Overland miles: 8358 Bus hours: 265.25 Empanadar: 22
It wasn’t a traditional Christmas lunch: let’s put it that way. Clare and I were sat at the bar of a beach-shack style restaurant on a lazy, sun-drenched afternoon in the Milaflores district of Peru, sipping pisco punches topped with ginger ale and wasabi. We had searched high and low for a place where Clare could get her roast turkey with all the trimmings (particularly brussels sprouts). The only one we found was in a Novotel hotel with an eye-wateringly steep set menu, and besides, we had already paid a fair bit more to stay in a boutique hotel over Christmas: to pull crackers at a dreary business hotel chain could very well break our souls.
After a good twenty minutes of patiently searching and phoning around, the helpful concierge at NM Lima advised us to give up our quest and try nearby La Mar: perhaps Lima’s hottest lunch-ticket for ceviche (or cebiche, as it’s spelt here and in Ecuador, which contests ownership of the dish). Now I happen to think turkey lacks the requisite pizazz needed for a slap-up festive feast, plus we wanted to get rid of the slightly sour taste of Malabar’s tasting menu, so we were both ready for a heavy dose of fish and seafood. But the restaurant (owned by celebrity South American chef Gastón Acurio, of Astrid & Gastón fame) didn’t take bookings or do dinner service, and despite it being a day to stay home, the queue was practically out of the door when we arrived. Clare and I eyed each other nervously: if we were told to go fish, Christmas lunch would be a turkey club sandwich from room service.
But to our relief our maitre d’ advised us that a table would be free in the half hour. We sipped our cocktails at the bar and sized up our fellow diners whilst we waited. They were a cross section of Lima’s finest: a large, wealthy family presided over by a fabulous sunglass-wearing grandmother sat in a section of the restaurant on a different level and partially sectioned off by bamboo, cleverly aping the architecture of beach-side eateries. In front of us sat a couple of metrosexual men in perfectly matching pastel threads; behind them some young, trendy love-birds were staring longingly into each others eyes, or perhaps dishes. From the pass in front of a semi-open fronted kitchen came long platters of miniature glass bowls, filled with a rainbow’s palette of sauces. Three waiters were labouring under the weight of a gigantic whole baked fish on its way to the posh family.
The place emits a quietly confident buzz; from the well-heeled clientele to the bi-lingual and sharply dressed wait staff La Mar‘s vibe is as fresh as its fish and the polar opposite of a stuffy dining establishment. We couldn’t wait to be seated. When our waiter had escorted us to our table he asked us what we knew about ceviche already. Oh, we explained quickly, we had been to places like Martin Morales’ Ceviche and Virgilio Martínez Véliz’ Lima in London, where Peruvian cuisine has really taken off in the last couple of years. Oh, he returned just as quickly, so you’re complete beginners? We gave up the pretence and asked him to supply us with a dish from each section of the menu so we could get a decent overview of the whole experience. He returned promptly with a trio of kick-ass dipping sauces and a bowl of three types of chips, which we hungrily picked and mixed.
When it was time for the fish courses we were presented first by a tiradito of tuna in a honey and sesame sauce. Tiraditos are, according to the menu, neither like Italian carpaccio nor Japanese sashimi. They are Peruvian. This wasn’t exactly helping us to work out how it differed from ceviche, which is essentially raw fish or seafood marinated in key lime juice. (SCIENCE BIT: The acid in the citrus juice coagulates the proteins in the fish, basically cooking it in its own juices). We subsequently established that the cuts of fish are finer in a Tiradito, plus no onion is added to the cure. The tuna was pitch perfect. I have a real thing for Torro sashimi (fine cuts of fatty tuna). This for me was the only thing that comes remotely close in terms of that dish’s oppulent, buttery mouthfeel.
The tuna was followed by the main event: the popular ceviche sampler. Five different takes on the classic dish were served in a row of pretty dessert glasses highlighting the range of delicate flavours in Peruvian cusine. A Classic was corvina (sea bass) cured in a ‘tiger’s milk’ of lime, onion and cilantro (coriander). The Chalaco expertly melded calamari (squid) with tomato, lemon and and aji limo (a spicy chilli pepper). The Nikei fused more of that incredible tuna with sesame, rice wine and a dash of soy. And so it went on. I have to admit that I am finding it hard to explain the simple majesty of cured fish. The instant zerlang of citrus flavour on your tongue, giving way for the mooltsome hit of incredibly fresh fish, gently fading into the swelty mix of background flavours in the tiger’s milk. See? I’ve had to make up three words just to describe one dish.
Finally, we were presented with a minature boat, called Barca de Causushis carrying Peruvian causas – stylistic renderings of the humble potato paired with various toppings. This was perhaps a knowing nod to the fact that Neo-Andean cuisine has been very much influenced by Japanese gastronomy: in particular the meticulous attention paid to the presentation of the fish which had been given a sushi-style makeover: the balls of rice replaced with little logs of flavoured mashed potato. On each potato log rested an equally tiny but beautifully cooked present; a piece of lightly battered fish, a juicy morsel of octopus tentacle, even more tuna, and of course the final gift that Clare left to me: a ripe and juicy prawn.
There should not have been room for anything else after that, but somehow a cheese ice cream and exceptional pie de limon deserts found their way to our table. Eventually we staggered out of this mysterious and magical fish market and strolled down to the coast to drink in an epic Lima sunset. Forget tired and tasteless turkey. At that moment I could think of nothing more satisfying or fitting than having had prawns for my Christmas lunch.