Seafood stew with Peruvian pepper, peanuts and raisins over a bed of potatoes au gratin with black Andean mint
If you think you’ve been learning all there is to know about Peruvian fare by eating a ton of ceviche in the wide range of venues that have popped up all over Miami in the past few years, then you may be well familiar with fish and seafood that’s marinated, rapid-fire, with fresh-squeezed lime and hot peppers. The dish’s light zest makes it perfect for the low-cal, high-alcohol, fast-paced Miami lifestyle, but, hundreds of servings later, you probably still don’t understand much about Peruvian food, which The Economist once called “one of the world’s dozen or so great cuisines.”
For that tutelage, you need the undeniably delectable expertise of the widely acknowledged “ambassador of Peruvian cuisine” himself, Gastón Acurio. The celebrity chef and cookbook author recently opened his third U.S. restaurant on Brickell Key. This move means we should be proud that, in Acurio’s eyes at least, we’re finally well respected enough as a dining destination (after all, his other two eateries, La Mar Cebicheria Peruana and Tanta, are located in the culinary capitals of San Francisco and Chicago, respectively). Whatever the reason Acurio chose to align himself with both the luxuriousness of the Mandarin Oriental and the helter-skelter personality of the Magic City, nearby epicures should avail themselves of La Mar’s presence not just once, but frequently. With Acurio’s disciple, Executive Chef Diego Oka, handling day-to-day operations, and an extensive menu showcasing the complexity of Peruvian cuisine, it might take a few encounters with the restaurant to get a handle on the many angles from which you can approach a meal here.
Acurio and company make coming to La Mar far from a chore. The menu is helpfully sectioned, and diehard ceviche- and tiradito-lovers will die happy after sampling any of the numerous options of raw bites available. The differences among them include how the leche de tigre, your basic marinade of lime, ají (chile pepper), seasonings and sometimes fish stock is flavored; what protein is used; and what garnishes (sweet potato and various types of corn such as the large kernel, boiled choclo and the toasted, crunchy cancha) are added.
Tiraditos, the Peruvian interpretation of Japanese sashimi, will appeal to those who prefer a more delicate slice of protein, and more of a drizzle than an infusion of sauce. Here, the nikkei, which refers to the Japanese influence of the immigrants who have populated Peru for more than a century, is re-interpreted to include ají rocoto, scallions, tangy passion fruit in the leche de tigre, and a sesame-honey reduction. Similarly, the criollo and clásico are sculpted with a couple of different ingredients, as the layout of a tiradito provides a canvas. The most painterly among them includes the wagyu beef, putting to lie the belief that all tiradito must be seaworthy. Awash in a piquant ají amarillo ponzu and a dash of sesame oil, the lacy beef is topped with garlic chips, scallions and a pungent rocoto oroshi, which is grated red chile. Actually, grating is a technique that Acurio’s kitchens frequently employ to make very strong ingredients palatable or beautiful. Hot appetizer items such as the conchitas, a pair of wonderfully succulent seared scallops flavored with a spoonful of sweet soy sauce, arrives dressed with a tangle of fried sweet potato strings. In fact, most of the dishes are so precisely ornamented with microplaned spices, fluted herbs or just-blooming flowers, that I have great sympathy for the prep cooks. It can’t be an easy job, though downing these delicacies certainly is.
While Peru’s Japanese side shows in its appetizers, the country’s Chinese influences make themselves known in the main courses, which include the popular lomo saltado. Essentially a beef-pepper-onion stir-fry amped up with tomatoes, garlic and soy sauce, the Angus steak used is particularly tender. It’s served with golden-brown french fries over white rice, and while the double-carb plate might make you feel guilty for a few seconds, after a few bites you won’t care any longer. You can find even greater Chinese awareness in the chaufa aeropuerto, a large dish that offers many different tastes: pan-fried rice, pickled vegetables, roast pork, Chinese sausage and an omelet stuffed with whole shrimp. At the table, the server cuts it all up for you and blends it with a slightly thick sweet sauce, which makes for an intensely tasty treat.
Not every dish at La Mar reflects Peru’s immigrant heritage, however. Acurio and Oka also proudly present what they call novo-Andean cuisine as well, which includes Peruvian grains and starches such as quinoa. One of my favorite combinations currently on the menu is a take on the caprese salad, using red quinoa, dressed in a vibrant ají amarillo vinaigrette, as a base to bind the basil, heirloom tomatoes and fresh burrata cheese. You can also go completely native by ordering paiche, an Amazonian fish that tastes like a cross between snapper and trout, in a chorillana, or spicy tomato, sauce. Set over mashed yuca with tocino, which is a version of bacon, this dish may require that you acquire a new vocabulary to describe it.
If you want dessert, you might not have any trouble interpreting pie de limon—key lime mousse, key lime cream, almond crumble, sorbet and Italian meringue—but you may have to ask what exactly a paleta de lucuma is. Or just agree to be surprised by the frozen version of this tropical fruit, which is starchy and reminiscent of a banana, and partnered by 68 percent Peruvian cocoa nibs. The simplicity of this particular ending sums up the La Mar experience in general: a whole lot less complicated than anticipated and a whole lot more interesting than you may initially believe.
La Mar by Gastón Acurio
Mandarin Oriental Miami
500 Brickell Key Drive, Miami, 305.913.8358
Lunch, daily: 11:30AM-3:30PM; dinner, daily: 5:30-11PM
Ceviches and tiraditos, $9-$25; causas, salads and vegetarian appetizers, $10-$24; hot appetizers and anticuchos, $9-$30; Peruvian specialties, soups and rice dishes, $19-$49; desserts, $10-$11
The classic pisco sour is in high demand here, but variations on the original (including a tart guava version) are hard to resist.
Depending on your mood, take a seat at the ceviche bar, as you would at a sushi counter, and watch the masters do their thing.
La Mar is, apparently, what you make of it. On multiple visits we’ve seen everything from hotel guests in yoga gear to Brickellites in suits and ties. The overall tone is casual, however, especially if you’re dining outside during the day.
Make it a point to arrive early for a drink at the MO Bar + Lounge, a new lobby hangout where expert mixology and city views go hand in hand.