Photographs by Danny Kim
Like the other ambitious cooks from around the globe who’ve been rashly setting up kitchens in New York this fall (Miguel Sanchez Romera from Barcelona at Romera, Jung Sik Yim from Seoul in the old Chanterelle space downtown), the Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio comes to town with a sparkling résumé. Easily the highest-profile chef in South America, Acurio has been described as “Lima’s Molto Mario” and “the Jean-Georges of Peru.” Like Batali, he’s a round, charismatic figure, with multiple hit TV cooking shows to his credit. Like Jean-Georges, he’s authored numerous glossy cookbooks and operates a vast international empire of restaurants. At last count, there were 29 Acurio establishments in twelve countries (Jean-Georges has a mere 25), and the frenetic chef reportedly has plans in the works for at least 20 more, including a Japanese-Peruvian concept, a Peruvian steak-and-sandwich joint, and a chocolaterie.
Acurio’s 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 (two more are planned for L.A. and Miami). The 196-seat restaurant occupies the same two-floor space off Madison Square Park that Danny Meyer’s Indian-fusion restaurant Tabla occupied until last spring. There’s still a large round hole between the two floors, as in Meyer’s day, and a curving wooden staircase, which the new owners have painted in a severe shade of black. There’s a sculptural arrangement made from dried Peruvian corn kernels on one of the walls, and shimmering lattice curtains are hung here and there in a vain attempt to give the ungainly space a soothing, aquatic feel. But these effects tend to work better in the downstairs ceviche bar than in the upstairs dining room, which was submerged, on the evenings I visited, in a weirdly flat, shadowy gloom.
“I feel like I’m dining in the basement of the best hotel in Phoenix,” said one of my guests as we attempted to decipher Acurio’s menu, which 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 (get the Nikei—the one topped with spicy toro, spikes of nori, and avocado purée), grilled yakitori-like anticucho skewers (chicken thigh, beef heart), and of course the ceviches, which arrive in a clatter of communal porcelain plates. These ceviches 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. The first appetizer I sampled was a nourishing bowl of the classic Peruvian shrimp chowder called chupe, made here with sweet blue shrimp, boutique varieties of corn and potatoes, and a smooth shellfish bisque. There was a nice tasting of fritters in our second wave of 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). But the dish I liked best was the fritto-misto style jalea, which the kitchen makes with a mash of seafood and spices, and tops with curling strips of fried fish belly.
The man in charge of the day-to-day operations at this branch of La Mar 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. The meat on the giant seco de cordero (bone-in lamb shank) tasted like mutton stew, and the seafood in the arroz con mariscos (seafood fried rice) was overwhelmed by too much sauce. 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 at La Mar 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 at this La Mar outlet include an exotic parfait flavored with yellow lúcuma fruit from the Andes (very good), and a strange, pickle-colored block of cheesecake made with green tea (less good). The safest bet at any global restaurant chain is chocolate, and this is no exception. La Mar’s round trufas de chocolate buñuelos are bursting with a warm, cocoa ganache and garnished with a scoop of cooling lemongrass ice cream.