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