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DanM

Lima, Peru

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My wife will be in Peru at the end of November on business. Does anyone know of vegetarian friendly restaurants in the city? She will be staying at the Double Tree and her meeting will be at the Pentagonito. I appreciate all of the help!!

 

Dan Mages

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I don't know of any specifics but there is a sizable Peruvian population that is of Japanese descent. It has been a while since I was in Peru, but I recall very good Japanese fare, some of it vegetarian, was widely available. Pasta and pizza were also popular, and pretty good.

 

I'd try doing a little digging around online, no double you will come up with something.

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SUMMER (JANUARY) 2015

 

So here I am in Lima. The hottest restaurant city in South America. Some would say in Latin America. Some would say the world.

 

It is, I realize, 30 years to the year since I was last here. The big difference is that now they've developed a middle class. Sort of the opposite course from home, where we're eliminating that class. The differences between now and then in Lima, in terms of stability and general pleasantness, suggests that our course may be mistaken.

 

But enough of that. What this visit is really revealing is the how massculting food has turned food culture into utter bullshit -- or, to be more fair and accurate, into something about something other than food. That will be a recurring theme, I can see already by the middle of my visit.

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In a rare canny move, I really planned my accomodations right. I'm staying in Barranco. At the turn of the last century, it was a luxury seaside suburb, where extremely wealthy Limenos built seaside second homes -- as in Newport, more along the lines of mansions. (My hotel is in one of them.)

 

Barranco then turned into the bohemian quarter -- and it remained the center of artistic and literary activity, and a certain louche kind of nightlife, from before the middle of the last century until now. (My hotel is connected to the city's leading art gallery.) Now, however, it's also gentrifying. Old buildings are being spruced up. New construction is everywhere. It's not yet at the point where restaurants of the highest excellence are opening here -- but you can tell that will change very soon.

 

But the point is, it's kind of quiet. You really feel like you're in a pleasant, minor seaside town rather than a major metropolis. Far more pleasant as a place of respite. You can spend the better part of the afternoon pleasantly watching the children scramble around the nice municipal plaza.

 

But, politically, you're in the city, and it's easy enough to get to the more central places (relatively speaking, considering Lima's extreme sprawl and traffic conditions).

 

It's almost like, like, like . . . you know.

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It struck me that people here actually drink Inca Kola.

 

Almost as soon as I got here, dried out and depleted from a long day in a ground-delayed plane with a lengthy flight, I pulled a bottle out of my (complimentary) mini-bar, to see if it was as bad as I remembered.

 

Inca Kola tastes like Bazooka bubble gum. Let me be clear about this. It doesn't resemble Bazooka bubble gum. It isn't remeniscent of Bazooka bubble gum. It tastes just like Bazooka bubble gum. And it has a vivid greenish yellow color -- having nothing whatsoever to do with its flavor -- to boot.

 

I remember very vividly the first time I ever had it. I was hiking through the Andes (which, as Daisy can confirm, can be very wearing). I was dying of thirst. We came upon some remote middle-of-nowhere village, really nothing more than a few hovels and a squat tienda. The only beverage on offer was Inca Kola. Feeling in danger of imminent collapse, I took a swig.

 

I spat it out.

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Lima, a city on the ocean, will always have at least one leading fancy seaside seafood restaurant.

 

When I was last here, 30 years ago, there were two: Costa Verde and Rosa Nautica. They're still chugging along, but they give every sign of being once-fashionable places that now operate on auto-pilot -- and comments from locals confirmed this.

 

The current fashionable fancy seaside seafood place is Cala (like its predecessors, in perpetually fashionable Miraflores). Times being what they are, Cala is much more loungey than its predecessors (on weekend nights, it turns into a full-fledged club, I think). But, the food is good. I had an octopus and conch tiradita that was exemplary both in terms of the freshness and sweetness of the seafood and the invigorating balance of flavor of the rest.

 

And, of course, sitting there watching and listening to the waves and then staring out beyond them into the vastness of the Pacific, you can't help but be pretty happy with things.

 

In a sense, Cala is like Contramar in Mexico City -- another fashionable seafood restaurant that sneakily produces very good food. (To be fair, Cala is probably not quite as good as Contramar.) (But it's good -- don't get me wrong.)

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My favorite thing in Barranco is the Bajada de los Banos, an old path that leads from the town center to the beach through an acient ravine in the cliff ("Barranco" literally meaning "ravine" in Spanish).

 

It's lined with restaurants, nightspots, and funky old residences, some of which have now been converted into hostels, but many of which remain funky residences.

 

Spanning over the Bajada at one point, leading to a picturesque semi-ruined church on the other side, is an old wooden bridge called the Puente de los Suspiros, or Bridge of Sighs.

 

Unlike the other famous Bridge of Sighs, people aren't sighing here because they're about to be put in prison. They're sighing here for love.

 

In fact, an old tradition has it that if you cross the Bridge of Sighs for the first time without drawing a breath, your wish will come true.

 

I had a very specific wish, involving a very specific desk girl at my hotel.

 

I'm still waiting.

 

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The current fashionable fancy seaside seafood place is Cala (like its predecessors, in perpetually fashionable Miraflores).

WHAT AM I SAYING? Cala is on the beach in Barranco. Barranco. Barranco.

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The current fashionable fancy seaside seafood place is Cala (like its predecessors, in perpetually fashionable Miraflores).

WHAT AM I SAYING? Cala is on the beach in Barranco. Barranco. Barranco.

 

Ha. I searched it and saw that on the map but figured it was a micro district or something. But it looks kind of by itself on the water, no?

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Amaz

 

Pedro Miguel Schiaffino runs a high-end white-tablecloth SP-recognized restaurant called Malabar in Lima. It features flavors and accents of Amazonian cooking as part of its "creative" cheffy "new" Peruvian cuisine.

 

Last year, Chef Schiaffino opened this lower-end, more demotic restaurant featuring actual Amazonian dishes (as opposed to new creations using Amazonian ingredients and accents). It's received rapturous reviews. Everybody talks about how fun it is, how comfortable it is, how great the food is.

 

As I was walking up the street to its Miraflores location, I saw the Lima Hilton looming up ahead of me. "Don't be in the Hilton. Please don't be in the Hilton," I repeated to myself like a mantra.

 

It was in the Hilton.

 

That's what they don't tell you.

 

This place couldn't seem more inauspicious. On the ground level of the Hilton. A big bar surrounded by straw verandas surrounding tables. A menu with parti-colored "fun" typeface.

 

But the hostess sussed out that, notwithstanding my reservation, I'd prefer eating at the bar than at a table. The bartender was serious (and the Amazon-inflected cocktails were delicious). And the food, it turned out, was real.

 

Now by "real", I don't mean "authentic". I've never been to the Amazon and, beyond whatever quick research I did to prepare for this meal, I have no idea what people eat there. By "real", I mean serious. Made with integrity. Not a bunch of sugary glop.

 

Everybody starts with the giant Amazonian snails. They come in the shell, minced, served with a tangy chorizo sauce. Now since the snails are minced, you kind of have to take them at their word that they're really as big as the huge shells they're served in would indicate. I didn't really taste any snail flavor standing up to the sauce -- but really, in Escargots Bourguignonne the snails mainly provide texture, too. I wouldn't have minced them so finely, is my only complaint.

 

The classic Amazonian food fish is paiche (as opposed to the classic Amazonian feeding fish, piranha). Paiche are huge and are reportedly great eating. But since they have come up for air every five minutes or so to breath, they're sitting for hunters (you can't even call them fisherman: they just club the fish when they emerge) and have been woefully overfished. So all the restaurant versions these days are farmed, and who needs that? I went with a small white Amazonian fish called doncella (which in the Castillan we all learned in high school means "beautiful young virgin": I was surprised to see this on the menu), served with cashews (apparently very big in the Amazon) and mushrooms. A nice, hearty fish dish.

 

This is really quite a good place. I thought to myself that if a big-deal chef's lower-cost second restaurant is this good, maybe the famous Lima dining scene will turn out to be as good as it's reputed. Let's hold that thought.

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Chez Wong

 

So here's where we start messing with International Food Culture.

 

Chez Wong is run by Javier Wong, in his apartment in a unprepossessing working-class neighborhood. He used to make ceviche in his garage and serve it there to people in the neighborhood and whoever would come by. One day, Anthony Bourdain came by, with a bank of cameras. He declared that this ceviche garagiste had an intuitive, almost mystical, understanding of ceviche, beyond that held by anyone else -- that the ceviche made by this guy in his garage was the best ceviche made anywhere.

 

Chef Wong's garage became a shrine.

 

Eventually, he turned the sitting-room level of his apartment into a restaurant. I don't mean he has people in his apartment: he outfitted it as a basic storefront-Chinese-looking restaurant. It's still in an apartment, which you have to enter to get to it, though.

 

It's almost impossible to get a reservation. I had to try more than a month in advance. He serves one seating each weekday, during lunch.

 

The lucky diners were allowed into the apartment/dining room and seated. There was a lot of rejiggering and moving about of tables by the staff in order to reach what they considered an optimal arrangement for the configurations of the parties there that day. As I was a solo diner, they brought me out a special tiny onesie table. This was mysterious, since, although it was smaller than their two-tops, it didn't take up sufficiently less space to make any difference in the lay-out.

 

Chef Wong came out holding a flounder. (I didn't know they had flounders in the Pacific.) People lined up to take cell-phone photos of Chef Wong with his flounder. Then, they lined up to take selfies of themselves standing next to Chef Wong and his flounder.

 

Finally, it came time to start cooking.

 

Chef Wong was remarkably deft at breaking down the flounder. Trust me on this: I grew up on the water, and I've been watching people clean and cut fish since I was a boy. This guy was good.

 

He then started to prepare the food. You get two or three dishes: a ceviche, a chifa stir-fry, and a third dish that might have been a tiradito (I didn't make it that far). Nobody tells you this, but each dish is $25 (stating that price in Peruvian New Soles -- 75 of them -- may give a better idea of how expensive this was). For Lima, that's very pricey. (By way of contrast, main dishes at Gaston Acuria's fancy cebicheria La Mar cost from about 40 soles to about 65 soles.)

 

I want to be clear that I went into this with the best will in the world. I was on vacation. I wanted it to be great. I wanted to have a special, matchless experience. I get no pleasure whatsoever out of debunking something thousands of miles from my home that was hard for me to get into.

 

The ceviche was of the flounder and some octopus. The octopus was annoyingly chewy. I was going to type something to the effect of how there must be a way to pound the octopus into tenderness -- but then I remembered that I don't have to speculate: just the day before, I had for lunch an octopus tiradito that was meltingly tender. As for the ceviche compound, the flavors were very pronounced -- mainly black pepper -- but they weren't at all layered and complex. Rather, they were one-dimensional and simplistic.

 

The flounder stir-fry was better. But look: it was a flounder stir-fry.

 

I was too full to try the third dish. This stuff isn't portioned for solo diners. (Although the week of eating microscopic tasting-menu portions for dinner that was to follow ended up making me long for these too-big portions.)

 

So here we are: all mystique, no real quality.

 

Here are two things I think are wrong with Mass Food Culture, which each leads to the same bad consequence.

 

First, to the extent Mass Food Culture is propogated by television, it's subject to the needs and limitations of that medium. Unlike writing, there's no good way for the audio-visual medium to convey the experience of eating, the sense of flavor. In the dawn of food TV, the shows were all "how-to" cooking shows, which TV is well equipped to communicate. But once you get beyond "how-to" cooking instruction, once you want to try to focus on the food itself, you've got to have a story in order to keep the audience's attention. You know, something like a Chinese-Peruvian making ceviche in his garage.

 

Second (and I've said this before), mass audiences are big. There are very few subjects of mass attention where there are as many people who are truly interested in the subject as constitute the mass audience. Meaning that when it becomes briefly fashionable for a mass audience to attaend to something like cuisine, the bulk of that mass audience is going to consist of people who don't really care much about cuisine per se. To interest those people, you need extraneous stuff: stories. You know, something like a Chinese-Peruvian making ceviche in his garage.

 

So Mass Food Culture gets you things like Chez Wong. I'm glad my fellow diners all seemed to be having a wonderful time.

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