The most senior member of Peru’s celebrity chef fraternity is Gaston Acurio, whose international empire now stretches far and wide, numbering more than 35 restaurants on three continents. Unlike Schiaffino and his haute Amazonian cooking, Acurio has ambitions that seem to have no identifiable boundaries. His restaurants attempt to poke at and play with the many cultures that have influenced Peruvian cooking, whether Incan, Chinese, Japanese, African or Italian. At times, he appears to be suffering from an acute case of free-market capitalism: His considerable talents have been stretched so thin that there is, at times, little quality control at his restaurants.
At least that was my experience at two Acurio establishments: Chicha, a pan-Peruvian restaurant in Cusco, and Madam Tusan, the chef’s homage to Chinese-Peruvian chifa cuisine in Lima. Neither place served a memorable dish and often seemed content to coast on the chef’s reputation, turning out large, plodding plates that had little of the finesse and precision of Schiaffino’s cooking. Chicha’s riff on the traditional Afro- Peruvian dish known as tacu tacu was a mound of sauteed seafood dumped onto a thick brick of the signature fried rice-and-bean mixture. The Chinese pancake rolled with roast duck at Madam Tusan looked more like a burrito, and its rocoto-hoisin sauce packed none of the heat expected from Peru’s scorching pepper. We should have dined at Astrid & Gaston, considered one of the 50 best restaurants in the world.
(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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You can’t top tradition
I came to a sort of soft conclusion about my experiences with chef-driven Peruvian cuisine, whether fusion or not: Like the country, the cuisine is still evolving, still waiting to reach its high-water mark. For every well-executed dish — say, chef Rafael Osterling’s Frenchified interpretation of tacu tacu with seared foie gras at his namesake restaurant in Lima — I’d encounter another that aimed high and missed. Such as the admirable attempt at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel to transform the highland dish known as cuy chactado (think: fried guinea pig with head and legs still attached) into a crispy confit over a white corn puree. The rodent head and appendages had disappeared, but so had the dish’s essential Peruvian character, buried beneath a ton of French technique.
Many of my favorite dishes were those that didn’t mess much with tradition. I’m thinking about the rich, savory and chewy anticuchos (or beef hearts) skewered and served on a platter at Mangos Cafe Restaurant at the Larcomar Shopping Center, a bustling retail and entertainment district that affords spectacular views of the Lima coastline. I’m thinking about the pollo a la brasa at El Tablon in Cusco, where the bronzed chickens are free of the excessive herbs and spices of the Peruvian birds in the Washington area and are infused instead with the streamlined flavors of salt and smoke. I’m thinking of almost everything I sampled at El Piloto in San Vicente de Canete, whether the papa a la Huancaina (boiled yellow potatoes in a spicy cheese sauce) or the heaping spoons of scallop seviche or the classic preparation of tacu tacu con apanado, with a thinly pounded pan-fried steak and egg.