Two years ago, London fell in love with Peruvian food. Hard. It was the most fashionable taste in town, pressing all the right buttons: clean, fresh flavours (citrusy ceviches, for instance); superfoods (quinoa and chia seeds); authentic ingredients (potatoes grown at 4,000 metres); and the frisson of immigrant influences (from Japan, Italy and Vietnam) on indigenous Peruvian cooking. It was delicious, healthy and exotic. Move over, sushi.
Two Peruvian restaurants opened in London in time for the Olympics – Ceviche in Soho and Lima in Fitzrovia. They were instant hits. The capital’s foodies, of course, thought they’d discovered Peru, seemingly unaware of a global wave that was sweeping South and North America, or that the great Nobu empire is built on a Japanese/Peruvian alliance.
But enthusiasm here in London has turned out to be genuine and durable, spawning other restaurants from posh Mayfair to funky Shoreditch, and broadening the fan base. When I prepared a ceviche starter for Christmas lunch, my ultra-conventional family remained unfazed by raw fish in spicy dressing. Result.
When Michelin awarded a star to Lima in October in 2013, it was a game changer. This laid-back restaurant and bar became a gourmet destination overnight, drawing a much wider crowd than the locals of Fitzrovia and media-savvy Charlotte Street.
But Lima remains absolutely true to its roots, captured in the restaurant motto: Sustainability, Peru, organic, Andes, biodiversity, communities, Amazon. Fancy French accolades have done nothing to change the bare tables, ethnic art and cheerful service. “We’re all about fine eating, not fine dining,” the owners insist. “The show is on the plate, not in the décor. The Michelin star has increased customers’ expectations, but this is an informal restaurant where you can pour your own wine and have fun.”
Despite these protestations, Lima is quite sophisticated, with well-considered design to complement the top-notch food. The narrow entrance, on a quiet, rather scruffy street, gives no indication of the dynamic space inside. On the ground floor, there’s an open kitchen leading into a large room lined with leather banquettes and backed by stepped wood panelling that makes you think of Machu Picchu. The soft gray and cool mushroom palette is enlivened with cushions of colourful blankets from the Andes, large mirrors and a dramatic mural inspired by Peruvian artist Fernando de Szyszlo. By day, a glass ceiling floods the room with light; after dark, vintage brass lamps with squirrel-cage bulbs cast a warm, flattering glow. There’s a large, lively room for more diners downstairs, with a timber and mirror-clad bar and blue leather banquettes with fluted backs.
For a start, it’s not peasant food (unlike the Mexican phenomenon that swept through London recently). This is ambitious statement food showcasing technique and imagination as well as the soul and stomach of Peru
But you’ve come to Lima for the food, not the décor, and what can you expect? For a start, it’s not peasant food (unlike the Mexican phenomenon that swept through London recently). This is ambitious statement food showcasing technique and imagination as well as the soul and stomach of Peru. The culinary guiding force is chef Virgilio Martinez, who worked with some of the top chefs in Europe and the States until he returned to Peru in 2008 and opened his own restaurant, Central, in Lima, which has made it onto the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Though based overseas, Martinez is a constant presence here through frequent trips to the UK and his long-time collaborator, head chef Robert Ortiz. His London business partners are the Venezuelan brothers Gabriel and José Luis Gonzalez and there is already talk, highly secret at this stage, of opening a Lima Mk. 2 in 2014.
The menu is easy to navigate with starters such as ceviches (chunky raw fish briefly marinated in a spicy citrus sauce known as leche de tigre or tiger’s milk), tiraditos (raw fish or vegetables finely sliced carpaccio-style), causas (a cold potato cake typically stuffed with tuna or scallop tartare) and the chef’s signature dishes of octopus with white quinoa and the particularly delicious Botija olives, or beef steak with hot yellow pepper sauce and herbs. Ingredients may be wholesome but presentation is unashamedly dramatic and there’s a real wow factor when dishes are brought to the table.
This is great food for sharing and diners usually order several starters before plumping for their own main course from the list divided into Mar (sea) and Tierra (land). There is hake cooked on a hot griddle with red pepper, fresh cheese and cashews; fillets of paiche, the huge fresh water Amazon fish that’s served with seaweed butter; suckling pig escabeche with corn and piquillo pepper; and an aromatic braised shoulder of lamb served with unusual potatoes grown in the high Andes and left to dry for a year in the snow.
Desserts add an exotic twist to familiar items such as a moreish dulce de leche ice cream with beetroot emulsion and Andean maca root crust, or organic small estate chocolate with kiwicha (another superfood grain), sheeps’ milk and extra virgin olive oil.
To drink, there’s a small precise selection of wine by the glass, carafe and bottle, as well as Peruvian beer, tequila, cachaca, rum and liqueurs. And who wouldn’t be drawn to a list with pisco sours and dangerous combinations to lead you astray? The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and good cocktails.
Lima, 31 Rathbone Place, London W1, UK
020-3002 2640; limalondon.com
CEVICHE PERUVIAN KITCHEN AND PISCO BAR
Ceviche opened in March 2012, beating Lima by a couple of months and creating its own funky reputation for that small-plate, tapas-style food that’s all the rage in Soho. Visionary owner Martin Morales is half Peruvian, half English, with a background in music and entertainment before he reinvented himself as a chef. Specialities include ceviche (of course), anticuchos, the main street food of Peru (skewers of barbecued meat and fish), and octopus with chorizo, smoked chilli and garlic.
Ceviche, 17 Frith Street, London W1
020-7292 2040; cevicheuk.com
Martin Morales reinterprets his Ceviche concept for hipster East London with soul food from the Andes accompanied by funky Peruvian music on vinyl. Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru is celebrated with monthly masterclasses exploring cocktails and infusions.
Andina, 1 Redchurch Street, London E2
020 7920 6499;andinalondon.com
From the same owner as Zuma, Roka and the Arts Club, Coya has the confident swagger of a wealthy, jet-setting clientele and a fashionable Mayfair address. But don’t be put off. It’s lively and not cripplingly expensive. The large dining room has terracotta tiles and antique wooden panels with a traditional parrillada (charcoal grill) and in the centre, a ceviche and tiradito bar. Go native with baby ribs, skewers of spicy ox heart, or mackerel and patatas bravas.
Coya, 118 Piccadilly, London W1J
020-7042 7118; coyarestaurant.com
JUST ONE TABLE (Latin American pop-up)
The brainchild of chef Martin Milesi and his business partner Manuel Diaz Cerbrián whose company, UNA, creates events to showcase Latin American cuisines. The first London project opens in April at the Clocktower at Kings Cross St Pancras. A single table for 12 diners will occupy the 5th floor with views over central London. The £90 seven-course menu will include dishes from Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
Contact [email protected] for details
And back in far from Darkest Peru… ASTRID Y GASTÓN
The mother ship of the Peruvian food revolution has to be this Lima-based restaurant run by chef Gastón Acurio, the country’s top celebrity chef for more than a decade, and his wife Astrid Gutsche. He’s a tireless ambassador for the food of Peru and his fine dining empire stretches from Bogotà and Buenos Aires to Madrid, San Francisco and New York. His restaurant in Lima is currently number 14 in the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Early in 2009, the Financial Times did a big feature on Gastón Acurio and his patriotic foodie mission. No-one here took any notice. They will now. C
Astrid Y Gastón, Calle Cantaurias 175, Miraflores, Lima
+51 1242 4422; astridygaston.com