When you dream about Peruvian food, the place you see in these dreams, it’s probably a lot like La Mar. The long bar counter as you enter, piled with fish, octopus, and various crustaceans on ice, and behind it, a team of young chefs, chopping, slicing, juicing, rolling, and generally performing wonders with raw seafood. In the opposite corner is the closed kitchen, a perfectly ordered rush of grilling, frying, and saucing, occasionally lit by the orange flashes of wok flares as another sit-fry is sealed in flame and smoke. Let's take a look.
While Astrid y Gaston is Gaston Acurio’s showpiece, La Mar is what he built his empire on. There are branches in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Panama City, San Francisco, and Miami, and surely more to come. While there are hundreds of cevicherías in Lima where you could get a plate of the good stuff, often at much better prices, La Mar stands out, along with Pescados Capitales and El Mercado, as the place to try most any Limeño seafood dish, made with quality sustainable products, prepared flawlessly, time and again. The menu reads like a wish list of any lover of Peruvian food, with all the classics prominently featured and a broad range of inventive twists that threaten to tempt even the most ardent traditionalist.
The catch of the day is written up on a blackboard over the bar and if you look closely, you’ll find the harbor of provenance and name of the fisherman or co-op who did the hard work to bring it in. This is part of Acurio’s ever expanding mission of social responsibility, looking after both the fishermen (with higher than average prices) and the seriously depleted fish stocks (by encouraging the use of lesser-known fish and a rigid adherence to closed seasons).
The cool interior mimics the cevicherías of the coast with their slatted bamboo roofs and light colors. Though spacious, the restaurant fills up most days, so come with time on your hands and expect to wait (or skip breakfast and get there early!).
This is why we’re here: the ceviche. But don’t go blindly to the classic fish ceviche; rather try the ceviche mixto (pictured here), which is a rare beast to find done well. Here, it is served with pejerrey (Peruvian Silverside), perfectly tender octopus, shrimp, and limpets. If you must go pure fish though, head chef at La Mar Andres Rodriguez recommends cabrilla (Rock Sea bass).
This is a brilliant re-invention of a little known dish from Arequipa’s river valleys called celador de camarones. The rivers around Arequipa abound with plump shrimp (although overfishing is causing serious damage despite strict no take periods) that are most commonly served in the hugely popular chowder, chupe de camarones. The celador is a rare treat with raw shrimp mixed up with a tomato, onion, rocoto chile, and olive oil salsa. La Mar’s version is more refined with extra touches of lima beans and huacatay, a pungent Andean herb.
Anticuchos are the Peruvian streetfood par excellence. In the evenings little carts appear on corners all over the city, charcoal fires are stoked, and soon tempting smells and clouds of smoke drift over the streets. The traditional anticucho is cubes of beef heart, marinated in chicha de jora and yellow chili, grilled on a skewer and served with a potato and a dollop of creamy chili sauce. Octopus anticuchos have become hugely popular recently, and this dish is a perfect blend of tradition and innovation – the octopus is perfectly tender (something of a hallmark for Acurio restaurants) and served with calamari, Peruvian corn, and rustic potatoes with a house chimichurri.
Thanks to the growing Japanese influence (the so-called Nikkei – Peruvian born children of Japanese immigrants) it has become more common to eat some of the odder (read: uglier) beasts of the sea, including the pejesapo (a near shore rock-clinging fish, quite accurately called the toad fish) and the scorpionfish pictured here, slow-cooked in a tangy Nikkei sauce.
Peru has a pretty bad rep for it’s desserts, most of which are powerfully sweet, with only one or two holding up to a foreigners palate. Picarones are arguably the best of them. Sweet potato and pumpkin donuts, served with a sweet orange and anise flavored sauce of raw cane sugar (panela) and figs.