These days it’s easy to find an excuse to visit Peru. Beyond the culinary boom in Lima, the country now draws travelers of every shade, offering something for everyone from barefoot mystics to the Gucci clad jet-set, from mining executives to mountain bikers. For visitors, time is often short and all but the oblivious few would have heard something of Peruvian food before packing the passport and toothbrush. Here then TLK presents a few of the best places to get a taste of Peru, without even leaving the hotel.
Rafael Piqueras has a perfect chef’s laugh. Deep and from the belly, it rolls out of his tiny office down a short hall and into his kitchen where, in the vein of kitchens all over the world, his staff is on pause, enjoying for a moment that eye of the storm between lunch and dinner service. There’s a splash of calm, two cooks prepping slices of spring onion, half-eyeing rolling stock pots, others are grabbing a bite, another leans against a wall checking his messages; only the dishwasher never stops moving.
“Is this the perfect restaurant? No, there is always something to be done. Is this the restaurant I dreamed of? Absolutely.” Piqueras is a man on top of his game and having a great time. His restaurant, Maras, is comfortably among the city’s best, and tucked to the side of the new Westin Hotel in San Isidro, it is the business traveler’s dream.
The interior has none of the dullness that far too often seeps into hotel restaurants, it's rich and creative, with a full-to-the-brim design that keeps you happily occupied as you drift off from business chat. The only flaw may be that it is too densely tabled and in the side enclaves there is a slight excess of sparkle and mirrors, but generally, hush and elegance rule and nothing distracts from a great eating experience.
The menu is particularly strong when it comes to the starters; Piqueras has done an excellent job of selecting some of Peru’s best flavors and dishes and pushed them up a level. It's great to see one of Arequipa’s simplest but tastiest dishes, el escribano, a mix of tomato, potato, vinegar, and rocoto given new life with chili marinated squid.
Sticking with that southern city, which is easily one of the country’s best culinary storehouses, another hit is a nod to the famous chupe de camarones, a puree of fava beans under a poached egg, river shrimp, and a foam of their chowder.
Piqueras has also managed to source what may be the best scallops in the city, these sweet, plump pillows (here in a ají Amarillo sauce with nori and quinoa caviar) he imports from a talented if fickle supplier near Paracas. “He arrives at the strangest times, but what am I going to do, he has the best…”
Here Maras shines; along with the handful of other chefs that are his contemporaries, the network of suppliers who provide the very best of local raw materials is being developed and nurtured and the results can be clearly tasted in Piqueras’ menu. This is still the greatest challenge for chefs in Lima, assuring regular arrivals of those rare and magnificent resources from inaccessible jungle towns or high Andean villages. Stop for a second and be grateful for that Amazonian catfish with pork belly, passion fruit, tapioca pearls, and coconut rice.
Such has been the success of Maras in the short time since opening in 2012, that Piqueras and the folk of the Westin are eyeing international horizons – keep an eye out for one in your neighborhood.
Staying in Lima, this time on the lush, sunny, old-school side of the spectrum is Perroquet, the in-house hotel of the lavish Lima Country Club Hotel. Until last year, when the title was snagged by Maras, Perroquet was by some margin the highest rated hotel restaurant in the city. The gloves have remained firmly placed though and the menu hasn’t deviated from the track that has written its success in stone for the many Limeños who consider it their kitchen away from home.
In many ways Perroquet is a counterpoint to Maras’ modern flair; it is a bastion of the silver polished, gold-rimmed old guard with a soothing swathe of green and tranquility provided by the golf course next door.
The menu is created by the group’s administrative chef Danny Rojas and in-house chef Jacinto Sanchez, a self-taught cook who has become an institution at Perroquet, head of the kitchen since 1998, a longevity rare in fine dining. The dishes are all Peruvian classics, as Rojas says, he wants his customers to find the flavors of home cooking, but dressed up to suit the quality and style demanded by fine dining.
This makes Perroquet one of the best places for a visitor to go and try the great national favorites like a succulent lomo saltado that more dreams should be made of. The menu is not without a few modern twists, like the warm, fried causa with a ceviche sauce and scallops, or a chita, the iconic northern fish, with a shrimp sauce and paper thin potato slices.
Also in Lima, look out for the new Hotel B in Barranco, the city’s hot new boutique hotel and their restaurant with the menu designed by Oscar Velardo of La Gloria.
Virgilio Martinez is Peru’s chef of the moment and Senzo is his Andean playground. Here, in the plush heart of the new five star Palacio Nazarenas, Martinez and his team headed by Limeña Veronica Rojas are running the most ambitious restaurant in Cusco. The tasting menu is particularly focused on local techniques and little known ingredients, both of which make this restaurant the one unmisseable dining stop on any trip to the city of kings.
Backed up by a serious local wine list, the menu is a little wonderland with intriguing highlights that will have you having many a “first taste of..” moment. Think trout fillets poached in and infusion of airampo, a local cactus fruit, or minuscule cubes of yacón, a sweet tasting Andean tuber, tucked up against the most delicate and creamy coffee squares.
For a change of pace, the Albergue in Ollantaytambo train station is a perfectly rustic breath of fresh mountain air. Dark handsome wood, and a garden that explodes greens and colors and scents all over the hotel originally built in the twenties make for an ideal pause on the way to Machu Picchu.
Some three quarters of the menu is supplied from the impressive organic garden behind the Albergue which was built not only to supply the restaurant, but as an educational initiative in sustainable agriculture for local farmers and the small school that is supported by the hotel.
Thanks to the rich soil and a good hand in the garden the greens are particularly delicious, making the salads one of the menu’s highlights. Don’t miss out on the lamb though, or the fresh aji panca fettucini with wild mushrooms. And if you have the time, sign up for the pachamanca, where you will participate in the preparation of this traditional feast cooked underground on hot stones and then lunch in a small gazebo in the garden with Andean peaks and Incan ruins looming all around.