Our Culinary Adventure in Lima
Lima, Peru, a vibrant city of nearly ten million people, has earned a reputation as one of the culinary epicenters of the Americas, if not the globe. At the convergence of Latin American, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese cultures, fueled by tremendous immigration from Asia in the 19th century, Peru boasts one of the most unique food cultures in the world. And it's getting attention for it––since the late 90s, Peruvian restaurants have been popping up all over the place, largely thanks to household name, Chef, and ambassador for the country's cuisine, Gastón Acurio, who owns several restaurants and chains in Peru and the world.
After five grueling, but rewarding, days in the remote reaches of the Amazon, I was excited to spend about eight days in Lima doing something more my speed––eating and drinking! Lima is home to at least ten restaurants on Pellegrino's "Latin America's 50 Best" restaurant list, and also two in the top ten of "50 Best" in the world––Maido and Central, the crown jewels of Lima's food scene. We crescendo-ed up to Maido on the third to last night and Central on the last night, so I'll save those for individual posts. This will give you a taste of the day-to-day eating in Lima, and folks, the eating is GOOD!
We arrived from Iquitos mid-afternoon and I was very much ready for something a bit more big-city, despite having enjoyed the best goddamn bananas imaginable in the Amazon. Champing at the bit to get out and taste stuff, I talked Georgia into an appetizer and cocktail at one spot and dinner at a second––I wanted to taste everything I could here!
Maketto is a restaurant in the Miraflores district––the major culinary district of the city, and an upscale neighborhood where most of the best restaurants live, and where most of the tourists stay––housed in a long, vaulted-roof storefront that has been designed to resemble a Japanese street market you might see somewhere like Osaka. In here are three "separate" establishments, a more casual spot for bao, a "street bar" at the back, and the Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian fusion)/sushi focused Maketto in the middle. We both ordered a fantastic pisco sour and cruised the menu while we enjoyed it. Georgia settled on a pork and shiitake bao, which was delicious, if a bit moist.
Though wary of spoiling dinner, I couldn't stop myself from ordering all the sushi, in the form of their nigiri "degustation," which came with 12 pieces of very dressed-up, modern nigiri. Chef Javier Miyasoto, whose name itself is an emblem of Japanese-Peruvian fusion, uses bold flavor combinations and techniques in his sushi, and my favorite was the scallop sushi with truffle oil and parmesan, torched so the parm melts into the mollusk, topped with Maldon sea salt.
It was so good that I very generously let Georgia eat the other half of the piece at her insistence, and she liked it so much that we ordered another set of four to split.
Dinner was at Mayta, one of the institutions of fine dining in Lima, and also one of the most comprehensive pisco bars in the city (so, in the world). They have a list of 103 "macerations," which are vials of pisco where various ingredients marinate in order to make chilcanos, a classic Peruvian drink with pisco, either flavored or as-is, citrus, and ginger ale. Georgia digs passionfruit so ordered a passionfruit "mojito," while I dove in for a chilcano flavored with tumbo-macerated pisco, a jungle fruit similar to passionfruit but a bit tangier. Delicious.
Seafood is king in Lima, so appetizers included a fried shrimp dish with roasted avocado and all manner of crisp veggies and alliums, flavored with a creamy jalapeño leche de tigre, a broth that is the product of marinating seafood in lime, aji chilis, and spices, and a cornerstone of Peruvian food. The second was an absurdly tender grilled octopus dish, served with lentils and a saline, tangy olive sauce.
Corn is an important staple in Peru, and Georgia was taken by the idea of the corn ravioli, served with a foam of "mature cheese." Sweet and rich, and delicious.
We also enjoyed Chef Jaime’s signature dish, a massive pan with duck fried rice, featuring various fresh veggies, a tangy condiment of red onion and lime, a duck egg, and three preparations of duck––crispy, succulent breast, melty confit, and foie gras. The best thing to do was mix everything together, especially the foie and yolk of the egg, and we were also given a spatula to scrape up the glorious crispy bits at the bottom of the pan. Perhaps I just wasn’t hungry enough to enjoy a dish this large, because even though the course was delicious, it was a little imposing and hard for me to get into. A better dish for four people than for two!
Of course, I found myself sucking down multiple of their wonderful cocktails, most pisco-based. My favorite was a pisco-based take on a negroni, with bitterness, yes, but also a tropical flair. Wonderful cocktail program here. We paired our dessert cocktails with a very nice churro with dulce de leche ice cream. Yum!
Brunch was the first order of the day, since Georgia and I had a mutual friend in town who was wrapping up his own trip around the country, and he wanted to meet us in the morning. I had heard that the best brunch was at Mó Café, or Mó Bistro, depending on who you ask, a veggie-focused place about a 30 minute walk from our hotel. They are most famous for their sweet potato waffle, which involves them cooking a boiled sweet potato in a waffle iron and serving it with baking spices, whipped cream, maple syrup, and fresh blueberries. Super tasty. They also are known for their house-made sodas, and we had a couple of those, including a lemon-thyme soda and a strawberry-rosemary one.
In the evening, we headed over to the trendy Barranco neighborhood, which is swiftly becoming one of the cultural centers of the city, filled with younger professionals, artists, quirky cafés and bars, and masterful street art. We couldn’t get in to our desired pre-dinner drink spot, so we settled in for a couple of pisco sours at Ayahuasca, a bar housed in one of the old colonial mansions that populate the Barranco neighborhood.
Afterward, we made our way to the spare, earthy dining room of Mérito, one of the newer additions to the Lima food scene, which is headed up by a pair of young Venezuelan chefs. This was hands down the best dinner I have had for this price––for everything, drinks, wine, appetizers, mains, and dessert, we spent less than $60 per person, including tip. This is a meal that in a big city in the US could have easily cost us $250 or more per person. Gotta love Lima!
Mérito made what I think is the best pisco sour I had on the trip. Despite ordering a decent white wine from Peru, my first Peruvian wine ever, I tasted Georgia’s wonderful pisco sour and had to have one of my own. Pisco sours are the national drink of Peru, and we were slated to drink plenty of them!
The menu descriptions are very sparse and don’t describe the ingredients much, and we must have convinced the server our Spanish was better than it is, because she interacted with us entirely in Spanish, so many of these dishes have some mysterious accoutrements. The first three courses included a seared scallop dish with a very thin sheet of purple potato on top, and accompaniments that I could only guess at. Very good, and a great representation of the Peruvian pacific, where scallops are in abundance. The second was even better––a yuca quesadilla with goat cheese, served with some manner of Peruvian herb sauce. Right up Georgia’s alley for sure, and we were both very happy with it. We also both love octopus, another staple of the Peruvian coast, and were happy to chow down on Mérito’s version, draped in caramelized onions and a sauce I couldn't decipher. Need to brush up on my Spanish words for obscure ingredients. So good, though!
Main courses all come with a side, and we could choose from a salad, mixed grilled veg, or mashed potatoes, and since we got three mains, we ordered all three sides! Our mains included a fish of the day with crispy quinoa and a spicy leche de tigre sauce, which was very good but the least memorable, crispy glazed pork belly, which was incredible, and melty beef (or maybe pork?) cheeks served with various preparations of onions (sautéed, caramelized, and fried) and baby corn, our absolute favorite, and one of the best things of the trip. The beef cheeks with the mashed potatoes were particularly magnificent; Peru is famous for thousands of varieties of native potatoes, and the potatoes that they put on the side might have been the best I’d had (sorry Robuchon!). We also really liked the fresh, delicious salad for a nice palate cleanse between bites.
For wine, the Peruvian white was a decent blend from Valle de Uco, but the red I paired with the mains was a winner––a silky, luscious red blend of País and carignan from Chile. Love these Chilean reds!
A dessert that was just layers of coconut––cake, cream, ice cream, flakes––was our choice, and Georgia liked it so much at one point she confiscated it from me.
I was a bit puzzled that so many of the seafood-focused places we wanted to try were only open from noon to five. I thought maybe it had to do with the pandemic. Turns out, the legend in Lima is that you eat raw seafood dishes, like ceviche and tiradito, during lunch time, because the fish is caught in the morning and sent to restaurants, and for Limeños, it’s only fresh enough when eaten at lunch––that’s how seriously they take their seafood!
It was time to sample Peru’s greatest culinary claim-to-fame, ceviche, and there is no better place to get a super fresh, traditional ceviche than at La Mar, Gastón Acurio’s seafood temple, which now has locations all over the world (I ate at the one in Miami back in December, but it was quite different from the one here). We were sat at the bar overlooking the covered courtyard dining room, and chowed down on native potato chips with three varieties of chili dipping sauce, washing it all down with their beautiful house cocktails and awaiting the seafood feast to come.
The ceviche was as good as promised. Made with sea bass, the catch of the day, the leche de tigre was quite tangy and just spicy enough, and the “big corn,” as we came to call it, was delicious with the broth. Tiradito is the other big raw fish dish in Peru, and it more resembles Italian takes on crudo since it’s more dressed up than traditional Japanese sashimi, though the tradition comes from the Japanese culinary influences in Peru. This tiradito was one of the best things I have eaten. Squares of raw tuna were served in a divine sauce of tumbo and chilis, for a sweet but sneakily hot bite. These dishes were even starting to turn Georgia into a raw fish believer!
We enjoyed also some fried wontons stuffed with mixed seafood in a tamarind sauce, as well as scallops served on their shells, grilled and covered in parmesan cheese, a dish we saw multiple times in Lima. Our last selection, stuffed as we were, was octopus, grilled with Peruvian spices, “big” corn, and potatoes. The best octopus dish of the trip, for sure, despite the simple preparation.
Georgia was getting a little seafood-ed out, so for dinner I leaned hard into red meat. Osso is a neighborhood restaurant and butcher in La Molina, way up in the inland eastern foothills of Lima and a traffic-heavy hour away by taxi, but they opened a second location in San Isidro, about 25 minutes’ walk from the hotel. Sadly, this location seemed to be a sort of corporate copy of the original, meant to appeal to the business crowd of the glitzy neighborhood, and the prices reflected that. To make things worse, we also found ourselves still pretty overloaded by the massive lunch at La Mar. So, we kept things simple. I ordered some of their tartare, which had come recommended, but it was a lot of raw meat for just one, since Georgia doesn’t care for tartare, and based on the pictures on their website, it seemed like an egg yolk was missing.
We did enjoy their dry-aged ribeye, however, though it seems that in Peru “medium rare” means something a bit closer to a living cow than I’m used to, and paired it with a side of truffled bacon potatoes and corn, Peruvian staples. I also downed a couple glasses of South American wine––a pinot noir from Chile and a malbec from Argentina––to pair with the food. When in Rome!
At this point we’d been eating so much that we decided to keep things a little lighter for the next couple of days, sticking to hotel breakfast in the morning and an early afternoon lunch/dinner (linner? Or in Spanish, almuerzna?). El Mercado, a very hip seafood spot (also only open afternoons) owned by star Peruvian chef Rafael Osterling, was the choice of the day, and ended up being one of our favorite meals of the trip.
The cocktails were especially good here, and many featured tequila or mezcal, which was a welcome shift from pisco. I had plenty of them over the course of our almuerzna.
Ceviche and tiradito were first––their ceviche was just as good as La Mar’s, but not quite as traditional, with a spicier leche de tigre and fried squid atop the chunks of fresh bass. Sole was their choice for the tiradito, dressed simply with avocado, onions and peppers, and an incredible sauce. Georgia didn’t care for this tiradito, which was fine with me, and I devoured most of it.
El Mercado is known for their grilled scallop/parmesan dish, and I have to say that theirs kicked the ass of the one at La Mar. They include a creamy sauce under the cheese, made with pisco and parm, and then top the scallop meat with the cheese and grill it, adding some limes on the side. The pisco was the silver bullet. These were so good, and I can see why they’re a signature.
El Mercado was pretty expensive (by Lima standards) and we were already pretty full, and getting a little silly with cocktails, so we wound our meal down relatively quickly, finishing up with what turned out to be the best thing we had all day, and maybe all trip––a silky marscapone cheesecake flavored with passionfruit and topped with red berries. Easily the best cheesecake I have ever had. The marscapone had a bit of a salty character, while the unique sweetness of passionfruit loaded the perfectly textured mousse with flavor. It was so good, I guess I forgot to photograph it! Oops.
On this day we had reservations for our almuerzna at Maido, one of the two best restaurants in the city, so we took it easy in advance. Since we’d moved to our new digs at an AirBnb in Miraflores, I went out for some groceries so we could cook breakfasts in the apartment. I happened on Maketto on my stroll to the market and dropped in for a Cuba Libre and another shot at their amazing parmesan-truffle scallops, as well as some of their truffle salmon belly. I will dream about these scallops. Just to remind you what they look like, and so I can keep dreaming about them, here's the photo of them again.
I also stopped for a loaf of signature bread from Pan de la Chola, considered the best bakery in the city. Dense and moist with an excellent crust, a slice smeared with locally-churned butter was a perfect snack whenever we were hungry.
I’ll save Maido for a separate post, since it was a singular and rather massive experience!
Sunday. A bad day for finding good spots for dinner in very Catholic Lima, but a great day for brunch, though “brunch” in Lima more resembles just lunch, with non-breakfast items dominant. It was also Georgia’s birthday (yay!) and she was jonesing to take a walk around colorful Barranco, so I got a reservation at Siete, the place we’d been turned away from on the second night, and we headed down to the neighborhood, walking around, photographing street art, and greeting the numerous dogs out for walks.
Siete’s menu is a bit cryptic if you don’t speak Spanish, since a lot of the items are either pretty obscure or described as a play on another dish. Georgia found herself rather underwhelmed by the menu, so much so that, since it was her birthday, I asked her if she wanted to dine elsewhere. She finally settled on something, and I’m so glad she did, because in addition to the amazing cocktails, of which I had four, I wound up having my favorite dish so far in Lima, and one of the best dishes I’ve ever had.
But before that came, we got some glorious tiradito, my fave and a specialty of the house, this time snapper dressed with sriracha, sesame, and avocado. So good. We also got what turned out to be tripe, though when the server described it by pointing at the right side of his belly, I thought it was short ribs. No matter––the tripe was actually quite delicious, and the sauce the served it with was mouthwatering, particularly when soaked up by the amazing bread they sent out.
My main course was a tasty tagliatelle with duck Bolognese, but Georgia’s was the winner. A lusciously fatty peppercorn-crusted pastrami-style brisket steak with a black pepper white wine sauce, a mound of finely-minced kimchi, and slightly sweet sticky rice was probably the single best thing I’d had so far on the trip. I was so mad that I hadn’t asked for a larger portion so we could share it, because I didn’t want to eat too much of her birthday brunch! The perfect combination of flavors, with luscious fat, spicy peppercorn, tangy kimchi, and sweet rice. My god. You can see it in the background of my tagliatelle photo... I couldn't bear to take a photo of it because I was so sad I didn't get to eat more of it.
Georgia lives in Belgium, and after the meal was over, we dropped in to another colonial mansion bar in the area that was playing the Belgium-Portugal game, saddled up to a few pisco sours, and watched Belgium win and advance to the quarterfinals; afterward, we watched Peru play Venezuela in the Copa America, surrounded by Peru fans. So fun! And one of the better pisco sours in the city.
Dinner was relatively underwhelming, at one of the few places open on Sunday night, Panchita, one of Acurio's chains, where we had some more traditional Peruvian fare. The lomo saltado, a salty stir fry of steak, onions, peppers, fries, and rice, was tasty, but not particularly interesting, while Georgia's crispy pork belly might have made her a little sick! Yikes! Our one miss in Lima.
Jo, our mutual friend and Georgia's old college roomie from NYU, joined us in Lima that night, and because all the bars are closed, I fixed all of us a couple homemade chilcanos, on which we got pretty torched and went to bed, ready for our final feast tomorrow.
Last day in Lima! We were eager to show Jo around the city, and also visit some of the spots toward the old, historic part of town that we hadn't seen yet, but first, we had to find a perfect spot for coffee and then lunch! The best coffee in town is at Neira, just a few blocks from our AirBnb, and we sat on the patio and enjoyed some incredible Peruvian coffee from Amazonas, as well as pastries from Pan de la Chola, the bakery referenced earlier! Best croissant I've had.
We originally planned to take Jo, who is a pescatarian, to Maketto so we could inhale more of those scallops, but most restaurants in Lima are closed on Monday. We did manage to slide into a lunch spot at Mayta, which was fitting since we visited it on our first day as well, and I sampled a couple new dishes––the Amazonian ceviche, flavored with Amazonian citrus, and topped with plantain chips, and a spicy Thai-inspired pasta with a meat ragu sauce and shrimp. A tad strange, but certainly delicious! And, of course, we devoured some additional chilcanos.
Dinner was at the incomparable Central, so keep an eye out for my standalone post on that meal!
Lima... what a place! I ate like a king here for less than I'd spend in a single weekend in a big US city, all while eating food of similar, if not superior, quality. Drinks at these high-end places are consistently about $6, appetizers around the same price, and it's rare to see a main course break $15. Even the tasting menus didn't break the bank.
I am sure I will be back to Lima, perhaps just to come and eat again! I also wanted to give an honorable mention to our pisco tasting in Cusco, were our bartender helped us understand the nuances of the oh-so-Peruvian spirit, and we got to taste five different types. So much fun, even if the food in Cusco wasn't quite as inspired!
Maido and Central get their own posts later this week! Keep an eye out!