A continent of delights
WITH the World Cup kicking off in Brazil later this year, South America should be figuring large on people's travel radars.
Then there's that list of Latin America's top 50 restaurants, which puts countries like Peru on the world gourmet stage. There are now more reasons to hightail it over to the region halfway across the world.
Part of 15th century Machu Picchu's allure is how the Incas removed the trails leading to the city when the Spanish conquistadors invaded Cusco, giving rise to speculation that it was a sacred site for the Incas.
Machu Picchu was officially rediscovered four centuries later, in 1911, but the indigenous Quechua tribes were already living and farming there, among the ruins. In 1981, Peru declared the 325.92 sq km surrounding Machu Picchu a "Historical Sanctuary". Machu Picchu was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1983.
Peru has one of the best local cuisines and gourmet dining, and it strikes a comfortable balance between the two. You can dine well anywhere, be it from the country's north to south, or from the Amazon to Cusco. There's a great offering of fine-dining restaurants, while local rustic Peruvian fare is easy to take to as well.
Gourmands will want to park themselves in Miraflores, which has the highest concentration of fine-dining restaurants in Peru. Dining there is truely an outstanding experience that is also easy on the wallet.
Santa Isabel 376
Central is like South America's answer to Noma and El Bulli, especially with the way star chef Virgilio Martinez embraces local ingredients and turns them into food art.
The degustation menu is the highlight and, during our visit in the last quarter last year, it was woven around quite a compelling "altitudinal" story - of food dictated by the altitudes in Peru, where the Andes mountains and Incan history shape the land. The menu had ingredients starting at 10m below the sea, up to 4,300m - where the diversity of microclimates is celebrated on a plate.
Nine courses were presented like ikebana art. Local ingredients such as native corn, roots and nuts were totally transformed from their original form, so it was a completely new textural journey.
The degustation menu is priced at $190, while a la carte dishes average $30.
Enrique Leon Garcia 114
Tel: 4706-217 (lunch only)
There are a couple of reasons for a visit to chef Javier Wong's home restaurant, even though he's located in an unfashionable part of town.
First, it's this second-generation-Asian-in-Lima's reputation as the ceviche king of Peru, and then it's for the mini performance he puts on when slicing giant flounders and firing up the wok. Chef Wong, with his signature beret, dark glasses and cigarette dangling from his lips, looks like he could be a Nazi chef, but is very camera-friendly.
There isn't a menu, but everyone gets a ceviche and then a hot dish - which will be served unless you indicate you only want the ceviche. The ceviche is no mystery at all, but he creates theatre out of it, so even though the meal is more expensive for what it's worth, you chalk it up as a most unusual dining experience.
As for the ceviche itself, his version is really quite intense - like a big band of Peruvian lemons (the magic ingredient) and onions playing a tart riot in your mouth.
Our lunch came up to an extravagant $100 per person, for the ceviche, two hot dishes and a bottle of white wine.
Astrid & Gaston
Moreyra House, San Isidro
The best restaurant - not just in Peru but in the whole of Latin America - has but a discreet plaque on its door.
A gathering crowd outside the restaurant just before it opens at 1pm is a giveaway, though.
We entered the tranquil plush space and were ushered to our table in a room where the walls were lined with wine cabinets, and making our dining choices was easy enough - we picked whatever looked the most exotic.
Chef Diego Munoz and his team certainly delivered - every dish we had was beautifully conceived and executed.
Despite dishes like Peking duck-style guinea pig (cuy), one didn't feel that the dining experience was an experimental venture, but one where you enjoyed the food rather than the concept.
The Peking Duck cuy featured skin that had an aerated, light and crispy texture, which is quite a feat, as we found out later when we had traditional roast cuy at another restaurant, and can attest to the otherwise chewy toughness of the skin. The crispy pork we tried was like suckling pig, contrasting nicely with wood-charred apple mash.
Then we tried Peru's famous river fish, the arapaima, served pan-fried on saffron-infused creamed barley.
Again, done beautifully. For dessert, we had a colourful box of delights served to us.
Everyone heading to Machu Picchu goes through Cusco, the former Inca capital located 3,400m above sea level, which is also a place to acclimatise. The charming town with steep cobbled streets is the start-off point for Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, 80km away, and other Inca ruins. It also works as a good weekend getaway.
With the cool weather and lights from the houses in the surrounding mountains, Cusco has a Christmas feel all year round.
Triunfo 393, second floor
Cicciolina is frequently raved about as one of the best restaurants in Cuzco, and it lives up to its reputation. It's located in one of the older courtyard buildings in the part of town that still has a couple of Inca walls.
Diners enter the bar area with its exuberantly rustic decor, while the fine-dining area features minimalist decor. It's there that we tried alpaca steaks ($20), and found the meat very similar to duck breast in texture, but tender and rich.
The squid ink tagliolini was steeped in marine flavour - an excellent choice. The grilled octopus was a tasty starter, against the blander causa - a classic Peruvian snack which is essentially mashed potato mixed with other ingredients and fried. Dishes range from $10 to $25.
Plazoleta San Blas 120
We decided to hold off on one of Peru's most classic dishes until our last night in Cusco, as a celebration.
Although we had the haute version in Lima, we wanted to have a sense of what traditional roast cuy would be like. Pachapapa was recommended by a local shopkeeper, and it took us to one of the hilliest, and bohemian, parts of the city.
Gasping away on our uphill trek there, we were glad to walk into the lovely traditional style restaurant with a courtyard and a big clay oven outside.
Decked out in rustic Peruvian textile and colours but with restrained style, the restaurant had a mom-and-pop feel (it's part of the Cusco Restaurant group).
We tucked into the wood-fired guinea pig and hearty wok-fried spaghetti with vegetables. The meat of the guinea pig is quite fine and smooth - only there's not a lot of it. The wood-charred skin was very inviting, but actually tough and chewy.
In the historic church in Cusco hangs a famous painting of Jesus at the Last Supper but, instead of bread and wine, it shows a roast cuy instead. So how could it not be the last supper for us as well, for our final night in Cusco?