Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
It is Peru's time to shine on the culinary stage. Three Lima restaurants—Central, Maido and Astrid y Gastón—are on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list (only five in the United States are there). The food at these restaurants applies Peru's diverse cultural influences to its natural bounty, yielding a subtle, organic fusion cuisine. While Del Mar's Café Secret (1140 Camino Del Mar) doesn't pretend to offer Michelin-starred perfection, it certainly demonstrates the big flavors and diverse influences that form the foundation upon which those restaurants were built.
Peruvian cuisine is characterized by three separate geographical regions (coastal, Andes highlands and Amazonian jungle) and by the layering of European followed by Asian immigration on top of indigenous cultures. Peru's national dish is ceviche —which it claims to have invented—raw fish (or par-boiled seafood) cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated ("cooked") in citrus. As Café Secret shows, Peru's version uses locally caught fish-of-the-day, octopus, jumbo shrimp, Peruvian scallops, New Zealand green lip mussels and calamari along with aji chiles, onion, garlic, sweet corn kernels, canchitas (think corn nuts-in-the-raw or popped-but-unpuffed popcorn) and sweet potatoes. It is an acid-forward dish brimming with flavor and textural contrasts.
Filtering ceviche through the lens of Japan's influence on Peruvian cookery yields tiradito . Instead of chunks of fish marinated in lime, sashimi-cut thin slices of fish are sauced at the last minute with an emulsion featuring aji amarillo chiles, lime and aromatics. Aji amarillos are Peruvian chiles with serrano-level heat but a tremendous fruitiness. The color says "sweet" but the sauce means serious business. In addition to the traditional version, Café Secret also offers a passion fruit tiradito. I was dubious, but the tropical fruit-fish combination really worked.
If the tiraditos put the focus on Peru's Japanese influence, lomito saltado speaks to the Chinese influence. Soy sauce and vinegar marinated filet mignon is stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, aji amarillos and is served with yucca (representing Peruvian origin) and rice (representing Chinese influence). Salty, earthy, full of umami and with an Asian-tilting flavor profile, it is a fascinating fusion.
Not everything at Café Secret worked so well. A quinoa tamale sounded much better on the menu than it tasted on the plate. Based on Peruís staple grain, quinoa, with field corn, cilantro queso fresco and aji amarillo, and steamed in a corn husk, the intriguing combination of ingredients never came together and ended up tasting bland.
Similarly, Peru prizes itself on its " sanguiches " (sandwiches), but its chicken version (available only at lunch) was competent but unspectacular. A better lunchtime option would be the empanadas. The beef version—which emphasizes the savory more than the funky ingredients such as olives, capers and raisins of the classic Argentine version—is a particularly good choice.
Restaurants such as Central, Maido and Astrid y Gastón have put Peru's cuisine on the map. Through exacting perfection and an exploration of all Peru has to offer they have forged a cuisine that is second to none. Café Secret is not all that. It does, however, present an excellent opportunity to explore the big flavors and culinary DNA with which those restaurants are working.