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

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

El Mercado Restaurante: Lima, Peru

Om Nomz Hero Note to Self: Apparently in Peru, it is uncommon to create your own tasting menu

I delayed this post for some reason but this was the last major place that I ate at in Peru. I wanted to eat at a place somewhat high class that showcased Peruvian food but I did not want to be eating “Elf Food”. as much as I like eating at bodegas and the locals only joints, I like to be spoiled and eat classy food. I was focused on going to a ceviche place and I was set on going to Pescado Capitales but before my trip, I changed my mind when I heard about this place called El Mercado Restaurante. El Mercado is the newest restaurant opened by Peruvian chef Rafael Osterling. Osterling is a Peruvian born classically trained chef and worked in such high profile restaurants as the River Café, now has a mini-restaurant empire and El Mercado is his newest venture. El Mercado differs from his other restaurants in which are it taken to a casual level but the food is highly refined.
El Mercado is a ceviche place and since ceviches use a lot of acids and such, most are only open for the afternoon and close around 4pm because it is believed that this is the best time of the day to eat it and eases the digestion process…or something like that. I had a 1 pm reservation here which is about the time that the place starts to pick up and get busy.

The space is trendy, picture the décor of any South Beach restaurant and you can get the gist of the placet: bamboo, palm trees, lots of wood and pretty people. However the space is designed tastefully, and with ceiling fans and the walls of the restaurant just being bamboo mats it imparts the feeling of a casual setting and bungalow setting. I felt I should have been rocking a Hawaiian shirt which is a note to self; I need to get a badass Hawaiian shirt. However service and waiters is not dumb down at all and they are attentive and very helpful, by helping my Gringo Chino butt navigate through an extensive menu. I was dining solo and once they took notice of this, they happily informed me that they were able to make half portions of their dishes. They most likely assuming a single person could not consume a single serving on their own. They just did not meet a person like me before as I happily created an impromptu tasting menu for myself. 

 To start was a basket of plantain chips with three dipping sauces. One was a salsa criolla, which I had previously which was a combination of red onions, vinegar, aji peppers and tomatoes. It is similar to a pico di gallo, but to really compare it to that is a bit of an insult, unlike the stuff that is served at a Chevys, this was fresh, vibrant and the peppers provided a nice kick. The other sauces were the huacatay sauce which is distinguished by the bright greenness. It is a classic sauce that of course has aji peppers, but uses the herb huacatay, which flavor wise is like a mint and basil that did some cross breeding. Mayonnaise is sometimes added to thicken the sauce but in this case and other places uses bread crumbs. The sauce was herbal and tasted of fresh greens. The last of the sauce that I personally thought was the most interesting is the aji Amarillo sauce which is showcases the ever popular aji Amarillo pepper. Mixed with cilantro, garlic, herbs and cheese (this case parmesan) it has a great smokiness and a heat that sneaks up on you. The colors of the condiments were vibrant and tasty. The plantain chips were freshly fried and crisp and took a lot of self control from destroying the basket. 

Since Peru is known for ceviches and I was in a ceviche place, the no brainer thing to do was to order a ceviche. Ceviche is a method of cooking, well not really cooking because no heating is involved but raw seafood is marinated in acid, citrus mainly and the seafood essentially is “cooked” by the acid giving it almost a cooked texture. 
To start off was the classic, Ceviche Pescado made with the fish of the day and served with a Sweet Potato Puree and Peruvian Corn. The fish in the ceviche and other dishes are based on what is freshly caught that day and the fish that day was Corvina a fish common to these waters. The Corvina was dressed with a lime citrus marinade and the sweet potato puree had a good amount of flaky sea salt accenting the sweetness of the potato and adding a little bit of a crunch. First thing that came to mind was fresh. The fish tasted buttery and captured all the citrus flavors and the texture of the fish was firm yet supple. Eaten with the sweet potato puree added a richness as well as cut the acidity of the dish. The corn was huge, like the corn was on a steady diet of HGH. The corn was served raw and unfortunately had some inconsistent pieces that were gummy but other than that, the corn was crispy and nicely sweetened. 

The next ceviche that I sampled was the Ceviche el Mercado, which is a ceviche that has a bit of a contemporary and Osterling own creation. The ceviche features the Corvina again but with the addition of chili peppers and fried calamari. Ceviche is typically has no cooked components in the dish so this was an interesting take on the ceviche. I was concerned that the fried calamari would end up being a soggy mess because of the marinade but the kitchen did a good job in dressing it before sending it out thus keeping the calamari crunchy. The fried calamari was a welcomed addition, adding a next textural contrast as well as adding tender sweet calamari to the dish. The chili did not really shine through really but the dish was overall successful and good representation of ceviche. 

This was the point in which the servers mistakenly thought I was done and attempted to clear the table and the menu: they were wrong. I am a fiend for scallops and after seeing some fresh scallops at the Central Market, I was itching for some. I finally had a cooked dish which was the Conchas Reggina. The Conchas Reggina was an elevated version of the Conchas Parmesana which is basically a scallop on the half shell with a lob of cheese and Parmesan and broiled. This is the epitome of Scott Conant/ Italian rule of no seafood with cheese. The Reggina was broiled but dressed with browned butter, garlic, white wine and a sprinkle of Grana Pandano, which is a milder cheese. I actually was going to order the Conchas Parmesana however, I was kindly told broken English and rapid Spanish that the Reggina was a refined version and I should get that instead. After convincing me that his intentions were just and not trying to pull a fast one on the Gringo Chino, I relented and went with the Reggina and I was happy that I was steered to the right direction. The scallops, perfectly cooked and the addition of the brown butter accentuated the scallop, turning up the volume to 11. The Grana Pandano was matched perfectly in this dish adding a bit of creaminess as well as a subtle saltiness. The combination of the butter, cheese and wine seemed to mimic the ocean and felt as if you were eating the scallops fresh out of the ocean. 

Next on the scallop dishes was the Ronda de Conchas. The Ronda de Conchas was a raw dish that had the scallops on the half shell but each was dressed differently. The first was the scallop done up with a Leche de Tigre Bloody Mary sauce. Leche de Tigre or tiger’s milk is the name for the excess marinade, juices and run off that result in making ceviche. The result is a concentrated liquid that is highly acidic, briny and as most elixirs in countries other than the United States, boner-inducing (helps with virility). Although I did not feel anything in my loins, my palate however was amused. The scallop was fresh and the citrusy acid and tomato complimented the scallop. The other scallop was done with avocado and chalaquita style which I believe means a good amount of peppers, aji peppers of course. The avocado added richness and balanced the heat of the peppers. The last of the scallops was dressed in a Creole onion relish, was deceivingly subtle, the onion was pleasantly sweet and even with the addition of vinegar and heat the scallop was still able to come through. 

Finally, I ended my epic savory created tasting menu with an order of the Calamari a la Parrilla and the Pulpo a la Parrilla translating to Grilled Calamari and Octopus. The calamari and the pulpo was served side by side although I would have preferred to have they served separately but the flavors of the two instantly made me forget. Calamari and octopus are tricky suckers to cook in which they can easily be transformed into dog chew toys. However, the calamari and the octopus were grilled nicely on a wood fire, imparting a smoky flavor too The calamari was served with a potato confit that got a kick grill to get some char and smokiness, grilled portabella mushrooms and drizzled with a spicy Andean sauce. Although the potatoes and the mushrooms were a nice addition, the calamari could have just been its own one man show. The calamari required little chewing and required effortless cutting and biting. The octopus was the star of the whole meal and was the best thing I had in Peru by far.

Eating the octopus was a straight When Harry met Sally Katz deli moment. Actually, I am a guy do not picture that but you know what I mean. The octopus was like butter; I instantly ditched the knife and was just using the fork to cut bite size pieces, it was that tender. There is no other way to describe it. The addition of braised cherry tomatoes, parsley mayonnaise and a kalmata olive oil aioli gave this dish a Mediterranean feel and just accented the octopus and although I was full at this point, I almost did a “uno mas” and wanted more. This meal just blew me away. 

Much to the relief of the servers, I finally relinquished the menu from them. I of course however could not leave without having something sweet, I mean I do have a sweet tooth and I need a dessert to balance out my self created tasting menu. I ask the server to decide for me and he brought me out a parfait which worked out perfectly and was a nice light touch to finish the meal. The Parfait composed of an array of tropical fruits such as custard apples (a personal favorite) and prickly pears and regular old berries. There was puffed rice in the mix to bring a bit of a crunch and a layered underneath the parfait was vanilla custard and on the bottom a generous spoonful of dulce leche. The dessert feigned richness and was a light ending to the end of an epic meal. I was questioned by people if Lima had any “food” to eat there and if it was culinary worthy. I think that any place inhabited by some kind of civilization, there is good food to be found. I do not care if I am in the Andean mountain range or in the streets of the Gambia, I will find something good to eat. 

El Mercado Restaurante
Hipólito Unanue 203 (with Mendiburu, one block from Av. La Mar), Miraflores, Lima, 221-1322.

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