Peru’s own Astrid y Gaston earned 14th place in this year’s list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, making it 2013’s highest climber. The Lima-based restaurant debuted in 2011 at #42—Peru’s first to break into the top 50—and moved up to #35 last year.
Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio (pictured above, center) is the force behind the acclaimed restaurant and is Peru’s defacto spokesman. He likely deserves more credit than any other one individual (other than, I suppose, Hiram Bingham) for improving Peru’s travel reputation and bringing tourism dollars into the country. Lima is now considered the culinary capital of South America and praised by foodie and travel writers from around the globe. In the past several years the city has changed from a stop-over on the way to Machu Picchu into a sought after destination in its own right. And its culinary scene is paving the way.
For years, Peru has promoted its past. Machu Picchu is the moneymaker, but that’s only the beginning. Ancient ruins literally cover Peru, and more are being uncovered and renovated every day. The Nazca Lines are otherworldly; the story of Sipan’s discovery is a real-life Indiana Jones saga; and you can easily fill a week visiting the ruins scattered across the Sacred Valley.
But now Peru is worth visiting for the present as well. Its culinary revival embraces the country’s modern and ancient elements, as well as the geographic diversity of Peru: desert, mountains, and jungle. Your taste buds travel through time and across valleys with just the lift of your fork.
The tasting menu at Astrid y Gaston (Calle Cantaurias 175) in the trendy Miraflores neighborhood comes with a timeline menu and corresponding video to help you understand your savory saga. Themes such as Nature (la naturaleza), Man (el hombre), Discovery (el refugio), and Today (hoy) guide the menu. As Peru’s super chef, Acurio extends far beyond Astrid y Gaston (which in addition to its original Lima location has a presence in Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Spain, Mexico, and Argentina). Living in Lima, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy each of the following Acurio establishments. I’ve listed them in subjective order, with my favorites at the top.
Some other Acurio restaurants in Lima include:
Even seafood skeptics need to visit La Mar, a stylized cevichería. The open-air seating is spacious and welcoming with greenery, a bamboo roof, and a clean modern design. Reservations are not accepted, so it is first come, first serve. And during the weekend lunch period, it fills up fast. The causa sampler is both adorable and delicious, the cocktails are worth the splurge, and my personal favorite is La Mar’s twist on the classic ceviche: tuna ceviche with sesame and soya sauce. So good. La Mar is not open for dinner. (Av. La Mar 770, Miraflores, Lima)
This modern establishment serves generous portions of Peruvian-Chinese dishes in a two-story building with red decorations and a giant dragon adorning the upper wall. Chifas—the Peruvian take on a Chinese restaurant—are extremely common and popular in Peru. They’re also cheap. Acurio classes up Peruvian-Chinese fusion at Madam Tusan with prices higher than at a typical chifa, but still a delicious bargain. The social atmosphere, portion sizes, and doable prices make this a popular place for group dinners. If you’d like a more intimate atmosphere, ask to be seated upstairs. (Av Santa Cruz 859, Miraflores, Lima)
It’s not often you eat a meal that is perfect, start to finish. I had one last month at Los Bachiche during my first sample of Acurio’s take on Italian. The menu at Los Bachiche features Peruvian staples alongside accessible gourmet pasta and meat dishes in a classic but laid back atmosphere. From delicious focaccia bread to start, to the shared salad with toasted nuts, to my main of decadent duck ravioli, each dish had a swirl of flavors skillfully selected to complement each other. It went from simple to gourmet without getting fussy. As I already have a favorite, default Italian restaurant in Lima that I visit every couple weeks, I entered Los Bachiche with skepticism; now I’m a convert. Note, however, that there is no English menu. (Av. La Paz 1025, Miraflores, Lima)
As a Midwestern American, I say this with a bit of reluctance, but the burgers from Papacho are the best I’ve ever had. Seriously. Acurio’s newest Lima restaurant takes burgers to a whole new level. These behemoth burgers overflow with creative toppings and come with a generous serving of French fries or onion rings. I’m not a huge meat eater, but the beef is exquisite. My favorite burger is the La Gaucho, with chimmichurri, provolone, onions, and avocado (La Criollita and La Papacha are also exquisite). Vegetarians are welcome as well, as there are several veggie burgers to choose from—including the inventive Miss Veggie with a quinoa patty topped with mango chutney and yogurt dressing. Yum! (Av. La Paz 1045, Miraflores, Lima)
Industrial chic with pricey but delicious cocktails, this restaurant serves straight-forward Peruvian creole cuisine. The menu is heavily meat-based, so vegetarians might have difficulty finding something suiting. If you’re looking to try the infamous Peruvian dish cuy (guinea pig) or anticucho (skewered beef heart) this is your best bet. Portions are large, so you might want to start with appetizers (or just enjoy the bread basket) and split a main. (Av. Dos de Mayo 298, Miraflores, Lima)
Sandwiches are to Peru what burgers are the US. Pasquale is a sangucheria specializing in typical Peruvian sandwiches for the masses. A sit-in or take-out restaurant just a step above fast food, Pasquale is good introduction to “everyday” Peruvian food. A similar non- Acurio option is Sangucheria la Lucha. (Av. Comandante Espinar 651, Miraflores, Lima)
A popular place for lunch, Tanta is a bistro-style restaurant with several locations throughout Lima. Though it is casual dining, it attracts business-chic regulars and well-to-do house wives. The menu is mix of Peruvian and international cuisine with a decent sandwich selection along with the Peruvian classics like lomo saltado and causas. Though I have nothing bad to say about Tanta, I personally have a special place in my heart for the less hip but more welcoming non- Acurio San Antonio chain. (Av. Pancho Fierro 117, San Isidro, Lima)
Although Acruio is definitely the leader of the pack, Peru has several other renowned chefs and plenty of top-end dining options. In fact, another Lima restaurant made its way onto this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Squeaking in at #50 is Central from chef Virgilio Martinez. Also located in Miraflores, Central showcases high-tech creative gastronomy. (Calle Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores, Lima)
The two other South America restaurants to make the list are both located in Sao Paulo, Brazil. D.O.M sits impressively at #6, while Mani ranks at #48.
All images belong to the respective restaurants