Monday, December 22, 2008

Feliz Navidad!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

La Mar

In recent years Peru has been enjoying a culinary renaissance.

Among its first signs were opening of serious restaurants like La Rosa Nautica, Costa Verde, and others, and the emergence of large-format, richly illustrated cookbooks like La Gran Cocina Peruana by Jorge Stambury Aguirre.

This renaissance has involved the rediscovery of classic old restaurants, and a renewed appreciation for mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall eateries (huariques) and old-style picanterías, and along with them, old-style dishes. However, it has also involved the application of modern cooking techniques and ideas to old dishes and ingredients, leading in turn to the development of a modern Peruvian cuisine alongside the traditional dishes, fusing elements from the rich cultural tapestry that is Peru.

One of the early lights in this process and prime movers in all this has been the chef Gastón Acurio. Acurio, along with his wife, Astrid Gutche, is the founder of the highly-regarded Lima restaurant, Astrid & Gaston, and has been a tireless promoter of Peruvian food and ingredients, both within Peru -e.g. with his TV show La Aventura Culinaria- but internationally as well.

Acurio has made it his mission to bring Peruvian cuisine to the world, at a high level of quality and presentation, with the hopes of thus building markets for Peruvian ingredients. As part of this, Acurio and Gutche have recently been focusing on expanding their brand of restaurants to other countries.

And thus, this post is not about us going to Peru, but an encounter with a little bit of Peru that has made its way to the Bay Area:

La Mar Cebicheria Peruana

The original La Mar was opened by Acurio a few years ago in Lima, on Ave. La Mar, in Miraflores (with Pescados Capitales just a few blocks away, the area is becoming a high-end seafood mecca). The restaurant in San Francisco's Pier 1½ is the first of what are projected to be several La Mar's throughout the continent (Santiago, México, and San José locales are in the works) as well as Acurio's first US restaurant. It is not any exaggeration to say that it has been one of the most anticipated openings in the city.

On Saturday Liz and I took ourselves for lunch at this new La Mar. We lucked out with the weather, as it was a clear and sunny day, with gusty winds having prevented the notorius San Francisco overcast from forming. Traffic was heavy and the city crowded due to Fleet Week, but the restaurant, though busy, was not packed.

The restaurant itself is comprised of four spaces: a pisco bar near the entrance, followed by the cebiche bar, and the main dinning room; outside, through a set of French doors, there is an al fresco dining area overlooking the water. We chose to eat in the main room.

Did it feel like we were back in Peru? Of course not. Did it feel like we were in a Peruvian restaurant? Not particularly. The place was airy, open, and modern, and delightfully free of the brick-a-brack (you know, obligatory pictures of Machu Picchu, cheap handicrafts, etc.) that so often grace Peruvian restaurants in the US.

Some have complained that the ambiance in La Mar is too loud for a quiet, casual meal. La Mar is loud, but that energy is part of what defines the ambiente of a cebichería, along with airiness, greenery, and a hint of the sea, all of which Acurio has managed to produce in this waterfront locale.

The first thing to hit our table was a basket of fried banana, yuca, potato and sweet potato chips, with a trio of dipping sauces: rocoto, huancaína, and ají amarillo with huacatay.

La Mar offers a fairly extensive wine list with an international selection, heavy on South American wines. The cocktail list is more limited and a bit pricey ($8-$12) but includes the obligatory pisco sour and a few other pisco standards such as Capitán and Maricucha, as well as more inventive drinks, and in homage to the restaurant's location, Pisco punch.

I opted for starting with a Chicha tu ma! which was a concoction of pisco quebranta, chicha morada, triple sec, and maracuyá juice. I followed that one with a very nice pisco sour.

I saw that the bar stocked Barsol, Pisco 100, and Viña de Oro piscos but I did not ask which were used in my drinks.

Leches de Tigre (From L to R): erizo, rocoto, criollo, ají amarillo, clásico

We started our meal, at Liz's wise suggestion, with the Leches de tigre (lit. "tiger milk") sampler, which consisted of shots of the liquid from cebiche mixed with specialty ingredients. They were all quite good, but the classic (with a nice hint of ginger), the criollo (with ají amarillo and habanero peppers), and the erizo (with sea urchin roe) were the best. (Our waiter thought so too.)

Next came a tasty, but small, Tiradito criollo, comprised of thin slices of fish bathed in a creamy sauce of lime juice, ají amarillo, and habanero pepper. Despite the ingredient list, it was not very spicy, the cooks having done a nice job of attenuating the peppers' heat while retaining their flavor characteristics in the sauce. I've got to say that it was the best cebiche I've had north of Ecuador.

Following on the tiradito, came Liz's choice of Anticuchos de pulpo, skewers of grilled octopus basted with anticucho sauce (basically ají panca, ají amarillo, garlic, and a few spices), resting on pillows of chive-studded mashed potatoes.

The octopus was grilled perfectly, with not a hint of chewiness or rubberiness. It was, Liz declared, "hands down" the best octopus she'd ever had, and though usually generous, this time all she gave me were two tiny bites, having declared after her first taste that she was definitely going to "be selfish with this."

The restaurant employs an impressive array of staff, and though everyone was busy, no one seemed harried or overburdened, leading to a pleasant, efficient, and friendly service. Our waiter made sure to space out our dishes so that we could enjoy each in turn without being crowded on our table. However, he misunderstood that we were not intending on sharing our main selections.

Thus, while Liz enjoyed her octopus, I got to watch her eat it while waiting for my dish to arrive. Fortunately, I had a pisco sour to pass the time with!

My selection was a picante of seafood over linguine, with a piquant, rich, yet well-balanced, aji amarillo-based sauce, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

We finished the meal with a shared dessert of a perfectly caramelized crême brulée over mazamorra morada, which is a traditional pudding made from Andean purple corn.

Acurio and company certainly have made every effort to ensure the restaurant's success as the flagship of the brand outside of Peru, as evidenced by the repeated delays in opening until it was all just right and the presence of Astrid Gutche while we were there, two weeks after opening day.

The restaurant deserves the rave reviews it's been getting. Liz and I have never been to La Mar in Lima so we cannot compare this one to the original restaurant, but we have had our fair share of excellent seafood in Peru, and can say that La Mar Cebicheria Peruana's offerings, while skimpy by Peruvian standards, stand up flavor-wise to anything offered in Lima, and more importantly, they can stand up to other restaurants in the Bay Area.

As for us, we definitely enjoyed ourselves, and decided that we would return someday to sample other dishes, perhaps with other family members in tow. However, at $110 for two (including drinks) -and the 45 mins. it takes to get there- it would have to be a special occasion restaurant rather than some place to eat on a whim.

La Mar Cebicheria Peruana
Pier 1½
The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA, USA
(415) 397-8880

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Blog Day 2008

"BlogDay was created with the belief that bloggers should have one day dedicated to getting to know other bloggers from other countries and areas of interest. On that day Bloggers will recommend other blogs to their blog visitors.
With the goal in mind, on this day every bloggerwill post a recommendation of 5 new blogs. This way, all blog readers will find themselves leaping around and discovering new, previously unknown blogs."

1. Iceland Eyes
Pictures and notes of life in Iceland. Looks like a beautiful place, and the author, Maria, takes great photographs.

2. Comer japones
All about how and where to eat Japanese food. Really helps to demistify some terminology and includes some excellent explanations of dishes such as shabu shabu and the types of sushi.

3. The Moon Blog: Everything about the Moon
A website collecting information, pictures, videos, and news items about our closest interplanetary neighbor and constant companion, the Moon.

4. Solidarity
This is essentially a leftie news-and-views magazine in blog format. It caught my attention due to a fun post on radical blogs. I then stayed to read the rest of the site, and kinda liked it.

5. Science Blog: Science news straight from the source
A blog I just discovered which specializes in posting science-related news items. If you're at all curious about the natural world, then you'll find yourself drawn in by headings such as Caltech scientists discover why flies are so hard to swat and Spearmint tea - A possible treatment for hairy women.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lima in 1944

Lima Family is a documentary by Julien Bryan and released in 1944 by theU.S. Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, which had hired Bryan to produce a series of films on Latin American culture to be shown in schools and other venues during World War II.

It is an interesting exercise to compare the pace of life in Lima of 2008 shown in Huk Punchaw to Lima as it appeared in the 1940s.

Those familiar with Lima will be able to recognize landmarks such as the racetrack which provided the ground upon which San Felipe was built and its grandstands which later became the Ministry of the Navy, as well as a very different La Herradura beach. Included among those sights is this house, located on the corner of Av. Salaverry and Jr. Mariategui, in Jesus Maria:

This is a house that I have always noticed, ever since I was child, as it is a striking edifice, grander and more graceful than other, and later, constructions along that stretch of Salaverry. I have often wondered about its history and what it might have been like in its glory days. Lima Family provides answers to these questions.

Watching it, I am struck by how little some patterns have changed since then: the valuing of old things -"treasures from earlier, better days", the frequent getting-together of the family for meals, Papá Ramón's and, particularly, Mamá Pali's hold over their far-flung, multigenerational clan.

Unfortunately, the film's Lima family, shown so happily enjoying their "leisurely life", would soon be struck by tragedy.

The family shown is the Graña Garland family, and the surgeon and patriarch depicted is Dr. Francisco Graña, several times president of the National Academy of Medicine. One of his children, was Francisco Graña Garland, owner of a farmaceutical firm and director of the conservative daily La Prensa, and noted archi-conservative commentator and fervent opponent of the then-reformist movement, APRA.

On January 7, 1947, as he left his farmaceutical firm, Graña Garland was shot to death by unknown assailants. This event is often noted as one of the factors in the crisis which brought down the government of Pres. José Bustamante y Rivero and ended the brief "Democratic Spring" of the 1940s.

One the young women appearing in the film, Dr. Grañas daughter, Rosa, also known as "Mocha," later became a fashion designer, theater and dance figure, and tireless promoter of the performing arts. She died in the old family house in 2003.

The house itself, has been apparently unocuppied since then, if not before, and has sported a "for sale" sign for many years.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

"One Day" in Lima

Stuart at ...en Peru has posted about this amazing video on his blog. It is Huk Punchaw ("one day" in Quechua), by Oswaldo Villavicencio and Eva Machado, the 2006 winner of the Instituto Superior Toulouse Lautrec's Imagen prize for Best Documentary.

Huk Punchaw shows one day in the life of Lima, from dawn to dusk:

Sidetrip Report: Ecuador, Days 3 and 4


We started our third day in Quito by having breakfast with our old friends Marleen and Fernando. We met them in 1990 when we traveled to Ecuador for a year-long study-abroad program and Marleen directed the program in Quito. It was wonderful to see them again after so long, and incredibly it seemed as if no time had transpired since we had seen them last.

In the previous post I mentioned that our hotel was fortuitously located, and so it was. The La Mariscal district of Quito is the tourist area par excellence of the city and, catering to travellers as well as being near the business and hotel district (along Av. Amazonas), it has lots of funky restaurants and cafes, and bars and nightclubs. I've already mentioned Mama Clorinda and La Boca del Lobo. Well, each of those were but three blocks from our hotel on Calama street. The Magic Bean, where we met Marleen and Fernando, was two blocks further down, and most of the places mentioned in this post are also within walking distance.

Anyway, from breakfast we caught a cab to one of Quito's "must do" attractions: the Teleférico. The Teleferico -or TeleferiQo, as they spell it- is a gondola cable car up the side of the volcano that abutts the city of Quito, the Pichincha.

When we got there line was long as the place hadn't yet opened despite it being an hour past the posted time. There were several busloads of young kids waiting and they were all very excited to be going. Clearly for most it was the first time, and was the adventure of their young lives.

The gondolas, which each hold six people, rise from 2950 meters (8850 ft) to 4100 meters (13,400 ft) in about 10 minutes. At the top most people are likely to find themselves short of breath, and there are signs warning visitors to not try to run and to take it easy.

The views are spectacular but the place can get quite cold and windy. Fortunately there is a large enclosed observation deck with a restaurant (which was closed when we were there). There are also coffee shops and souvenir stands. I can tell you a bit of caffeine and sugar did help with the adjustment to the altitude.

The view from the observation area atop Pichincha

The volcano itself has two peaks. The extinct Ruco (old) Pichincha which is nearest the city and to which the Teleferico climbs, and the ocasionally active crater of Guagua (young) Pichincha behind it. From the Teleferico stop there are trails that go up to the Ruco Pichincha, and perhaps beyond, but for most people 13,400 feet is high enough.

The Ruco Pichincha

After descending, we headed back to the hotel to rest up a bit, but feeling a bit restless I decided to walk three blocks up to Av. 12 de Octubre to visit the bookstore of the Abya-Yala publishing house. Abya-Yala is probably the foremost publisher on the continent of materials relating to indigenous communities and their issues. I always enjoyed browsing their shelves and this time was no exception and I came away with a few books to add to my shelves.

Liz and Susana had accompanied me, and while I browsed, they walked a block or two over to the Catholic University, where Liz and I studied. Susana, however was feeling the altitude, and quickly returned to the hotel to lie down.

Liz and I, meanwhile, took the opportunity to visit Abya-Yala's small but excellent Museo Amazonico. The museum houses a collection of artifacts, both ceremonial and utilitarian, from Ecuador's diverse jungle nationalities, such as the Shuar, Achuar, and Waorani, including a couple of real shrunken heads (tsantsas) produced by Shuar warriors.

Múseo Amazónico


There is also a large display of photographs documenting environmental damage caused by petroleum drilling and transport activities in the Ecuadorean Amazon by Texaco.

All in all, the Museo Amazonico is well worth visiting on any stop in Quito.

That evening, we wandered around La Mariscal looking for a place to eat -none of us had had lunch beyond a couple of pastries shared atop Pichincha. We were having a disagreement as to whether to go Mexican, Mongolian BBQ, or Argentine steak, when we stumbled onto Plaza Foch.

Plaza Foch, named by being on the corner of Reina Victoria and Foch, is a lively little area with several 24-hr joints, and numerous cafes and restaurants, and -from what we could tell- frequent live music.

We had passed through Plaza Foch before and not paid it much heed, but now we were looking at it through new eyes and a place that caught those eyes right away was Latitud tapas and wine bar. For a prix fixe per head we surrendered ourselves to an unending sequence of tapas and wines. I think we sat there for close to two hours eating, drinking, and enjoying the atmosphere. We finally had to tell the waiter to stop bringing food as we were full. A little later we stopped the wine as well. I think it was the best meal we had in Quito and as we sat there we could think of a number of cousins and uncles in Lima who would've dug being there with us that that moment.

After dinner the kids headed back to the hotel and Liz and I caught a cab into the old city for a visit to the famous and charming Calle La Ronda. La Ronda, so named because it once followed the path of Quito's old city walls, has been cleaned up and restored to its old grace. There is a large police presence to discourage crime and automobiles are banned from it.

The street is lined with old-style shops and restaurants, some of which looked quite fun and made us sorry we'd already eaten our fill. Periodically, along the walls, there are signs detailing the history of the street, and noting important events and personages which have graced it over the years. For example, it once housed a "clandestine" speakeasy, El Murcielagario, frequented by intellectuals, poets, musicians, and other noted bohemians.

Following La Ronda we walked around and came out next to the Church and Plaza of Santo Domingo, where we caught a trole back to La Mariscal.

Not ready to go to bed yet, Liz and I then walked a few blocks down to listen to some live salsa and cumbia for a bit at a club on Juan Leon Mera. Liz was in the mood for dancing but, unfortunately, I was too afflicted by my still-going strong flu or cold to be much use in that department.


On this day we had but a few hours before we had to head to the airport, so we spent them on breakfast (back at the Magic Bean for pancakes) and then to an obligatory (for me, anyway) visit to Quito's foremost bookshop, Libri Mundi. I used to spend hours in Libri Mundi and I could still -even though they've gotten rid of their upstairs bargain section- but, I didn't have hours to spend. Nonetheless, and to no one's surprise I'm sure, I did walk out with several books under my arm.

We spent a few minutes browsing in an excellent craft gallery right next door which offered perhaps the most exquisite Ecuadorean and Peruvian crafts we'd seen (really!). Alas! we were heading in the wrong direction. If we had been going to Lima we'd probably have bought some to decorate the apartment.

Then it was off to the airport and home.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sidetrip Report: Ecuador, Days 1 and 2

Probably from our trip to Huaraz, I acquired a tenacious cold that laid me out for the going away party we hosted at the apartment on the 26th. All the cousins and aunts and uncles showed up bearing cases of beer, and bottles of wine and rum, most of which they ended up taking home as the party died down and ended, uncharacteristically early for a Peruvian party on a Saturday night, by 10:30 pm. Well, while it lasted people had fun. We had hooked up Diego's new stereo which has a karaoke function and those with decent voices sang all evening.

Day 1

On the 27th we departed Lima en route to Ecuador. We landed in Quito in the early afternoon and as soon as we settled into the hotel we went out exploring. Quito has grown upward since Liz and I last saw it seventeen years ago. New and tall buildings abound, at least on the north end of the city. In that regard it is like Lima, but, unlike Lima, traffic is relatively light and drivers respect traffic signals.

One thing that hasn't changed is that the city more or less shuts down on Sundays. Thus, we found ourselves exploring mostly-empty and shuttered streets in the La Mariscal district, where our hotel was located. We had selected the hotel -Jardin del Sol- based on its location in that area, and it turned out to be a fortuitous selection, although it was not so apparent on that first afternoon.

We walked a few blocks down to Avenida Amazonas, which had been a center of activity and one our haunts when we lived in Quito. To our dismay, we found it torn up for repairs and devoid of activity.

Nonetheless, a few businesses were still open despite the disruption, including one that we had been wanting to return to: El Hornero pizza.

At El Hornero they cook their pizza in a big wood-fired oven, which gives the pizza a nice smoky background taste. The oven gives the restaurant its name, as its shape resembles the nests of the ovenbird (hornero) of South America, particularly the Argentine pampas. In fact, there is an ovenbird nest on display in the restaurant. The pizzas are quite good, large, and compared to pizza in the US, well-priced, and definitely hit the spot after a day of travel.

Day 2

Before we left the US we had hired ourselves a morning-long city tour of Quito for our first morning in the city. We were picked up a nearby hotel and taken by bus to the city's historic center.

The first stop on the way was at the Basilica del Voto Nacional. The Basilica stands out in the skyline of the old part of town because of its height (plus being built on a hill) and due to its architecture. The neo-Gothic structure stands in marked contrast to the colonial and neo-classical facades of the rest of downtown. It is alsno noted for its gargoyles. On the posterior end, they are traditional gargoyles, but along the more recent and front end, they take the form of Ecuadorean animals such as iguanas, Galapagos tortoises, Magellanic penguins, frigate birds, anteaters, or monkeys.

Begun in the late 1800s, construction was stopped in time for it's blessing by Pope John Paul II's on his visit to the city in 1985. The interior is lit through by stained glass panels brought from Spain and installed in time for that visit.

The next stop was the Plaza Grande, Quito's main square. Despite its name, which means "large square", the plaza is not particularly large (in fact it seems smaller than the nearby Plaza San Francisco). On one side of the plaza is the former Archbishop's Palace, and across from it, the cathedral. On the two remaining sides, facing each other, stand city hall and the Carondelet Palace, seat of the Presidency.

Because it was the 28th of July, there was a floral offering in the form of a Peruvian flag by the plaza's central monument to the heroes of independence.
The Plaza Grande with city hall in the background

The Quito Cathedral

Courtyard of the Presidential Palace

It being a Monday we were also fortunate to be able to observe the mid-day changing of the guard ceremony at the Presidential Palace with President Rafael Correa in attendance.

The Granaderos de Tarqui (Tarqui Grenadiers) during the changing of the guard ceremony

President Rafael Correa (center) oversees the ceremony from the Palacio Carondelet

Granadero and flag atop the Palacio Carondelet

Our last three stops downtown were at colonial-era churches: the Church of El Sagrario, at the west end of the Cathedral, the church of the Company of Jesus (i.e. the Jesuits), and the Franciscan order's Church of San Francisco. The latter two were undergoing repairs -the first from a fire, and the latter from earthquake damage, but were still well-worth visiting.

Burial in the entryway of El Sagrario Church

San Francisco Church (built 1536-1580)

One of the cool things about Plaza San Francisco is that there are tunnels under the church. On the right side of stairs (and visible in the image above) these have been taken over by a cafe and cultural center which sells native handcrafts from all over Ecuador. The tunnels run deep under the church and seem like great fun to explore while admiring the exquisite crafts for sale (they do have some of the best we saw in Quito). Unfortunately our schedule did not allow time enough to really appreciate the place and precluded a return visit.

The final stop on the tour was at the top of El Panecillo hill, a volcanic mound which overlooks the Old City and sits squarely amidships the city, separating the more prosperous north from the working class south. The Panecillo is made all the more visible by the 45 meter-tall aluminum statue erected on its summit in 1976. Though it is often claimed that the statute represents the Madonna of Quito, it is in fact a representation of the woman in Revelations 12:1-18.

Afterward, desirous of traditional foods, we headed to Mama Clorinda a restaurant the the tourbooks and our tour guide recommended as one of the best, if not the best, place to eat Ecuadorean cuisine.

I started off my meal with an Ecuadorian classic: cebiche de chochos. Chochos are lupini beans and are a characteristic of Ecuadorean cooking where they are used in cebiche (as they are also in Peru's Ancash region) and incorporated into aji sauces.

I followed up with the local version of chicharrones, fritada, which came with lots of corn -in the form of corn on the cob, cancha, and mote- and, this being Ecuador, fried banana. The rest opted for llapingachos, cheese-filled potato pancakes acompanied by fried egg and either sausages or a thin steak, and an old favorite of Liz's.

I don't know if their cooking was uninspired or whether that's the way Ecuadoren food is, but I wasn't very impressed. I think that Mama Clorinda, while a solid restaurant, is recommended to tourists more on the basis of being clean and in a decent neighborhood than anything else.

After lunch we hopped on the trole bus and headed north to wander around Parque La Carolina and our old neighborhood near the stadium. There wasn't much to look at there, so we ended up wandering inside the revamped Quicentro shopping center.

We finished off the day with dinner at a spot that Susana had wanted to go to since the moment she saw it - as I think did the rest of us: La Boca del Lobo restaurant on the corner of Calama and Reina Victoria.
La Boca del Lobo restaurant

La Boca del Lobo has got to be the funkiest and coolest restaurant any of us have ever set foot in. The walls of the converted house are decorated in vibrant tones and dozens of painted dythirambic sheep cavort across the ceilings, yet it all somehow managed to remain cozy and intimate. The food was as great and imaginative as the setting (just don't order a pisco sour), and although it was busy, we never felt crowded or rushed. It was a fun meal in a fun place, and a good way to wrap up the day.