N, R at 23rd St.; 6 at 23rd St.
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This venue is closed.
Easily the highest-profile chef in South America, Gastón Acurio has been described as “Lima’s Molto Mario” and “the Jean-Georges of Peru.” His first New York venture is called La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, and it’s part of a string of signature ceviche bars with outlets in far-flung destinations like São Paulo and San Francisco. The 196-seat restaurant occupies the two-floor space off Madison Square Park that previously housed Danny Meyer’s Indian-fusion restaurant Tabla.
Acurio’s menu is jammed with a boggling array of Peruvian specialties. You could make a fine meal ordering just from the first page, which includes tiraditos (a kind of Peruvian sashimi), colorful mashed-potato causas, grilled yakitori-like anticucho skewers, and of course the ceviches, which arrive in a clatter of communal porcelain plates. These aren’t the dainty little pyramids of citrus-splashed seafood we’re used to seeing in New York. They’re pleasingly messy arrangements doused with the chef’s spicy lime-based leche de tigre sauce, and the best of them (the fluke-rich Limeño; the shrimp-and-salmon Popular, tossed with crispy calamari) have a complex, compulsively delicious quality, like a cool, curiously healthful stew. Acurio is known for using traditional Peruvian ingredients (red chiles, sweet potatoes, fat choclo corn kernels) in his recipes and tossing them together in inventively rustic, Batali-esque ways. There’s a nice tasting of fritters in the small-plate piqueo dishes (try the Chinese-style tequeno spring roll), a serving of well-smoked but chewy pulpo (octopus tentacles), and plump blue shrimps set in a spidery, tempuralike crust made with tiny shavings of encamotados (sweet potato).
The man in charge of the day-to-day operations is Acurio’s chief lieutenant, Victoriano López, and as dinner progresses in the upstairs dining room there’s a slapdash, improvised quality to both the service and the cooking. The house version of the creamy Peruvian chicken stew ají de gallina was “tepid and gummy,” in the words of one of my tasters (it was), and the wet, salty duck leg in my helping of arroz con pato (duck with rice) seemed to have been braised for too long. My “barely grilled” ceviche-style portion of Maine lobster wasn’t worth its $39 sticker price, so if you’re in the market for more seafood, get the sudado halibut, which is cooked in a steamy, vegetable-rich white-wine broth. The atmosphere perks up a little at lunchtime, especially on the ground-floor bar area, which is vaguely sunny during the afternoons and built for grazing on the kind of short-order, small-plate specialties served at classic Peruvian cebicherias. The wait staff seem slightly more attuned to the nuances of the menu downstairs, and you can sample the impressive oeuvre of Pisco cocktails without having to wait long minutes for your waiter to appear through the gloom. The desserts include a very good exotic parfait flavored with yellow lúcuma fruit from the Andes.