Friday, September 21, 2012

Peruvian Platters & the Japanese Connection

Once, in a conversation with Buenos Aires Herald restaurant critic Dereck Foster, I told him that I sometimes liked to get takeaway sushi for dinner. Dereck, an Anglo-Argentine who’s been doing this for more than half a century, needled me with the admonition that sushi should always been fresh, so I had to explain myself in greater detail.

To get my sushi, I went to a wonderful restaurant called Libélula, barely a block from home. Libélula, which later moved and has since closed, was in fact a pioneer Peruvian restaurant, but it had an extensive sushi menu that owed its origins to a small but influential wave of Japanese immigration to Perú that began in 1899 (though most Peruvians might like to forget the corrupt and dictatorial presidency of Alberto Fujimori. It’s worth adding that Argentina has its own history of Japanese immigration, most visible in and around the Buenos Aires suburb of Belén  de Escobar, known as the Capital Nacional de la Flor (National Flower Capital), partly because of its Japanese horticultural tradition.

In any event, at Libélula, I would take a seat at the bar and nurse a pisco sour while the sushi chef – of clear Japanese descent – prepared my dinner. Then, when all was ready, I would pay the bill, tip the bartender, and walk home to enjoy a solitary sushifest before sitting down at the computer to update the day’s information to the new edition of MoonHandbooks Buenos Aires. In doing so, I saved both money and time.

Libélula is sadly gone, but Peruvian cuisine – perhaps the most diverse and flavorful on the entire South American continent - is flourishing in the city. It ranges from plain and inexpensive eateries such as Monserrat’s Status, which gets a genuinely Peruvian crowd, to midrange to upscale Palermo restaurants such as Bardot and some elite options. The truly elite option is Astrid y Gastón, which opened in our neighborhood shortly after Libélula closed.
In reality, Astrid & Gastón is now a small empire of restaurants that started in Lima with now celebrity chef Gastón Acurio and his wife Astrid. It’s since expanded to several other Latin American capitals, including Santiago and Mexico City, and even Madrid, without losing its flavors and elegance. I’ve been to the Buenos Aires locale only once, for a brief lunch, but my wife María Laura went for dinner with a friend last week to enjoy dishes such as cebiche con leche de pantera (ceviche with squid ink, pictured above), a flavorful mix that includes fresh fish, shrimp, scallops, sweet potato and red onions. That was a starter, but the main dishes included arroz con pato (braised duck and rice, pictured below) and pescado con salsa huacatay (catch of the day, with a sweet and sour sauce). For the two of them, with appetizers, pisco sours and wine, the hit came to around US$150, so this is not a budget choice.
Sadly, Peruvian food has not made a major impact in the United States. A couple weeks ago we heard of a new place that opened in Berkeley but, on arrival, we learned that it specialized in barbecue chicken (which, though it’s popular in in Peru, was not the seafood or ají de gallina we’d been hoping for). On the other hand, Acurio has opened up a separate gourmet chain called La Mar Cebichería Peruana, which has branches in New York and San Francisco, so diners in those cities can now sample gourmet Peruvian food, focused on fish, ceviche and sushi. We’ve not gone there yet, but we do enjoy San Francisco’s Destino.

Even in other South American countries, Peruvian food doesn’t make it much outside the capital cities. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen it in Uruguay, but it’s a bit more prevalent in Chile, which has seen substantial Peruvian immigration over the past decades. That’s a topic for another day, though.

Tango by the River
As announced the other day, there’s been a postponement of my digital slide lecture on Buenos Aires at Tango by the River in Sacramento, which will now take place Friday, October 26th, at 6 p.m.
Limited to a maximum of 50 people, the event will also include tango performances; admission costs $10 at the door, or $8 in advance. I have spoken here several times before, and we always sell out, so plan in advance. Signed copies of my Moon Handbooks on Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia will be available at discount prices.


Roger said...

A Google search for Peruvian food in the San Francisco (California) bay area will show many restaurants in several locations. And in Santiago de Chile, I usually prefer Peruvian restaurants for excellent presentations at less than Gastón prices.

Wayne Bernhardson said...

You're right, Roger, that you can find cheaper and still very fine Peruvian food in Buenos Aires and Santiago. Peruvian food in the US, though, still has a very low profile.

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