Virú at Astrid & Gastón - Lima, Peru

Lunch - Saturday, May 10, 2014

2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of Astrid & Gastón - the first child in what is now a globe-spanning empire. The restaurant, formerly situtated in Lima's Miraflores neighborhood, recently completed a move to the Casa Moreyra, a grand 300-year old house in the neighbouring (and equally upscale) San Isidro district.

To mark this new beginning, Virú is the theme of the restaurant's first tasting menu at Casa Moreyra - a journey through the five macroclimates of Peru in 26 courses. Gastón Acurio was overseeing the kitchen on this day - I gather this is fairly rare, and primarily due to the temporary absence of Diego Munoz.

A dedicated kitchen that prepares the Virú menu
Casa Moreyra is elegant and minimalist, all shades of white and grey, punctuated by polished wood and the bright greens of the kitchen garden. The property has multiple independent kitchens, one of which serves the current tasting menu. Our meal began with snacks on the patio, and then transitioned indoors.

Casa Hacienda Moreyra

Whiskey, Grand Marnier, Drambuie, Cynar
"Roots and herbs"
Herb crisps, tomato butter, charred tomato skin
Carrots, ink
Charred baby carrots set on top of a thick, peaty, squid ink sauce. Simple, but excellent flavours.

Fried black olives, chili, pickled onion
"Anticucheras skins"
Chicken, pork, fish
Each delicate wafer was topped with two sauces - roasted chili, and a buttery, garlicky potato cream. Not even the slightest hint of grease - all three skins were crispy and very, very good.

The Pacific Ocean

Seaweed, sea prawn, anchovy
A pleasant trio of savory bites. First, a crispy tangle of seaweed topped with peach cream. Then, a tartare of sea prawn topped with some sort of pickled vegetable. Finally, my favourite, an anchovy alfajor - intensely salty and sweet.

Melon, uni, clam
"Pisco beach"
Scallops, chili, yogurt, coffee
Covered by a shower of "sandy" breadcrumbs, the raw scallops went nicely with the spicy chili and roasted coffee. To my surprise, the dry/wet ratio of the ingredients was actually quite well calibrated - a considerable textural achievement.

Lobster, pacae, maca
Sweet raw lobster, paired with a mayonnaise of its roe - very tasty. A sprinkle of togarashi and red oxalis provided contrast to the marine flavours. A tuile of maca, a native Peruvian radish-like vegetable was spongy rather than crisp - I found this a little disconcerting. My favorite element was the fluffy white balls of pacae, a sweet legume also known as the "ice cream bean" - the essence of the tropics.

The Desert

"Memories of Cantalloc"
Pisco, pumpkin, coca leaf, cotton candy
The aqueducts of Cantalloc are a relic of the Nazca civilization - over 1500 years old, and many still in working condition today. Our spiral serving vessels are a mirror image of the ancient stone wells used to access these water sources (note the deep blue at the bottom of the bowl). Diluted pisco was poured into the groove, melting a cloud of cotton candy and carrying the sweetened liquid down, down, down into the pool of fruits and herbs. We were given a spoon to eat the solids, and a straw to finish up - delicious and rather cute.

"Southern asparagus"
Asparagus, parmesan, frozen egg yolk
Asparagus is a hardy plant and fares quite well under arid conditions - these specimens were from the coastal deserts in the south of Peru. A tried-and-true combination of flavours, although I felt that the frozen egg yolk missed the mark.

Mackerel escabeche
Tomato, seaweed, onion
The fish was fantastic - supple flesh packed with an incredible amount of flavour, heightened by the sweet and sour of the tomato. Crisp wafers of seaweed provided a nice foil to the soft mackerel, while the thick and very umami onion gel added an otherworldly unctuousness (yes, I used that word).

Crab, stinging nettle, rice, coconut milk
The Andes

Andean cheese, corn silk, rocoto chili crisp
Butter-poached purple potato, torched hollandaise
"Sacred coca"
Pachamanca is a Quechua word that refers to both a traditional Andean dish, and the celebration that typically revolves around it. During a Pachamanca (and indeed, on many other occasions), Peruvians chew coca leaves as part of the festivities. To bring some of this old ritual into the dining room, we were each presented with a single dried, sweetened coca leaf, and instructed to eat it while our server prepared the Pachamanca tableside.

Opening the huatia
Potatoes baked in a huatia
Cuy, potato, alpaca, chaco, Andean cheese
The Pachamanca was prepared in a dirt oven called a huatia - inside, baby potatoes, oiled and salted. To accompany the potatoes, we were served five bites arranged on a red tile (clockwise from bottom-left) - fried alpaca skin on chaco, roasted cuy (guinea pig), crispy potato skin on mushroom sauce, fresh cheese with green onions, and fresh cheese with rocoto. At this point in the trip, I had tired of cuy, but enjoyed the salty alpaca skin and the sharpness of the cheeses.

Frutillada, molle
A classic drink in Cusco and its surroundings, frutillada tastes of lightly fermented corn (chica), the effervescence blending with the pop of fresh strawberries. In Cusco, we had it in giant mugs, easily enough for three. At Astrid & Gastón, this was elegantly recapitulated with our shaven glass. The concentrated, frothy frutillada was spiked with molle (commonly called pink peppercorns, although not a true pepper), giving it a rather pleasant zing.

The Altiplano

Quinoa sprouts and leaves
Chili, mushrooms
Trout, cherimoya, duck sauce
Other examples of cooked river trout we'd eaten so far in Peru have had an unpleasant hint of muddiness - not so here. The fish was fantastic, and the combination with the rich duck jus and the floral cherimoya, inspired.

Beef shank
Bone marrow, watercress, mustard seed
Lamb, sage, oca
The Amazon

Toasted pig jowl, sachaculantro, charapita
The best of the meat courses. The caramelized pig jowl played well with vanilla-dusted fava beans - something that could easily be overdone, but executed perfectly here. A spicy brunoise of charapita chilis helped balance the fat from the pork. Finally, a surprising element - an herbacious sachaculantro ice cream, redolent of cilantro without the undertones of soapiness. NB: apparently in Peru, "cilantro" is called "culantro", hence true "culantro" is known as "sachaculantro".

Cocoa bonbon
Aguaje, lucuma, purple corn
A showcase of Amazonian fruits, this dessert really constrasted the firm aguaje (which reminded me of a sweetened carrot) and custardy, caramel-tasting lucuma (hugely popular in Peru). The fruits were covered in a shower of frozen purple corn, by now a flavour quite familiar to us. Excellent.

Zapote, lima, ginger ice cream
See You Soon!

La Tasta Cafe Finca, chocolate coins
Cold-brewed Peruvian coffee to end the meal - nutty and very smooth. This was served with four different (and very sweet) chocolate coins - pineapple and passionfruit, yellow chili, Maras salt, and toasted cereal.

How to sum up this epic journey through time and space? Certainly, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts - no single dish completely blew us away, but each course told a story, and collectively, a cohesive anthology. I am very happy this was one of our last meals in Peru - thought I'm sure a significant amount of context was lost, the limited taste memories we gathered from our short time in the country made parts of this lunch feel familiar - perhaps as close to nostalgia as a tourist can get.

Virú is a birds-eye view of Peruvian cuisine - a grand survey of the landscape, limited by its scope to a relatively superficial exploration of the environments. I wonder, will the next tasting menu delve deeper, immersing us thoroughly in the richness of each locale? I really hope so - there is so much to learn.

Av. Pas Soldan 290
San Isidro, Lima
Phone: +51 (1) 442-2775