouse: tan woods, slate-grey stone walls, oversized, rough-hewn dining tables, water features, etc. Panchita specializes in grilled meats, particularly anticuchos, which are traditionally skewered meats (think kebabs). Everything I tried of my colleagues’ varied orders was executed well. If you want to get real, try the anticuchos de corazon – yep, hearts – a Peruvian delicacy, though not particularly memorable to me. I grilled octopus, which was a first for my seafood picky self. I will admit that this octopus was perfectly cooked – flavorful, not a bit rubbery or fishy. Had my mind been able to move past the the concept of eating tentacles, I would have ordered it myself. But alas, even a year later, I just cannot rid my mind of the turn-off knowing I ate something with its own suction cups. I played it tame myself with grilled steak brochettes with vegetables, and one of the best Pisco sours I’ve had. Panchita was definitely a top 10 meal for me in Lima.

La Mar
La Mar was my favorite Gaston experience and probably my #2 restaurant in all of Peru. From their addictive sweet potato and plantain chips served with a variety of house-made salsas to a delicate take on the traditional causas (somewhat of a mashed potato-polenta hybrid with various meat toppings) to the stars that were their perfectly tart and spicy ceviches, La Mar brought out the sea and seafood lover in me. Since I’m allergic to shellfish, my ceviche options are a bit limited, but an Asian Nikkei ceviche with tuna was a generous portion that I promptly devoured. It was a great lunch after which dinner had no choice but to be anticlimactic.

Chicha
High amidst the Andes, at the intersection of Incan imperial and Spanish colonial history, Cuzco is Peru’s cultural capital and the perfect backdrop for Gaston’s homage to the biodiversity that is Andean cuisine. Named for a traditional, fermented corn-based beverage, Chicha’s menu basically is divided by habitat or province of origin (del agua, de la tierra, de la pais – from the water, land, the country, etc.). My friends seized on the opportunity to try Andean trucha, or trout, as well as ceviches. I was going for a light meal that day, so regrettably, my Chi Cha experience was limited to a hearty vegetarian minestrone soup made with quinoa instead of pasta and topped with pesto. For dessert, we passed around bite size delicacies that included alfajores – sandwich cookies usually filled with dulce de leche. Unfortunately, our schedule was tight, so our experience was a bit of a whirlwind that did not give us the time to savor each bite.

Gaston’s passion is evident in each one. I look forward to trying Gaston’s North American La Mar franchises closer to home, such as the Mandarin Oriental in Miami. My guess, though, is that Gaston’s food tastes best closest to the source – in Peru. I hope that any of you reading have the opportunity to taste Peruvian cuisine at its best.