Peruvian food has been percolating for a while: Year after year the South American cuisine is anointed a hot up-and-comer by glossy food magazines. But apart from a few Pan-Latin spots, New York has missed out. La Mar, our first world-class Peruvian import---which opened recently in Tabla's old duplex space---finally offers a taste of what all that fuss is about.
This is the second American outpost for Peru's most prolific celebrity chef, Gastn Acurio, who runs more than two dozen restaurants on three continents (including a La Mar in San Francisco). His new spot is spare and elegant, with a corn-kernel mosaic alongside a sweeping staircase and a "rain" chandelier in the dining room dangling 4,000 beads of colored glass. Officially the place is a cevicheria---variations on citrus-cured seafood being a Peruvian national obsession---but the menu is so massive, it's really a primer on the country's gastronomy.
Peru's crossroads cooking is true indigenous fusion, at once Andean and immigrant, mixing Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese flavors. You might need a glossary. Better to eat first, ask questions later.
Corazn anticucho, an opening snack, is veal heart marinated in cumin, garlic, hot chili and lime, and served here with black mint sauce and fat buttery kernels of choclo---an extra-starchy strain of corn, a Peruvian staple, almost like hominy. If the grilled organs sound outside your carnivore comfort zone, they shouldn't: Acurio's are as tender as top-shelf filet.
The excellent ceviches all begin with leche de tigre, a murky mix of lime juice, fish juice, sliced onions and chilies (in Peru they slurp this stuff down as a hangover cure). Start with a sampler of citrus-soaked seafood, then come back for a big portion of your favorite choice---the Japanese spin (nikei) with daikon, tuna and shredded nori perhaps, or maybe the mixed seafood number (popular) with octopus, salmon, shrimp and green chilies.
Causas, peasant staples of mashed potatoes and seafood (generally served cold), are elevated here with sculptural plating, the starchy pedestals---smooth like creamy polenta---stacked high with colorful toppings. The little towers pack a lot of big flavor into a very small package: octopus and black-olive puree on one (oliva); pickled catch of the day with cherry tomatoes on another (limea).
The La Mar mothership in Lima is devoted almost exclusively to these raw and cured seafood dishes. The hot entres on the more expansive New York menu are decent enough, but they're a bit like ordering chicken teriyaki at a sushi joint. If you've never had lomo saltado, though, you should try La Mar's upscale spin on this hearty classic, featuring hanger steak strips stir-fried in vinegar and soy with purple potatoes and sunny-side-up quail eggs. The dish is a fine introduction to the East Asian influence on so much Peruvian cooking. You'll taste it too in the arroz con mariscos---wok-fried seafood rice with hot peppers, cilantro and lime.
Like most of the high-end food here, the desserts all have humble roots. There are fluffy sweet-potato beignets (picarones) with sweet fig syrup, which are a variation on a traditional street sweet. Caramel tuiles (suspiro loco) are filled with the sort of dulce de leche cream Lima kids grow up with.
Both are beautifully presented, but not terribly creative. Despite its enormous menu, La Mar provides just the beginning of a Peruvian food education. The restaurant scene in Lima, among the most sophisticated in Latin America, has plenty more to export.
Eat this: Veal heart anticucho, nikei ceviche, popular ceviche, oliva causa, lomo saltado, picarones
Drink this: The pisco sour is the Peruvian national cocktail, a sweet-sour mix of pisco, lime, simple syrup, egg white and bitters. La Mar's smooth and balanced version ($12) is among the best in New York. The bar also mixes a mean pisco punch ($15) with lemon juice and pineapple syrup.
Sit here: The low-slung tables around the ground-floor bar, which gets a bit raucous, are great for a cocktail and a few after-work snacks. For a more civilized meal, head upstairs to the dining room, preferably near the balcony railing looking out over the "rain" chandelier.
Conversation piece: La Mar is just one of many Gastn Acurio brands. His flagship, Astrid y Gastn, with branches across Latin America (Astrid is his wife), serves more creative fare like guinea pig done Peking-duck-style. The chef, a TV host and author of nearly two dozen cookbooks, also runs his own culinary school in Peru.