Nothing could sufficiently prepare me for three days of eating and drinking in Lima, Peru. But a passage from Faces & Masks by the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano came close:
At noon, bananas and passion fruit, pineapples, milky chirimoyas of green velvet, and avocados promising soft pulp promenade through the streets....
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At three, appears the vendor of anticuchos, roasted broken hearts, followed by the peddlers of honey and sugar....
Cebiche, raw fish steeped in lime, marks five o'clock....
At eight, ice creams of many flavors and colors, fresh gusts of wind, push the doors of night wide open.
Galeano dates this culinary book of hours to 1769. More than two centuries later, I discovered that it's still true: The internal clock of the people of Lima ticks to food; it's set to the hourly promise of something delicious. In every restaurant I visited, I encountered travelers from Europe, Asia and elsewhere in South America who'd made pilgrimages to Lima—to eat. And I'd never met people more rapturous about eating, and feeding others, than Limeños themselves.
At noon, cubes of frogfish...
I met with Limeño journalist and editor Diego Salazar for lunch at Central. (Diego told me I'd recognize him because he looks like a Peruvian Jeff Goldblum. He wasn't wrong.) Central is ranked fourth on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, and number one in Latin America; its chef, Virgilio Martínez, is a local and international superstar. From our table next to the open kitchen, we could watch its crew work, led by Virgilio's wife, chef Pía León.
The menu at Central ranges up and down Peru's altitudes. We started low, at 25 meters below sea level, with one crisp, soft, salty, vegetal bite: diminutive cubes of frogfish arrayed on dried, velvety-green deep-water algae. I'd been told that I had to try Lima's celebrated anticucho, the inexpensive grilled beef heart sold from carts on the street. At Central, it came in a pliant, very rare slice, with a small pool of thick milk and a crunchy dusting of amaranth. Heart, milk, earth: a poem on a plate. But the greatest revelation was a dish of slow-roasted avocado, tree tomato and amaranth. I'd never tasted avocado like this before: its flavor concentrated, its texture silken.
Over lunch, Diego and I discussed a subject almost as dear to us both as food: soccer. Stereotypes about South American footballing brilliance do not apply here: Peru has not qualified for the World Cup since 1982. "Food is what brings us together, because our football is not good," Diego said. "Food is our football."
I asked Diego about Lima's bar culture. "Nonexistent," he said. He clarified: There were popular bars and clubs in Barranco—the gentrifying, bohemian district where I was staying—and at the city's hotels and restaurants. But the days of idling away afternoons at neighborhood bodegas are gone. The terrorism that shook the city in the 1980s and '90s forced Limeños to retreat from everyday public pleasures.
Drinking sessions and parties were relocated to the safety of the home.
Lima is emerging from this, slowly but steadily. And if there's any single thing driving this new enthusiasm for going out, it's food.
As Diego and I finished our lunch, Virgilio himself came out to chat with us. The former law student is possessed of a quick, unmistakable wit; he's good company. I'd been planning to take a walk amid Barranco's tree-lined streets and colonial mansions, and maybe take a nap before dinner. But Lima had other plans for me.
At 3 there is guinea pig...
Diego and Virgilio ushered me into a black car that waited outside the restaurant. I had no clue where we were going, but my trust was rewarded when we arrived at Maido, a Nikkei restaurant nearby. Nikkei cuisine is the marriage of Peruvian and Japanese cooking, and Maido's Peruvian-born, American-trained chef, Mitsuharu Tsumura, is arguably its most gifted and revered practitioner. Like Central, Maido is counted among Latin America's best restaurants, and the world's.
Diego, Virgilio and I joined Mitsuharu (his friends call him Micha) and another man, Renato Peralta, at a table close to the sushi bar. Renato, who has friendly eyes and a calm, patient manner, is a baker and consultant to many of Lima's great restaurants. But he's more than that. "He's like our therapist," Virgilio said. "A chef therapist." Maybe his psychological ministrations were necessary, as it was starting to seem that a benevolent madness afflicted the chefs of Lima, confirmed by a collective, hysterical deafness when someone tells them, "I can't eat anymore." After more than a dozen courses at Central, the food kept coming at Maido: a tiny portion of cui—local guinea pig—with potato. A rich, glistening dumpling. Everything was delicious, but I couldn't take another bite. I told Micha I'd be back.
At 1:30 there is short rib...
As promised, I went back to Maido the next day. Lima's eagerness to feed, its generous excess, had gotten to me: I would have had seconds of everything I was served, but two dishes particularly left me wanting more. The first was an intense chicken broth, flecked with crunchy katsu flakes and poured tableside from something resembling a French press. The other, a compact log of braised beef short rib, cooked sous vide for 50 hours, nestled on an unassuming pile of white rice fried with vegetables.
At 9 appears pisco...
I'd probably return to Lima for that short rib alone. But I'd also want to sit at the bar at Maras, a restaurant in the Westin, headed by chef Rafael Piqueras. Henry Castillo, who runs the hotel's cocktail program, invited me to join him behind the bar; there's nowhere I feel more at home. "Do you want to learn how to make the best pisco sour in the world?" he asked. Who wouldn't? Henry set up all the ingredients I'd need: pisco, lime juice, egg white, simple syrup and bitters. I filled a mixing glass with ice and the rest of the ingredients, then shook it like mad. My sour didn't have the stiff, frothy cap that is the mark of perfection, but Henry let me in on a secret: Most Lima bartenders use a blender.
When I returned to the civilian side of the bar, David, then a bartender at Central, turned up with his friend Ivan, another bartender. Henry let David behind the bar, too. I lingered longer at Maras than I'd expected and drank and talked late into the night. There's a sense of fellowship among bartenders everywhere; I felt it powerfully in Lima.
Urchin marks one o'clock...
For my final meal in Lima I met up with my journalist friend Diego and his wife, Lizzy Cantú, at La Picantería for chef Héctor Solís's take on traditional Peruvian food. At the bar, I got a lesson in the Incan corn drink chicha de jora. I tried four varieties: one fresh and slightly fermented, the others aged and flavored with membrillo, peach and green apple. Tangy, funky: I loved them.
Lunch at one of the communal tables started with a massive sea urchin omelet, one of the most decadent things I've ever eaten. Then came veal tongue and duck, braised with chiles. Soup appeared, into which we lowered a beef-and-cheese-stuffed pepper. And, finally, ceviche. Having eaten so much and so well in Lima, I'd almost forgotten about its best-known dish.
After lunch, we stepped back into the bar. David and Ivan were there, and I joked that I felt like I was being followed. In three days, I'd eaten upwards of 60 courses—and attracted some unusually friendly stalkers.
"Come on," Ivan urged, "one more drink." But by then I knew there was no such thing in Lima as just one more.