Saturday, November 12, 2011 at 2:31 p.m.
In 2008, I was working in Lima, Peru, and had the unique opportunity to interview
Gaston Acurio, the Limenan chef
behind the wildly popular La Mar Cebicheria franchise.
Acurio, who in 2008 was as famous in the Andean nation as Anthony Bourdain is in America, had already launched many successful restaurants and a No Reservations-style TV show.
But in Acurio's test kitchen, located in the boho Barranco neighborhood, he lamented. Sure, he had folk-hero status and a successful culinary empire, but he felt that he wasn't doing enough to popularize Peruvian cuisine in the U.S. He wanted it to be as beloved a staple as Japanese or Thai food -- on every street corner and in every strip mall.
"We have a mentality: Nobody will like our food even though it's tasty. People think the things Peruvians do are Third World," he told me, in Spanish. "But if you can sell a hamburger in Peru, why can't you sell ceviche in the U.S.?"
Acurio was right: From back-alley cebicherias to beef-heart-centered diners to experimental guinea-pig roasts, Peru boasts some of the most diverse and flavorful food in the world.
Acurio's eateries, several of which I frequented while researching the article, did a top-notch job showcasing this patrimony. The ingredients were impeccably fresh, the cookery near perfect, the prices relatively reasonable.
With the exception of high-end Astrid y Gaston, middle-class Peruvians could eat at his restaurants. Shortly after our interview, Acurio opened a La Mar in San Francisco. For several years, I had looked forward to the day when I could slurp Acurio's chupe de camarones on Fisherman's Wharf.
To be clear, my choice -- the restaurant's signature tiradito -- wasn't terrible.
But the selection, six pieces of hamachi, just didn't prompt that bowl-licking sense of urgency -- that drive to suck up every last, delicious drop of spicy fish juice -- a given at the flagship.
So what happened?
Tiradito tends to be prepped similarly to ceviche -- a citrusy bath features prominently, but typically gets poured on last-minute, as opposed to a submerged maceration.
Instead of ceviche's fish chunks or larger pieces of seafood, the Peruvian take on sashimi consists of thinner seafood cuts.
What differentiates the selection from its Japanese counterpart: The pick gets drizzled with a bold sauce, such as a creamy yellow aji. Also key: Sauce consistencies can vary, but shouldn't taste exactly like ceviche's liquids, called "leche de tigre," or "tiger's milk."
That's because tiradito tends to be more delicate. Only the finest, most consistently fibered part of a fish filet -- sliced perfectly between sashimi and carpaccio-level thicknesses -- should be used.
The tiradito at La Mar just didn't achieve this: Widely cut and doused in oversalted leche de tigre, it tasted more like ceviche -- and a so-so, minimalist rendering at that. The sauce had no sense of creaminess, as promised on the menu.
If not for the color, you probably couldn't tell that the dressing featured yellow aji, Peru's signature chili, since the pepper lacked earthy nuance -- a sort of humid crispness that makes the aji so special.
I'm sure that some will say: "Tomato, to-mah-to. Raw fish is raw fish."
Well, here's my answer: At $17 a plate -- a decent chunk of my weekly food budget -- I feel like I deserve to get what I pay for.
Mainly, I'm disappointed about a lost opportunity.
La Mar New York could have done a lot to promote Peruvian food. Given it's chichi vibe and expensiveness, I don't expect it to attract diverse patronage -- the kind of curious diners who could popularize an up-and-coming cuisine.
Granted, food costs have increased everywhere -- even for my friends in Lima, La Mar isn't as viable a dining option as in the past. Still, if La Mar New York were to lower its prices, even slightly, Peruvian could compete against Japanese and Thai -- Acurio's long-term targets.
Acurio had the right idea -- that if you could sell a hamburger in Peru, you could sell ceviche in the U.S.
But he seems to have missed an important point: Hamburgers weren't priced to exclude most people from eating them.