Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 21, 2017

© Cinda Chavich

Chef Diego Muñoz in Astrid y Gastón's kitchen.

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Lima’s food revolution

The Peruvian capital is now one of the best places on earth to dine

Lima was not always an A-list destination and it still has its struggles. After decades of violent civil war, the country is finally enjoying peace and stability. There are still great disparities in this city of nearly 10 million, but on the gastronomic side, there’s no place like it.

I’ve been in Lima for just 48 hours and already I’ve consumed 65 creative courses — four ambitious tasting menus from a quartet of the city’s most celebrated chefs. Lima is the latest mecca for food lovers. In 2015, new spots were named to the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list including Central (#4), Astrid y Gastón (#14) and Maido (#44), with Malabar (#7) already among the 50 Best Latin American restaurants.

And I’m determined to taste it all.

The Peruvian food revolution started with chef Gastón Acurio, a mentor to many of the current crop of top chefs and a promoter of all things Peruvian. His elegant flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gastón, was one of the first to break through more than 20 years ago.

Now with dozens of restaurants around the world, he’s a local celebrity known as “the king of Peruvian cuisine.” Some even suggest he should be the country’s next president. His wife, Astrid Gutsche, is the queen of cocoa, working with small Peruvian communities to develop top quality chocolate, and creating the amazing finales to your meals — think chocolate spheres filled with cinnamon-scented sweet potato ice cream in a toffee sauce with salty Andean corn.

Whether it’s this upscale molecular gastronomy, a modern take on Peruvian-Chinese food (aka Chifa) at Madam Tusan, his famed cevicheria La Mar, or the rustic anticuchos and causa at his casual, Creole-inspired Panchita restaurant, Acurio has built an empire by celebrating Peru’s varied traditions and flavours.

Tucking in at Casa Moreyra

Acurio’s head chef, Diego Muñoz, greets us on the colonnaded balcony of Casa Moreyra in San Isidro, the elegant 17th-century hacienda and national monument that was recently restored and re-imagined to house Astrid y Gastón (astridygaston.com). Like the décor, the elaborate, multi-course menu is both avant-garde and rooted in Peruvian tradition, offering a journey through the country’s geographically diverse pantry.

“It’s a chance to showcase our culture,” says Muñoz. “Biodiversity in Peru is huge — it’s one of the strengths of our cuisine — and there are so many amazing different cultures here that have influenced us. I’m here discovering my own country.” Below us, in the hacienda’s original courtyard, a glass-walled kitchen houses their “science lab” where local plants, roots, tubers and other indigenous foods are investigated.

From the deep fried arracacia root chips to the frozen orb of frizzled leek and artichoke, a rillette of cuy (guinea pig) set on purple corn and razor clam escabeche, a series of small starters begin the tasting menu. By the time we finish the spiral-cut avocado ceviche in “tiger’s milk,” a lime and chili marinade used to cure raw fish, rustic golden huancaina sauce ground tableside in a stone batan with potatoes roasted in a simulated pachamanca oven smoking in the middle of the table, five desserts followed by chocolate and lucuma truffles with a cold Peruvian coffee topped with warm foamed milk, I’ve counted 30 courses. Dining in Lima is serious business.

Central eating

Chef Virgilio Martínez is slight and soft spoken, the lithe body of a dancer or marathon runner beneath his long denim apron, and the measured speech of an intellectual.

The large, modern kitchen of his award-winning restaurant, Central (centralrestaurante.com.pe), sits behind a wall of glass, an appropriate setting for his creative cooking that combines both culinary and performance art, plates inspired by Peru’s unique terroir.

From below sea level to the 3900-metre Andean plateau, Martinez gleans his ingredients and ideas from the land. And so tonight we dine on lettuce, scallops and granadilla, foraged at “0 metres;” wild yacon root, smoked duck, fig-like zapote fruit and peppery nasturtium from the high altitude rain forest (860 metres); lucuma, cacao and chaco clay (an edible medicinal mineral that’s part of indigenous diets) from the Green Highlands (1050 metres), and tunta (dried Andean potatoes, 3900 metres) on his 11-course Mater Ecosystems menu.

Martinez is one of the most celebrated of the new Peruvian chefs. He combines classic French and modern molecular technique with an almost scientific approach to Peru’s vast array of indigenous ingredients. He studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London after attending law school, and honed his restaurant chops as executive chef for Astrid y Gastón locations in Bogotá and Madrid.

“Different altitudes, different ecosystems, different ingredients,” he says, as we tour the kitchen, a space that is literally open to the sky, encircled by an open walkway that leads to a rooftop garden. He points out the drying cabinet, where wild-crafted herbs hang in bunches, and a massive white board, covered with sticky notes and photos, where the menu at Central evolves daily.

Ascending the wide staircase in the sleek, modern dining room, we reach his laboratory where the collection of plants, leaves, roots and bark he’s gathered from the Andes to the Amazon are dried, preserved and catalogued. It’s all part of his Mater Inciativa, a project to “link the cultural and biological diversity of Peru with the culinary experience,” he says.

The chef speaks of scientists and villagers, local lore and ancient history, when he describes the process of creating the odd and inventive dishes that have been laid before me. In this hyper-local world of food foraging, there are roots and herbs with traditional medicinal value and others with properties and flavours yet to be discovered.

It’s late, and though there is much more to explore, the team of waiters do their best to explain all of the unusual ingredients on the plate, whether it’s the juicy yacon, reminiscent of Asian pear, or the fuchsia flower petals of sangre de grado. It’s an intellectual pursuit as much as a meal.

Nikkei cuisine at Maido

At Maido (maido.pe), chef Mitsuharu Tsumura laughs easily and exudes hospitality. He is the face of Nikkei cuisine, a melding of Peruvian and Japanese flavours that’s evolved naturally here over a century and is now on the cutting edge of what diners in Lima love.

Tsumura, or Micha as he’s known to his friends, and his convivial restaurant have rocketed to the top of the food world’s radar with a #44 nod on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Why is this traditional Peruvian/Japanese food suddenly so popular? Perhaps it’s the connection with Nobu, the famed Japanese chef who opened his first sushi bar in Lima in 1973, or the endorsement of top chefs like Spain’s Ferran Adrià, who now serves his own version of Nikkei at Pakta in Barcelona (they both write forwards in Micha’s massive new book, Nikkei es Peru).

Or maybe it’s just because Micha does it so well. At an epic 16-course Nikkei Experience lunch in this contemporary space, there is nary a misstep — just tiny, beautiful bite, after beautiful bite.

Each little plate is a study in colour and texture. The Japanese sensibility, be it brought to cuy san, confit of guinea pig, tossed with soy and sugar and deep fried, then served with yucca cream and sprouts; a perfect ball of rare rib eye in an ethereal tempura crust; a single prawn with tobiko and quinoa cracker in a slurry of corn chichi; or the tiger’s milk of ceviche turned into a cold citrusy crumble with liquid nitrogen and topped with raw fish and avocado.

“Traditionally Nikkei is comfort food,” says Micha, stopping to pose for a selfie with a satisfied customer. “It’s a Peruvian stew with steamed rice or a Japanese ceviche, the citrus just added at the last minute. We’ve taken it to the next step.”

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