There are lots of cheap Peruvian restaurants in Queens that serve great renditions of Andean classics like aji de gallina, papas Huancaina, and seco de cordero—but also manage to turn out terrible ceviches, made from off-tasting frozen seafood. Now it’s time to turn the tables. How about an upscale Peruvian place with perfect ceviches and mediocre everything else?
Your prayers are answered at La Mar Cebicheria Peruana. Located in the old Tabla space on Madison Square, the restaurant is the brainchild of Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, who has transformed ceviches from peasant fare to haute cuisine. Our branch is the eighth in his Lima-based chain, which already boasted clones in Madrid, Panama, and San Francisco.
La Mar’s NYC premises—a former marble-encrusted bank lobby—has always been ungainly. Now, the ground floor looks like a motel coffee shop, with a black stairway sweeping upward to the more desirable second-floor dining room, where a vast mortise in the floor allows you to gaze pityingly down on those seated below. On the way up, hundreds of corn kernels are suspended in front of one wall with strings.
Unfortunately, even if you have a reservation at an obscure hour (say, 6 p.m. Monday), the staff will try to keep you downstairs drinking as long as possible, and use other tricks to prevent you from gaining the upstairs room. Don’t feel like you’re being singled out; the staff treats everyone badly in this regard. Once upstairs—an hour after your reservation time, following several visits to the greeter’s podium—you’ll find yourself finally seated with gleaming silverware and stiff white napery.
A slightly confusing bill of fare has been set before you. Here’s a hint: Anything made with raw fish is spectacular. The first section is the menu’s heart—a series of seven ceviches, each enough for two. These are not the dryish ceviches of Mexico, nor the soupy ones of Ecuador. La Mar’s lie somewhere in between, with a modest amount of juice in the bottom of the shallow plate. You’re going to end up drinking it, and that’s all to the good—Peruvians regard the liquid as an aphrodisiac.
The plainest (“elegance,” $17) features superior-grade fluke with little balls of orange yam and comically huge kernels of white corn in a sour, pale broth; the most elaborate (“chifa,” $19) is a clusterfuck of hamachi, green mango, pickles, and tiny wontons in a sesame dressing. Despite the almost random elements, these still read as ceviches—though in La Mar’s renditions, the fish is not “cooked” to opacity in its acidic solution, but only lightly glossed. The one ceviche I didn’t dig was “earth,” a collection of rubbery raw mushrooms, with no seafood whatsoever. You can sample any three for $24, but the portions are minuscule.
Equally good are Acurio’s tiraditos, luxuriant quantities of sashimi drowning in a citric solution with striking colors. The signature La Mar ($17) spotlights hamachi in a bright yellow marinade, and there’s no better raw fish in town. Another favors fatty salmon belly in passion-fruit juice—once again the color knocks your eyes out before the fish slides pleasingly down your gullet.
There’s a gray area, taste-wise, on the menu inhabited by causas. In Peru, these are heaps of mashed potatoes mixed with other substances to form hearty meals. At La Mar, the dish has been translated into the idiom of carbophobia, so that miniature cones of mashed spuds are surmounted by diverse bits of seafood. Order the tasting of all three ($21) to enjoy the wild hues, rather than the slender nourishment they provide. Once into the arena of traditional peasant fare, the menu founders badly. The national dish of aji de gallina—shreds of poultry in a fiery yellow sauce—is here rendered as bland breast in something resembling salt-free Velveeta.
Seco de cordero ($34) disappoints, too. In Queens, it’s a hearty goat stew served with plenty of rice; here a fussy arrangement of two small lamb chops planted in a tablespoonful of mashed potatoes, with a few cubes of lamb shoulder and two baby carrots looking on disconsolately. Arroz de mariscos turns out to be greasy seafood fried rice in a portion that would fill only half a white carryout container.
Ultimately, my friends and I concluded we should have sat downstairs. There, at least, you can order a ceviche and a pisco sour (Peru’s favorite cocktail), and escape into the night with a positive impression of the La Mar—for only about $40.