I was recently tasked with finding an unusual dinner venue for a group of friends in London. We're spoilt for choice in this city, but it’s not as easy as it sounds when you have 20 people to please. I suggested Tito’s, a popular Peruvian restaurant I'd heard of, but a friend rejected the idea—“Peruvian food is horrible,” she said. “Most of them won’t like it.” (In the end I played it safe with Pan-Asian.) But later, I pondered her rash dismissal of Peruvian cuisine. Ceviche, quinoa salads and pisco sour cocktails have made it onto supermarket shelves and other restaurant menus, but there must be more to it. What does the full cuisine from the land of Incas and llamas taste like? And can it take off in London?
Tito’s, which opened in 2003, was, for several years, the only Peruvian restaurant in London. (If you visit, order the Pato en Aji—duck leg in a mildly spicy sauce.) But in the last three years the number of restaurants has quadrupled. Sabor Peruano and Emanuel, both in south-east London, are traditional, family-run places (Peruvian locals go to Emanuel for the rotisserie chicken), Tierra Peru in north London serves authentic food in a more contemporary setting (sleek banquette seating and pendant lighting), while Coya and Ceviche have followed the recent urban trend for stylish small plates in a relaxed atmosphere. (Coya in Mayfair is for the more discerning diner with open kitchens and live Peruvian music in its low-lit Pisco bar, while Ceviche—which is serious about its ceviche—attracts trendy Soho types with cyan-blue decor and a less serious chicha vibe, meaning playful and cheeky.) Lima, with its signature dish of braised octopus with white quinoa and Botija olives, is more upmarket, and last September became the first Peruvian restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. It seems the Peruvian chefs are coming, and being welcomed with open mouths.
Last week I went to Ceviche to try it for myself. My group of three diners ordered nine dishes to share from the selection of ceviche, meat skewers, salads and sides on the menu (a tricky decision when we wanted to sample all 30 dishes). The restaurant’s classic ceviche—sea bass in tiger’s milk with limo chilli, sweet potato and red onion—was fresh, juicy and tangy with soft lumps of fish and a warm kick of spice. The salmon ceviche in Nikkei tiger’s milk had a sweeter and saltier flavour, more familiar to the regular sushi-eater. We took a punt on an intriguing side—crab, avocado and palm heart on a smooth potato square (the Peruvians do love their potatoes)—but found the cool potato unusual when we're so used to piping-hot mash. We also tried the traditional corn and cheese cake with avocado and salsa, it was tasty but too akin to sweet rice pudding to work as a savoury dish for us. The unanimous winner was a skewer of red mullet in rocoto (hot pepper) marinade with pickled fennel and coriander tartar sauce.
As with most foreign cuisines, there are some national delicacies that don’t make it onto London restaurant menus. You won’t find guinea pig or alpaca, for example. But many do serve anticuchos—beef-heart skewers. We weren’t brave enough to try these at Ceviche, but, despite this, the meal was a gastronomic rollercoaster. And, even better, the fresh fish, grilled meat, light marinades, vegetables and grains make for a nutritious and relatively healthy meal. Just go easy on the pisco sours.