We live in the era of the ‘star chef ’. He’s famous, is on TV, owns a number of restaurants all over the world, has produced innumerable cookbooks. The last thing you’ll find him doing is slaving over a hot stove tossing your order of pasta. It’s all in the name. That said, I like Gastón Acurio. The 40ish master from Lima has done more to promote the understanding and diffusion of Peruvian cooking, which is one of Latinamerica’s great cuisines, around the world than anyone before him. Along with his wife, Astrid Gutsche, the flagship high end Peruvian fusion venue Astrid & Gastón which they opened in Lima fifteen years ago has taken off and now has branches all over Latin America, Madrid and now in Mexico.
Peru’s cooking, like that of Mexico, is based on an intricate fusion of native ingredients and techniques and those of Europe, notably Spain. Unlike in Mexico’s cooking, there is a rather profound Asian influence, due to the large migration of Chinese and Japanese to the country. With a long coastline and rugged mountain areas, there is a vast lexicon of national dishes that cover both surf and turf. The standard ‘Cebichería’ found all over Peru, is the people’s lunch joint serving superb marinated fish and seafood, concoctions similar to, but not the same as, their Mexican cousins. Acurio opened one here in our capital a couple of years ago: La Mar. While upscale and expensive, it is authentic, and the food of high quality. Like his bistro, which I have also tried in Lima, Mexico’s La Mar presents Limeño specialties using the best of local ingredients; it is always crowded.
Our version of the recently inaugurated Astrid y Gaston is set in a clean modern space with touches of dark wood and comfortably upholstered seating. It is directed by young Mexican master chef Yerika Muñoz and she does an extraordinary job. I had a better meal here than at the original. Muñoz studied with Acurio in Peru for four brief but intense months and seems to have absorbed the essense of what the master wants to do. While Peruvian classics are presented ostensibly in their authentic guises, the chef often adds a suggestion of the Mexican kitchen. Like all good chefs, she adapts to local ingredients and traditions and does it sucessfully.
Her menu is divided into two parts: La Tradicion, featuring classic Peruvian dishes and La Temporada, offering seasonal and more creative specialties. I’m a traditionalist so I stuck with the former. Anticuchos are skewered beef hearts and are the quintissential Peruvian snack. I finally dared to try them while in Lima and found them to be tough and stringy, albeit flavorful. Here, they were tender, succulent and perfectly grilled, like a good filet mignon. Of course, we had to sample the famous Peruvian ceviches (often spelled with a “b” south of the equator.) There are five, and my favorite was the Ceviche Lima D.F., of tuna, shrimp and mango all marinated in the traditonal leche de tigre – white wine, lemon, mild chile and garlic. It was sublime, just the right amount of sharp and perfumy broth to accent the fresh fish – the light touches of sweet mango and smoky chipotle adding a “toque mexicana”.
Moving on, I suggested we go for a causa. Peru is a land of potatos and causa is a mashed version augmented by sweet chile and topped with various and sundry good things. It can be dull. But not here. La Actual one of three on the menu was a surpising little tower of fragrant yellow chillied mash (nothing spicy, mind you, the Peruvians don’t do that), layered with fresh tuna, crab and avocado cream – once again a nod to the Aztec homeland.
Of the eleven “platos fuertes” on offer, several standout. The sopa seca marinera is served in a cazuela or ceramic dish. Thick pleasingly chewy soba-like noodles are nicely complemented by tender morsals of seafood and sweet caramalized onions and a very light accent of chipotle. A cochinilla de tres semanas – young suckling pig, is crunchy outside and falling apart tender within. It is beautifully caressed by its reduced “confit” sauce aromatized with cacao. The side mounds of tacu tacu, a black bean and rice mold similar to the Cuban Moros y Cristianos look pretty and are filling – if a little on the dry side.
Camarones en salsa chupe – shrimps in a cream sauce and mint pesto– presented grilled juicy shrimps perfectly augmented by the aromatic mint and tomato-y creamy ‘chupe’ – a sauce so named because it makes you want to suck the excess off your fingers. It is served over a bed of wheat “risotto" and is extraordinarily subtle.
The chaufa of seafood is common in Peru – it is based on a Chinese fried rice and is comfort food-Inca style.
Desserts are not to be overlooked – the sorbet sampler includes one made with chicha morada a purple corn used to make a refreshing and common drink – it tastes fruity and seemingly grapey although this may be psychological. Also top notch are profiteroles filled with delightfully warm chocolate.
The wine list is extensive, although we were not happy with a couple of lower-end selections of Mexican wines. Likewise, the service is friendly but, at this point, inexperienced.
Astrid y Gastón is one of the top restaurants in the city – there is room for improvement but not much…
Astrid y Gastón
Tennyson #117, Polanco
Open daily for lunch, 1:30-6PM, Dinner ,Monday – Thursday 6-10PM, Friday, Saturday 6-11PM.
All major credit cards acceptedAverage $600-800 per person with wine