la mar

If I could sing a love song, I would sing it for La Mar.  The one in Lima.

La Mar means the sea. An apt name for Gastón Acurio‘s cebícheria situated in the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima (and in several other locations). By the way, Miraflores means ‘look at the flowers’…isn’t that beautiful? Gastón is a Peruvian chef and one of the most famous in South America. He is “Lima’s Molto Mario” and “the Jean-Georges of Peru”. We didn’t know all this when we decided to eat lunch at his cebícheria on our first day in Lima. It was walkable from our hostel and we had heard good reviews from one of NaGo’s colleagues and it didn’t require a reservation.

In case you didn’t know, Peruvian cuisine is quite hot right now. If you could eat only one dish in Lima, it has to be the cebíche. Peru is most likely where it originated. In pre-colonial times, chicha was used to marinate the raw fish. But when the conquistadors came, they brought along limes from the Mediterranean, making lime juice the preferred acidic component of modern cebíche recipes.

La Mar starts you off with chips and dips. The chips were made of sweet potatoes and plantains, and served in a typical seafood bucket. There was also a basket of toasted corn, which tastes a little weird at first if you haven’t eaten it before, but then grows on you. NaGo ordered a chicha morada and I opted for a Peruvian beer, Cusquena.

We were very intrigued by the flavors of the multi-colored dips, so we asked for some help. What followed was truly remarkable, making that lunch one of the nicest restaurant dining experiences for both of us. First came Milton, the handsome man pictured below. He described, in detail, the three kinds of chillies and a mint-like herb that went into those dips. Then, he offered to show us the raw ingredients so we could taste them! How often does that happen?

This is the plate he brought out for tasting. The yellow-orange pepper is called aji amarillo and literally means “yellow pepper”. It is one of the base ingredients in manu Peruvian dishes, such as the famous aji de gallina. The largest red pepper is called rocoto, another frequently used ingredient in Peruvian recipes like rocoto relleno. The smaller red chilli (on the left) is aji limo and comes from the same family as habanero peppers. The green herb, which I had thought was mint, is called huacatay or black mint (I was close!).

But, of course, we had come to La Mar to eat cebíche and not raw peppers, remember? This is their beautifully worded menu. We ordered two dishes: cebíche clasico and chalaco tiradito. The classic cebíche consisted of the day’s catch marinated in leche de tigre (or tiger’s milk) and tossed with boiled sweet potato, onion and choclo corn. Leche de tigre, considered an excellent cure for hangovers and an aphrodisiac, is a combination of lime juice, sliced onion, chillies, salt, pepper and juices from the fish and often served in a shot glass along with the cebíche. It’s basically the liquid you see in the plate below.

Tiradito is not unlike sashimi, and reflects the influence of Japanese immigrants on Peru’s food culture. For cebíches, the fish is cut into chunky pieces, where as for tiradito, one needs thin slices like a carpaccio. Ours came coated in a creamy sauce flavored with aji limo.

Both dishes were superb. And we gobbled them up pretty fast. It might be useful to keep in mind that I don’t eat seafood in general. Having been a vegetarian for the first 25 years of my life, my palate doesn’t like seafood at all, especially in restaurants. And most of it smells very ‘fishy’ to me. Which is to say that I was VERY apprehensive about eating raw fish at a seafood restaurant (although, technically, cebíche is not raw after marination). So, if I am telling you that it was really tasty and the fish was unbelievably fresh, you have to believe me :-).

After we finished eating, we wanted to peep into La Mar’s open kitchen and click some photographs. And you know what the kitchen staff did? They gave us hairnets and invited us inside to have a look at their workstations! I mean, could they have been any nicer?

Obviously, we were thrilled with all the attention we received. It made the food taste twice as good and the memories will last forever.

After getting back from Peru, I learnt that La Mar has recently opened in New York as well. I’ll definitely go eat there to see how different it is. The reviews seem to be mixed, but most people really like their cebíches it seems. It occupies the same space that erstwhile Tabla did until last year. Which reminds me of the only other time I ate cebíche and quite enjoyed it. It was 2 years back. At Tabla.

If I could write a love song, I would write it for La Mar. The one in Lima.

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