I hate people who are not serious about their meals. -- Oscar Wilde

Friday, March 25, 2011

Last Meals in Cusco: Cicciolina and El Buen Pastor

Om Nomz Hero Note to Self: Nothing creates the mood like sitting by an open window of a second floor restaurant and seeing a woman walk by with a llama on a lease

 Unassuming Courtyard...

Cusco is an ancient and somewhat rural city in the Andes Mountain that is unofficial base camp for expats, backpackers and tourists. As a result, Cusco is littered with tourist restaurants that serve pizzas, hamburgers, and spaghetti which makes it hard to navigate and find quality food in the city. Nothing wrong with pizza and tourist foods, to each their own but I did not personally come to stay in my comfort zone, especially when it comes to food. 

However, with a little effort, and thankfully down the street from my hotel, refined and quality food can be found here. Cicciolina was a place I have been hearing about when I first started doing my food research on my trip to Peru. As much as I like eating homey food from the streets and wandering around aimlessly until I found a madre y padre joint, I want some good food and a place like Cicciolina filled that void.

Open Kitchen and peppers from the ceiling= good things to come
Cicciolina is located right off the Plaza de Armas and after you get pass people peddling massages, alpaca wool and art the only real indication of the restaurant is a chalkboard at street level. You have to walk through these huge double blue doors into a courtyard and on ground level, is Cicciolina’s café and bakery, which can be mistaken that you suddenly walked into a Parisian café with their grand espresso machine, fresh baked croissants and baguettes. Upstairs however, is the restaurant. Cicciolina is Mediterranean restaurant that gives a strong nod to Peruvian cuisine. The space is small; however the open kitchen and open windows makes the space comfortable and spacious. 

I am weird that I like the sight of fresh pasta drying

Cicciolina has an extensive wine list but seeing I was about to partake on a hell of a walk in higher altitude than I was used to, I decided to forgo the wines but they had a tapas menu and I started with a small plate sampler. As a pre-meal treat/amuse bouche, I got a nice plate of kalmata olives which were quite good. The olives were cured in house with rosemary and actually came from the South of Peru which I did not know was able to produce such great olives. The olives were soft and luscious and with a hint of rosemary made this a great meal starter that I devoured like a kid sneaking a Snickers bars at a fat camp. 

 Never knew olives could grow in Peru

I got a total of 4 different tapas which were given to me at random. The first was a skewer of fried shrimp and sweet potatoes. The Sweet potatoes are tender and the shrimp were fresh. I asked about their seafood and was told that they use local trout but the rest they import from Lima three times a week. Next up was a ceviche of trout with peppers. Piled onto a Chinese soup spoon the ceviche was dainty and the flavors of the trout came through with a note of vinegar. Next was a piece of toast topped with bruschetta and shaved prosciutto. It was perfectly fine, but nothing to stop the presses for. The last was toast topped with Peruvian cured ducked with a slaw of pickled onions and peppers. The Peruvian cured duck was again, cured in house and cured with aji chili, sugar, garlic and pepper. The duck was flavorful and smoky and the vinegary slaw cut the saltiness of the duck. I would however like less of the slaw because the duck sometimes got lost with the abundance of the slaw. 

 Tapas left to right, Peruvian Cured Duck, Trout Ceviche, Prosciutto, Fried Shrimp and Sweet Potato Skewer

Instead of ordering a main course and I was cursed with having one stomach, I decided to go with two starters: a Peruvian Causa dish and the grilled octopus. I like octopus and hardcore locavore foodies would scoff at me and banish me to an Alice Waters Concentration Camp for doing this. I mean, middle of the Andes Mountain? Octopus is clearly not indigenous to the area. Well, O-toro isn’t swimming in the Hudson but the octopus was fresh and good so I am not complaining. 

 Wait, Octopus isn't from the Andes?
The octopus, originating from Lima was better than any octopus that I have eaten at either United States Coast. Octopus is a hard to cook because it can turn from tender, to chewing a doggie chew toy within seconds. It was done up on the wood grill and dressed with a roasted tomato salsa. The result is a mix of soft, charred textures and subtle tart tastes from the tomatoes, bounded together with a tender sweet smokiness. Damn locavorism, this was good and worth every bite.

The next was a Peruvian Causa, which is traditionally a layered potato dish, topped with caramelized pickled apples and confit Guinea Pig. The Causa was composed of 2 layers, the top a smooth yellow potato and the bottom a basil infused potato mash. The main event in this dish was the Guinea Pig. I wanted to try this and go the whole primal route of having it straight up roasted with a tomato in the mouth and presented to me like a visiting dignitary but 2 things. 1. Most places do not do it well and use old Guinea Pigs which resulted in a chewy and bony eat. 2, in order for the roasted option to be done right, pre planning is needed in which places such as Panchapapa, require a day notice to order such a treat is done right. Due to lack of time I decided getting the Confit Guinea Pig at Cicciolina was a worthy and good choice because it allowed me to taste Guinea Pig that was cooked with care and done well.

Guinea Pig on top
It did not disappoint. Guinea Pig does not taste like chicken. I will go down the more thoughtful description of it and not cop out and say it was like chicken. It tasted more like dark meat wild game and duck. It was a lot of dark meat which made it taste thoroughly moist and had a hint of gaminess to it that made me think that I could be fooled that I was ingesting rabbit. I hope that Guinea Pig makes its way into becoming a socially acceptable protein. These suckers breed like crazy and we must do some tasty population control. The Causa was lively and smooth and was a good addition to the Guinea Pig. The caramelized apples I did not think was really needed in the dish but they retained their crispness and were tart and sweet.

I could not leave without eating dessert so I went with something somewhat light and when with the fresh strawberries in brandy strawberry syrup served with a pisco ice cream. Pisco is the local brandy and they are quite fond of it as much as they are fond of their Inka Kola.

Don't eat the cinnamon stick
The strawberries were plump and sweet and grown in Peru and although the brandy sauce was boarder line overpowering, gave a level of depth and warmth to the dish. The Pisco ice cream was refreshing paired with the strawberries and an overall successful dish.

Left to Right: marmalade, cream cheese, butter, tomato chutney, guacamole

I was happy with Cicciolina so much that after the trail, and before my flight out to Lima, I ate here for breakfast. I was going to go to the market, but I was way to sore to walk the 4-5 blocks over there. I was starving so I order the fresh bread basket with the spreads. My freshly baked rolls came with 4 spreads, an orange marmalade, a cream cheese and scallion, tomatoes chutney and a guacamole. I do not count that pad of butter as a spread. The bread rolls were crusty and puffs of steam escaped when ripped apart. My favorites of the spreads were the tomato chutney which offered a sweet, tart zing that excited the taste buds and the guacamole which was made with fresh avocados. I never really thought of guacamole as being a bread spread but it was good nonetheless. The marmalade was floral and the cream cheese and scallions would be a worthy shmear on an bagel in New York.

Fact: fried eggs make everything tastier

For my main I got a version of tacu tacu, which is Peruvian dish that was usually made with the leftover beans and rice from the night before into a mash and eaten for breakfast. This was lighter and refined version that was topped with a fried egg and served with a side of roasted potatoes topped with a tomato barbeque sauce and a side of chorizo. The beans had onions and pork in it and the flavors impregnated the beans making the tacu tacu flavorful. With a fried egg on top made it overkill because a fried egg with a runny yolk makes everything better and can solve the majority of your problems (being in Peru, that a combination of coca leaves of course). The chorizo was porky and had a good hit of paprika.

Following this satisfying breakfast I felt empowered and decided to make the climb up the street to the close by bakery of El Buen Pastor. The bakery is ran by nuns and use it as a way to support the orphanage. I am all about charity and food…well more about food but with a side of charity food taste better (less guilty). I wish I ventured here more often because the pastries and breads here was delicious.

I of course got my usual of an alfajor and tried out a hand pie which was made of pumpkin and an apple ensaymada. 

The ensaymada was like an apple turnover that was densely packed with an apple filling that squirted out of the flaky buttery ensaymada shell.

 It looks like a Hobo sack filled with tasty apple filling

The alfajor was hefty and despite the powdered sugar coating was just sweet enough without slapping you in the face with sugar. The pie was more tart like but was buttery and sandy with a great pumpkin filling.

 Pies and donuts, are there apartments in San Blas open?

 However, the winner here was these treats called borrachitos. They do not look that great, kind of look like a fudge coal lumps with chocolate and sprinkles, but oh, they were good. 

The borrachitos were fudge cakes soaked in rum and when I tried one when I walked about 10 feet outside, I went back like a straight crackhead and got 2 more. There were intensely moist and full of chocolate flavor. On first bite chocolate floods your brain and almost bring you to your knees. The saving grace to the chocolate overload is the rum which soothes and balances the chocolate overdose.

I was going to save one to bring home to Mom and Pop. It made it home. But I ate it after I took a shower

Good thing I was leaving Cusco that day because I would probably be found in an alley 3 days later half dead with a borrachitos spewing out of my mouth. 

In a city that is overpopulated with generic and subpar tourist food, with a little bit of effort, good food can be found that is made with actual care and quality. To call Cusco a food dead zone is a mistake and I condolences go out to those that have been to Cusco and did not meet great people, food experiences that I did. 

 Like I say, Good bye for now, but not forever. 

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