Maido – Lima, Peru
Our weeklong visit to Lima was to culminate in two blockbuster meals at the two places seen as the very best restaurants in the city, two of the top three in Latin America, and two of the top ten in the world according to Pellegrino's (not-very-reliable-or-scientific) "50 Best" list. The first of these was Maido, a Nikkei restaurant that has been hovering among the rankings of the best restaurants in the world for years now.
Nikkei cuisine reflects the influence of Japanese migrants to Peru, who came in droves back in the 1800s to pursue new opportunities being offered in this part of the world, bringing their culinary identity with them. Peruvian cuisine is so intertwined with Japanese cuisine that one can hardly distinguish some elements––particularly raw seafood dishes like tiradito––between the two.
Mitsuharu Tsumura holds the crown for the best Nikkei food in the country. Born in Lima to a Japanese family, Micha studied at culinary schools in the US before honing his skills in Osaka, Japan. When he returned to Lima, he was armed with the experience and vision to open Maido in the hip Miraflores district in 2009, and it blossomed into one of the most celebrated Peruvian-Japanese restaurants in the world.
Georgia normally sees dollar signs and balks when I say the words "tasting menu," but after reassuring her that the menu was less than $90, a hell of a deal for cuisine of this caliber, and telling her it's ranked tenth in the world, she was surprisingly happy to splurge a bit. We made our way over for an early reservation in their mirrored and rope-roofed dining room (see above) to settle in for a world-class Nikkei meal. She even sprung for the wine pairings, offered at less than $50. God, I love this country.
We were thrilled by the beverage program, too. The wine directors here have a very progressive vision for interesting, flavorful wines, and this spirit shines through in every pairing. To start, we were offered a cocktail made of a spirit I believe was called "Apara" (though a Google search for that word returns no results relating to booze) which the som told us was the "oldest spirit in Peru" from the northern mountainous region of Huaraz. The spirit was stiffened a bit with a bitter amaro, camu camu (an Amazonian jungle fruit), a Peruvian citrus called lulo, and thyme for an herbal flourish. Very delicious, refreshing, and beautifully presented, though it seems I forgot to take a picture!
"Snacks" was the name of the first course, which consisted of a little box with three tiny amuse-bouche bites inside. The first was a puffed potato fritter colored with squid ink, inside which was a purée of chorizo and banana. Wild! Georgia's and my favorite of the three. The second was a little sandwich made with a crispy cracker with a blend of grouper, coral emulsion, and sushi rice, and the last bite was razor clam tiradito (Peruvian crudo or sashimi) with ponzu, red pepper, and masago, served in its shell. Great way to start the meal!
For the first pairing, we were served one of the few Peruvian wines I've had! Peru is most famous for the grape-distilled spirit pisco, but some of the grapes they grow that they normally use for pisco get made into wine instead. This wine comes from the Valle de Pisco, in the southern coastal region of the country, and the aromatic white grapes get skin-contact aging for 27 days, producing a glorious orange color and a nice body. The white grapes they use for pisco are intensely aromatic, and this wine was no exception. Fabulous!
In a lovely shell-shaped bowl, we were brought scallops from Paracas in the south, a Peruvian Pacific Coast staple, served with a potato cream, huacatay (type of mint) oil, pickled onion, powdered kombu (kelp), and some rice chips. A dish more successful in presentation than flavor, this was the dish on the menu that looked most appealing, but turned out to be the biggest miss of the night, though still tasty!
The next red is one of my faves I've had in a while, and Georgia also really loved it. From Rías Baixas, on the Galician coast of northwest Spain, this was a red that drank like a white––it soared with a sort of saline acidity and minerality, showing the influence of the sea, and was bursting with tangy red fruit. So good! The wine program here is so cool.
Chupe de camarones is a traditional recipe for a shrimp soup, and they riffed on the recipe here by providing the soup in soup dumpling form, topping with squid ink over a rice cracker. With the fresh, spicy and tangy flavors of Peruvian seafood, the dumpling was a perfect little morsel and spoke beautifully with the maritime elements of the wine. I forgot to photograph this course, but behold the photo of it from their Instagram, and note the inferior quality relative to the Maestro's photos :P
More funk forthcoming! Jura is a region in France that makes some particularly funky chardonnay, since the style of winemaking includes allowing the juice to oxidize a bit as it ages. Just west of the most famous chardonnay region in the world, Burgundy, Jura's chards are bright, strange, and idiosyncratic. The slight oxidation on this wine reminded me of some of the oxidative viuras produced by Lopez Heredia, my favorite Spanish producer, but with significantly more freshness and green fruit. Lovely.
The next couple of courses were more traditionally Japanese in nature. With the Jura chardonnay was paired a katsu-style sandwich, but instead of fried pork, they used fried sweetbreads, which I always thought (and may have incorrectly said here a few times) was calves' brains, but is in fact meat from the thymus gland or pancreas of calves or lambs. Fried is the best preparation for sweetbreads, to my mind, and the accompaniments of pickled purple cabbage and spicy mustard was perfect with the crispy-soft meat.
A dry, aromatic sake was brought to pair with the most traditional of the Japanese dishes next––this one was a Daiginjo, the highest level of rice purification, further crowned with the designation "Mu Sake," which we were told essentially means "sake with nothing bad in it." A dry, aromatic style, it worked very nicely with some of the intense, briny flavors of the next dish.
A cold udon noodle dish was up next, these chilled noodles made with very nutritious seaweed. Atop the noodles was salt cured trout roe, egg yolk, a bit of pork tonkatsu, seaweed, sesame, and negi, and a glorious chilled dashi broth was poured over the top. Traditional, loaded with flavor, and an homage to the robust Japanese influence still present in the best cuisines in the city.
Before moving on to the sushi course, we found ourselves midway through the meal and ready to drink their palate-cleansing offering of leche de tigre, the product of marinating seafood in lime, chilis, and other spices that forms the backbone of ceviche and so many other seafood dishes in Peru. Chef's leche de tigre was made with crabs and clams, and had some tapioca in the broth for a textural contrast. With a richness I don't usually get from leche de tigre, it was one of my favorite tastes of the night, and teed us up nicely for the spectacular sushi that was to come.
The natural winemaking style is taking much of the world by storm these days, and Chilean winemakers have seemed particularly keen to adopt the practice. This rosé, made primarily from Chile's native red País grape, but also ripe with aromas of moscatel, is called "Rojo Loco," or "Crazy Red," and is made in a natural, organic style that gives it plenty of funk and a bit of body. An interesting pairing with sushi, and one that neither Georgia nor I were totally wild about, but a fun wine to sample nonetheless.
Sushi is a staple of the Nikkei experience at Maido, and I was thrilled to see what we would be offered. I was dismayed to learn it was just two pieces, hoping for a parade of stunning nigiri cuts, but the two they presented were certainly memorable. The first, in fact, was Georgia's favorite bite of the night––foie gras wrapped in a thin slice of bluefin akami (lean tuna) and seasoned with ponzu, then torched to render the fat of the foie just slightly. We loved it so much we ordered two more.
One of the sushi chefs, with a Spanish first name and a Japanese last name, a uniquely Peruvian find, came by with a cart, upon which sat a magnificent cut of o-toro, bluefin tuna belly. He generously carved two pieces of o-toro for us, marinated it in a ponzu sauce made with Amazonian citrus, carefully folded it atop sushi rice, and seared it with a butane torch. Spectacular.
I was not satisfied, however, with just two types of sushi––if I came all the way to Lima, I wanted to see what other flourishes Chef Micha could come up with in his nigiri. Two pieces were recommended to me––one was a prawn flavored with cream cheese, avocado, and chimichurri, and the other salmon belly with aji amarillo, an important chili pepper in Peruvian cuisine. The prawn was fine, but the salmon belly was special, as I imagined it would be! We also got an extra pairing with this little interjectory course––again from Rías Baixas, a bright and food-friendly albariño, which frankly might have been a superior companion to all the sushi cuts!
More interesting wine! Have you ever had a blend of chardonnay and Riesling before? Neither had I! With the petrol funk and green apple of Riesling and tropical heft of chardonnay, and a bit of new French oak to round everything out, this was among the more interesting white blends I'd ever tasted. Chile does some wild things with wine, y'all!
Sudado is a type of traditional fish stew, and this course played once again on a traditional Peruvian recipe, elevated, of course. Black cod was served in a sudado reduction, accompanied by the complex salinity of various seaweeds and clams. I think this was my favorite dish of the day––immensely nuanced and multifaceted in flavor, it was one of my favorite tastes of one of my favorite fish!
Mendoza is a famous region for malbec. In the foothills and highlands of the slopes east of the Argentine/Chilean Andes, you find some of the best wine country in the world, and perhaps no grape has taken to this area better than malbec. This wine comes from a particularly high vineyard in Mendoza, and was aged for 18 months in oak, giving it a rich mouthfeel, yes, but also a cool-climate brightness that I love in a red.
Beef cheeks seem to be a thing in Peru, because we had them at least three times while in Lima, and saw them on many more menus. This preparation played up another very important Peruvian ingredient––corn––in a corn "cloud" that resembled a very light soufflé atop the immensely tender beef cheeks marinated in aji chili. A great way to end the savory courses!
Peru is also known for its artisan potatoes, of which there are estimated to be over 2000 varieties grown in the country. Part of the reason for this is the Incans' exceptionally advanced agricultural experiments, which allowed cultivation of a huge diversity of crops, and nourished expert knowledge of the conditions under which each crop grows.
Out in Cusco, potato country, an intrepid fellow started to experiment with making wine distilled from certain heirloom tubers, ocas, from the Incan era. He makes three types––this is the one that is medium in body and color. It tasted somewhat like a madeira, but with a bizarre, almost unsettling "dirtiness" from the earthy nature of the tuber. Really interesting beverage, and one I'd be very interested to explore further.
With the "potato wine" was served a sweet pancake of loche, a Peruvian squash, with an ice cream made from an unrefined cane sugar called panela, corn crisps, and a bit of powdered huacatay. The potato wine and the squash cake worked very nicely together, and I liked the wine much better paired with this inventive dessert.
More cool, uniquely Peruvian beverages were to follow, and check out that bottle! Mistela is a type of fortified dessert wine, where grapes are harvested late and blended with pisco for fermentation and fortification, then aged for over a year, first in steel and then in wood, and sometimes infused with vermouth-style herbs and aromatics. This was my first mistela but wouldn't be my last on the trip––it had a character that seemed to blend tawny port, madeira, and sherry all in one. Really unique, and something I'd love to see deployed in more North American pairings!
Chocolate is, of course, a Peruvian specialty, so it seemed fitting to end the formal desserts with a chocolate dish. This brownie was made with some excellent Peruvian cacao, topped with delicious lucuma ice cream, one of my favorite Peruvian flavors, an aerated foam made from macambo, or white cacao (no, not white chocolate––a nutty relative of the cacao plant that grows in the Peruvian Amazon) and, for a bit of savory (my fave in a dessert), a bit of soy glaze. Excellent dessert, and even better with the mistela!
Our last beverage was a tea made from Amazonian roots and leaves and brewed with a bit of Peruvian coffee, then fortified with amaretto and furmint (a Hungarian wine). The roots were selected based on Amazonian medicine to aid in digestion. A bit of a strange beverage, but it did feel vaguely comforting, even though we had both had plenty of alcohol at that point!
A little Japanese vessel housing two little closing bites came next, appropriately called "The End." The first was dorayaki, a little sandwich cookie made of sweet Japanese red beans and filled with copazu, another Amazonian relative of cacao, which tasted like a vaguely tropical chocolate. The second was mochi, a soft rice candy, enclosing cacao from Piura, in the north of the country. A nice way to end the meal.
Maido is an experience you could only have in Lima––the combination of Japanese and Peruvian flavors is truly unique, and this is certainly the pinnacle of the style. Is it the Number 10 restaurant in the world? Probably not. Is it on the same level as Central, the other crown jewel in Lima's food scene? Certainly not, despite some recent publications claiming it might be even better! But, it was still excellent, and at these very reasonable Lima prices, one of the best bangs-for-your-buck you can get in the food world. I'd come back in a heartbeat, and would recommend it to everyone!