Picture-Book Perfect

A few weeks ago, I picked up Tony Custer's The Art of Peruvian Cuisine, somehow intuiting that the land of Atahualpa would soon turn up on my plate. Huge, glossy, and expensive, with photos of everything from chicha morada to arroz con leche, it whetted my palate for Peru as nothing had since Felipe Riojas-Lombardi closed the doors of the Ballroom. My first visit to Sipan sent me scurrying back to Custer to confirm that although the spot bills itself as Nuevo Peruano, many of the dishes are as traditional as cancha, the kernels of salt-parched corn that turn up on the table as soon as you're seated.

Although Sipan is named for the site of a pre-Inca tomb discovered in 1988, its decor pays little homage to its Peruvian roots unless you recognize the gilded mask hanging on one wall—a replica of one from the tomb. An oddly shaped striped banquette adds a note of color to well-spaced tables topped with white cloths. The brick walls and slate floors are handsome, but make for a din if the place is full. Plan to sit and stave off hunger with cancha and bread, for the service is still taking baby steps. Come with good friends, get the sound system turned down, and relax over a bottle of Chilean red. When the food arrives, you won't be disappointed.

Begin like an Inca with ceviche à la concha ($12), a painterly array of three iced scallop shells brimming with citrus-infused seafood: scallops, fish, and a delicious if unidentifiable mix marinated to done firmness and poised over a piece of sweet potato. The sauces were so good that my friend called for a spoon. Another was tempted by ceviche à la piedra ($12), an unusual warm mix of scallops, garlic, and a bit of aji amarilla, a yellowy-orange pepper that radiates flavor as well as heat. Savoring the crisp yuca chips, the sweet mollusk, and the hot savor of Peru's favorite chile, he could have cared less that the dish was cooked in a skillet rather than on a hot stone. The tamal morado ($6) flared a corn husk over shreds of chicken flavored with purple corn and served with a savory slurry of onions. Even a simple ensalada sipan ($8) wore festive dress, the mound of greens mined with slivers of black olive and chunks of avocado and bracketed by strips of hearts of palm.

Enthusiastic diner Alexandra Alvarez with a clean plate of new Peru
photo: Jay Muhlin
Enthusiastic diner Alexandra Alvarez with a clean plate of new Peru

Details

Sipan
702 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-665-9929.
Open daily noon to midnight. Cash only. Wheelchair accessible.

Mains celebrating Peruvian traditions commanded equal respect. Aji de gallina ($14) topped shreds of moist chicken with a creamy yet savory sauce that combined nuts, chile, and onions, sopped up by the rice that turns up in many of Sipan's dishes rather than the expected potatoes. Mixed with crunchy bits of fried onion and garlic, rice provided a base for the arroz con pato ($18), which lacked only a few more pieces of the tasty duck. Colored saffron, it was also the basis for a paella-like arroz con mariscos ($18) heaped with shrimps, scallops, miniclams, mussels, and squid and topped with crunchy, marinated red onions and verdant string beans. Plantains joined rice on the table in seco de chabelo ($17), a mash flavored with cilantro, tomatoes, pieces of roasted pork, and the slightly sour taste of fermented corn juice, which exuded an unexpected hint of Africa.

On my final visit, I had room for a postprandial sweet, indulging in the rice pudding with blue corn and dried fruit ($6), a nod at two traditional desserts. The S-curve of cookie that surrounded the creamy pudding and deep purple sauce was light and crispy. I snagged the last crumb before bidding the mask of the Lord of Sipan a silent well done and heading back to hit the books again.

 
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