Saturday, May 7, 2011

La Huaca Pucllana

Surrounded by a fence, in the midst of Miraflores' modern high rise apartments, there sits a 75-foot tall mound of mud bricks.  This is the Huaca Pucllana (also known in older references as the Huaca Juliana).

The Huaca Pucllana is the remains of a 1,500-year old temple complex of the Lima culture, which flourished in the area centuries before the Wari, and later the Incas, left their mark.

In 1981 sustained systematic archaelogical work was begun at the Huaca, and in 1984 a site museum and "historic-cultural park" were established.  The 37-acre site includes pryramid proper, and a surrounding ceremonial/administrative sector of smaller, interconnected, buildings and courtyards.

Also, occupying one corner of the site, overlooking the pyramid, there is today one of Lima's most highly-regarded restaurants, the Restaurante Huaca Pucllana.

 On the Tuesday of my stay there, Liz and I decided to try the restaurant, joined by my like-named cousin, Juancho.   Having decided on going only that same evening, we were not able to obtain a table on the outdoor terrace, overlooking the Huaca, which is part of the charm of the restaurant.  Instead, we got the last table available, in a corner near the rear of the main room.

The restaurant, with its reputation for well-prepared food and its great location, is a draw for tourists a grade above the backpack-and-hostel crowd, and for Peruvians with foreign guests, and the prices and ambience do reflect that somewhat. 

The main dining room is decorated with ancient oars and feathered capes which, if not original, are reminiscent of the ancients' art.   There is also an enormous bouquet made of an entire dried cotton plant that is quite impressive.  The ceiling is accented with pre-Inca motifs and great rough-hewn wooden beams, supported in turn by similar wooden posts.  All in all, even indoors, the restaurant is quite charming in its attention to keeping with its location on the ancient site.

The service, we found, however left something to be desired.   The waiters seemed rushed and impatient.  Granted, we did arrive in the midst of the dinner rush, and it seems that there was a rather large party was expected and being prepped for, but nonetheless it is the wait staff's job to make every guest feel welcome and appreciated.   More than once our waiter rushed off as soon as he deemed our drink or appetizer order had been placed, leaving us with questions unasked.

The wine guy also kept pestering us about whether we had decided on which wine, if any, to order.   We were waiting in order to ask the waiter for recommendations on pairings with dishes, but as the service was slow, we had to wait, and so did he.

The drinks, it must be said were good.  I had a better-balanced coca sour there that I've ever had anywhere else.  The bitterness of the coca leaves, with which the pisco is infused, was not too evident, nor was the drink overly-sweet as is sometimes the case.

I must also admit, in fairness, that I probably set the restaurant up for an impossible comparison, when I ordered a lomo saltado.   Lomo saltado is, as its name indicates, sauteed beef, cooked with tomato and onion slices, a bit of soy sauce, and french fried potatoes, and served with rice.   The dish is so simple and the ingredients and flavours so well-known that there is not much that a restaurant can do with the dish to make it somehow special.  Huaca Pucllana, in its turn,  did what other upscale chefs and restaurants often do with it, and use expensive, tender cuts of beef and serve the fries on the side of the sautee to keep them crisp, instead of mixing them into the dish as is the wont of home cooks -including myself.

Lomo saltado is a legacy of Chinese immigrants, combining their cooking techniques and flavorings with Andean ingredients, and is a staple of Peruvian criollo cooking.  As such, it is also a staple of Peruvian home cooking and everyone has their own way of cooking it or a preferred cook.   Thus, there is perhaps no way that any restaurant could hope to wow everyone with their lomo saltado or make theirs the "best" one has tasted (an honor usually reserved for Mom or Grandma, I suppose).

We did have fun and did enjoy our meal, but the food, while good, did not stand-out enough to draw us back on its own.  However, what makes a restaurant memorable, beyond competent cooking, is the experience.  In this case, as Liz pointedly noted, the service was not up to what one expects from a Lima restaurant of that caliber and those prices, and did  detract from the experience.

In sum, yes, I'd eat there again, and gladly, but probably not unless were able to sit outside overlooking the Huaca, which is in great measure what the Huaca Pucllana dining experience is all about.

Huaca Pucllana
General Borgoña, cuadra 8
Miraflores - Lima - Peru

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