I started writing this post but couldn’t get it to feel right so I stepped away only to repeat a few times. You see, I felt like I was bitching too much in my last post about my experience at Central. That post felt like a review, and that’s not what I want this forum to be. I’m here to talk about the food, but more importantly the culture that it represents, the people that make it, the people that enjoy it and how that all ties together. So today I will share with you three more dining experiences that all add up to a better understanding of Perú.
First off, only because it fell on the calendar sooner, I want to walk you through the experience of Maido. Then I’ll share the revelations I had dining in the cutting room of the Osso butcher shop. Both of these restaurants are on the Top 50 list (I need to dedicate a whole post to the absurdity of the thought behind this) along with a half dozen or so others in Lima. Lastly I’ll wrap it up with a lunch at Huerta Chinén, a restaurant that could care less about being the top of any list other than their customers favorites.
But first, we have to understand a bit of how Lima has become the hotbed of cuisine that it is known for these days. We have to understand how in 600 years or so, through wars and battles, hostile invasions by Europeans and more, the city of Lima has become a metropolis of close to 10 million people with visitors from all over the world. Most of those visitors come to Perú to visit Macchu Picchu, and I’m writing this post from the second largest tourist attraction in the country. A mall…
That’s right, I’m sitting in a mall after having just devoured half of a roast chicken while looking out at the Pacific at one of the city’s popular chains. In the last week I also saw the town square where the city started and the only remaining piece of the original, the angel that tops the center of the fountain, still proudly stands. Turn to the right and there’s the presidential palace that I am very surprised to see you can walk up and touch from the outside. Try to do that at the White House… Turn around and there lies the Catedral de Lima, where it turns out they had been showcasing a tomb thought to be the founder of the city for centuries, until they found the real remains of Pizarro in the 70’s. Oops!
And today while walking the city after lunch it all started to come together for me. Reading about the tomb mixup, then seeing the cathedral and visiting the Basilica de San Francisco (1), riding in an uber for over an hour through ridiculous traffic to dine in a butcher shop, eating more raw fish than should be possible at a new age Japanese place and lunch at a comically small table in a bustling market over plate of rice. I started to realize why Central goes through the effort of digging up all of these rare and interesting ingredients from around the country.
They do it to showcase a whole ecosystem of food that needs to be preserved. They do it because the world needs to know what Perú is, past a collection of immigrants that landed here for one reason or another. It started with the Spanish, of course. Looking for gold, of course. But over 600 years there have been Asian immigrants (2), more Europeans that brought African slaves and eventually all sorts of nationalities in the 20th century. Just like the remains of Pizarro, the real treasure is right there hiding in plain sight. Past the many centuries of invasions and occupation lie the very ingredients that sustained the life of the invaders and natives alike. I still think Central could do a better job of sharing that experience, but I now have a better understanding of why they do it. Or at least my guess.
We start on a normal looking corner in Miraflores District at Maido. Again a restaurant with no need for a big sign. In fact I may have walked past it if one of the group wasn’t standing there waiting for us. Their reputation warrants people knowing that the queue at the door is the place you’re supposed to be. After a bit of a let down at the previous “fancy place” I was careful not to look into the menu or reviews of Maido before we dined in an effort to make sure I was coming at the meal without too many expectations.
We were lucky enough to sit in a private room upstairs, with what seemed like a whole team of servers attending to us. After a bit of discussion over wine and sake choices, we let the server lead the meal and handed over our menus. (4) What followed was nothing short of amazingly flavorful and well curated plates of mostly seafood and a welcomed piece of meat or the like thrown in here and there. What struck me the most was the temperature at which everything was served. The sashimi was just warm enough to let the fats melt on your tongue, the rice in the nigiri held together perfectly yet the starches coating each grain were quickly dissolved when they hit your mouth. Toro, salmon and silverfish sashimi, more toro and salmon nigiri along with the most perfect scallop topped with uni sauce, a dumpling of sea snail and squid ink, chestnut crusted cod with miso whipped potatoes, 50 hour slow cooked beef short rib, festivals of chocolate on plates and a dessert ceviche with nitro frozen tangerine and ahi macarons.
By far the best sushi/nikkei experience I have had yet. And it makes sense that it is with centuries of Japanese residents bringing their ingredients and style to the cuisine. Pair that with the proximity to the ocean and their love for raw fish and it’s a match made in heaven. Great ingredients in the hands of a chef eager to share his heritage, wise enough to include some local flair in his design, but thoroughly Japanese in style and attitude. To me sushi is about finding the perfect ingredients and serving them with precision which this restaurant does superbly.
Back in Argentina while I was searching for dining options here in Lima (always good to plan ahead!) I came across Osso. The story immediately intrigued me as the founder/chef/butcher had traveled the world to cut meat, cook and learn about doing both in a sustainable fashion. He’s worked in meat market in the US that I enjoy visiting even! I saw an option on the website for the “mesa de carnicero”, or butcher’s table, and fired off an email to get it set up.
After way too long of a car ride through traffic the driver pulled over at a tiny little building on a one way street that ran behind a huge chain grocery store. Outside, a big lit up sign for Osso on a red and black building. Inside, it’s big enough for four or five folks to shop for their goods, with cases surrounding three sides of the little open space there is. One wall of sausages, salumi and other charcuterie curing in cabinets, the other two walls with service cases holding the fresh stuff. Along the back and behind the little cutting table, a wall of dry curing cabinets with neatly labeled primal cuts of beef and pork. I was delighted, and then puzzled. Where is the table? Our group of twelve huddled around, also looking puzzled, as we waited a few minutes for them to arrange the table. Our server Ivan, whom is also a butcher, greeted us and briefly told the story of the place and a bit about where they get their beef. Spoiler alert, it’s California… more on that in a minute.
We follow him back to the cutting room of the shop where a giant maple topped table sits proudly in the center. A grinder, sausage suffer and other meat processing equipment all shiny and new looking line the walls. Two big lights shine brightly on the table and the array of salt cured goodness that makes up the first course. I was first impressed by the cleanliness, and then the lack of smell. It’s not that a butcher shop smells bad, but they tend to have a distinct aroma to them. Osso clearly scrubs each and every corner on a daily basis as the room was only filled with the smell of wood smoke. The rear wall was floor to ceiling glass separating the huge fire roaring away on the parilla from the dining area/cutting room/wine bar. I share all of this as the butcher shop turned restaurant purposely set itself apart from the others immediately. I could see a bit of the American big city influence here with a bit more showmanship and grandeur added to what would otherwise be a simple butcher shop.
After we plowed through the charcuterie and chatted about what we though would come based on the menu, Ivan proceeded to wow us with plate after plate of meat. Smoked bacon, bacon jam, a miniature take on eggs benedict, a tiny hot dog, a slider, steak tartare that we ate with our fingers to make it even more primal, a charcoal rubbed picanha followed by a 21 day dry aged wagyu strip steak that he let me cook directly in the raging coals of the fire before giving it a sprinkle of Peruvian Sal de Maras, a whole roasted pigs head served with the best tortillas I’ve had since Mexico last year. Finally, a trifle of meringue with strawberries, lardo and a caramel made of pork fat. A literal feast of delicious and perfectly prepared meats, each served in a way that heightened the enjoyment of the cut and the thought put into curating the meal.
And as for curating, all of the beef came from the US. Snake River Farms wagyu from Idaho and Angus from California. Both shipped fresh all the way to Perú to dry age in a little meat market. You see, out of all the cultures that flourish here none of them brought ranching. Plus, with a country that’s either desert, jungle or the Andes there isn’t much room to raise cattle. I did find it interesting that they weren’t using Argentinean beef, though I’m not sure the higher end clientele of this shop would prefer it over the highly marbled beef of the US. Along with the charcuterie style and accouterment throughout the menu it was clear that this restaurant wanted to showcase the lusciousness brought together in American beef matched with Italian and French technique.
Finally, the little known hole in the wall spot buried inside a bustling market known as Mercado Dos in the slightly sketchy and less polished neighborhood of Surquillo. Geographically close to Miraflores and its high rise condos to the south, San Isidro with posh apartments and country clubs to the West, but vastly different in terms of color and culture as soon as you cross the expressway into Surquillo. Mercado Uno, the big brother of Mercado Dos, sits just close enough to the edge of the district to attract many more tourists and therefore the latter has just enough of that extra grit that I enjoy. Inside is a group of six stalls known as Huerta Chinén which has been around long enough to grow from the one stall it started with some years ago. It spans a walkway, kitchens on both sides and tables down the middle, as shoppers dodge servers to get to the next isle. Angélica Chinén calls orders out to the kitchens and grabs the attention of every person that passes to offer them a table. I sought this place out specifically to eat her food, and she grinned wide when I beat her to the punch and asked for a table.
As I sat at that little table today I saw a black man do a double take and turn back to say hi to an obviously good friend that looked very indigenous, while two gentleman spoke Mandarin (I believe) at the table next to me. I looked back down to my plate full of chicken and rice in a new light…. Though ubiquitous now, rice has long roots in Asian and West African cuisine. The chilis in the garnish reminded me of that latin spice I love so much. The chicken was stewed in a corn broth as if it was a mix of African technique with local ingredients. The mayonnaise sauce is French based. On the side, a plate of criolla, the word itself meaning Creole. It wasn’t just a plate of food anymore, it was the culmination of the cultures that then surrounded me in real life.
I was staring off into space processing this all as Angélica came to the table to ask me how lunch was and smiled wide when I responded “que rico!” As I left, she stopped me to say thank you again and her warm and gentile being exuded hospitality. She didn’t even seem to wonder how I knew her name when I addressed her with a thanks, but instead asked where I was from and again if I enjoyed the meal. We chatted briefly in my Tarzan like Spanish before she was whisked away to serve more honest and wholesome food to the ever growing line. I stood for just a few minutes more as I watched her greet new guests with a hug and kiss on the cheek as if they were old friends, enjoying the sight of a simple meal turned into a memorable one with the addition of humanity. She is serving tasty and simple food to friendly folks, combining all that she has learned about food with all of the ingredients she has at hand, just as a local should.
Since they got through some bad government issues and terrorism scaring the tourists away the city of Lima seems to have flourished. At least for some, as in the districts of Miraflores or Barranco you can buy a slick apartment overlooking the ocean for cool million. Put another 50% on top and you can buy a mini mansion in La Molina and walk to the country club every day. For the rest though, 60% of the city’s population lives on less than $700 US. PER FAMILY. I can’t help but be thankful for the fact that I am in a position to have spent that amount on three dinners here. I also can’t help but to notice the huge disparity in that, though I’m not sure what to do about it… For now, I’ll make sure to visit more huariques (3) and politely tip the smiling server a bit more.
I’m sure you know which of these you’ll find more locals at. But there is a bit of a surprise there. Central and Maido staff all spoke great English and we hardly heard any other language in the dining rooms. At Osso however, all of the communications from the start were in Spanish. Maybe a bit surprising, but I rather enjoyed a tour of the space from Ivan while I pieced together my bits of Spanish to ask all about their passion. And of course, at Huerta I felt eyes upon me at every move. They were always paired with a smile, most likely because I looked like a gorilla sitting at a school desk… (5)
(1) Where they have carefully curated the bones of those buried in the catacombs below it into neat little rows stacked in neat little boxes that you can’t take pictures of. See below.
(2) referred to as “Chinos” though they are from many more countries than China.
(3) the small, local joints that make really, really good food for really, really cheap. Think a big two course lunch with a drink for about $3 USD.
(4) I highly encourage this option the next time you have the opportunity.
(5) for those that I have not met in person- I’m 6’4” and about 240 pounds. Pretty close to 50% above average for Perú I think 😉
Thanks to Justine for the food shots from Maido, as I was busy sipping wine… Go give her a follow on instagram @justmelee3