Lima is the world’s best Restaurant city, with two restaurants in the Top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. When I decided to make a three day stop in Lima, to experience what makes this city so exceptional, I could not get a seat at Central (6th Best) or at Maido (10th Best), nor at Astrid y Gastón, now at 67th Best in the 51 – 120 sublist for 2019, having been a World’s 50 Best restaurant for many years, at number 36 in 2018. Being in Lima but not being able to eat at any of its top restaurants was frustrating, so I wrote an email to Astrid y Gastón restaurant, kindly asking if they had a table available for me. And they kindly replied with a Yes! And I was lucky to get into Central Restaurante too, also in the last minute, as well as at Kjolle, the sister restaurant to Central. A three day feast.
Astrid y Gaston put Lima on the world restaurant map initially, named after the husband and wife chef team owning the restaurant, Chef Astrid specialising in Pastry. It celebrated its 25th anniversary recently. I was always intrigued with the restaurant name, learning that the ‘y’ stands for ‘and’ in Spanish, when I typed their name for the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards Blogposts over the years. Never in my wildest dreams could I think that I would get a table there with my last minute booking.
The restaurant was ranked at number 34 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list last year, and Chef Gaston Acurio received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World’s 50 Best last year. Sadly, this year they slid badly to rank 67. I was told that they do not chase awards and that they are giving younger chefs and newer restaurants a chance to feature on this list, a diplomatic reply when I addressed it with Juan Carlos, a charming acting manager, who patiently answered all my questions. I was at the restaurant for four hours, the last to leave.
I had the choice of the Tasting Menu called LimaLove, with a heart on it, 13 courses with a surprise 14th, at 445 Soles (R2000), or the a la carte menu, so I chose the former, for its love theme and hearts, as well as giving me a broader exposure to Peruvian dishes. The Tasting Menu represents the fusion of Italian, Japanese, and Peruvian cuisine and culture in Peru. Ceviche is THE dominant cuisine style of Peru, raw fish cured in citrus juice.
The restaurant is in a renovated 300 year old building, with its own chapel. It was once a plantation homestead, having belonged to a Spanish royal. The ladies loo was in need of some repair. Funny was the poster in the loo of the chefs shyly looking on…. In the restaurant shop they sell mainly chocolates, heart ones in green (mint), yellow (quinoa), vanilla, and red, but also T-shirts, and local liqueurs.
I found a heart stone in their vegetable garden, not knowing then that their Tasting Menu is love and heart driven. In the garden I recognised dill, sweet peas, chives, marigolds, capers, coriander, mint, basil, parsley, and oregano, and asked for a list of the other plants in the garden, but this never happened. I popped my head into the little chapel on the property, one just able to see it from a cordoned off entrance.
It was an amazing lunch experience in all respects, and felt like the best Christmas spoil. Seeing the name of the restaurant, on my first of three eating days in Lima, made my heart beat faster, walking up the steps to its entrance. I had walked through the vegetable herb garden, and it looked sadly neglected. Not all the plants were marked, and if they were, they were identified in Spanish.
The reception is large, with a massive painting behind the reception desk, manned by a number of staff, a modern impressive welcome. I gave my name, and was given a copy of the Tasting Menu, with its heart and LimaLove theme on it. I fell in love with the restaurant immediately, from its theme alone, and the alliteration. I walked around, took photographs, seeing a large outside seating area with multi-coloured ribbons on the trees, multi-colour being a characteristic of Peru, and reflected in a cover of a recipe book by Chef Gastón.
I was given a choice of dining rooms to sit in, one near the open plan glass-enclosed kitchen, or in a dining room, so I chose the latter. The table top was made of a beautiful wood, and had a tiny plant on it with figurines and a multi-coloured ribbon. It took about an hour for the eating experience to begin, it feeling as if they had forgotten me. It may have had to do with finding me an English speaking waitron, even though generally the restaurant staff spoke English. I interacted mainly with Juan Carlos, being an acting Manager for the day, speaking good English, and answering my many questions. It was clear that Chef Gastón would not be in the house, it being a public holiday, but also because he owns a total of 40 restaurants in Peru (30 in his home country alone) and elsewhere, including Spain, Argentina, and Mexico, Astrid y Gastón being his finest dining restaurant. He has written five cookery books, and collaborated with other chefs in additional books.
A junior sommelier and I could not communicate, so Diego the head sommelier looked after me on the wine side, even writing notes for me about the glass of Spanish Llopart Rosé Brut Reserve 2015 sparkling wine I drank with my meal, organically produced in the Champenoise style, from manually harvested grapes, and spending 18 months on the lees. He also brought the only South African wine on their wine list, Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2009, to my table so that I could photograph it, costing 1189 soles (just over R5000).
The 14 Course Tasting Menu costs 445 Soles (about R2000). An a la carte menu was available too, but I wanted to try as wide a spectrum of the restaurant’s dishes, so chose the Tasting Menu. Head Chef Jorge Muñoz headed up the kitchen for the lunch.
I chatted to Juan Carlos about the restaurant’s massive 2019 drop on the World’s 50 Best List. He was diplomatic about it, saying that they focus on their patrons, and are now leaving the contest playing field open to the new and younger chefs.
The table was made from a most beautiful Olmo wood, waitress Corinna told me, with only a side plate and a linen napkin. On the table is a little plant, possibly a bonsai. Overhead lighting is excellent, lighting up an area in the table in front of me. Beige upholstered chairs offer comfortable seating. A handbag side table is offered, always an old-fashioned sign of a fine-dining restaurant. Artwork is modern, but not identified. In an adjacent room an artwork looked like a crumpled piece of paper. The dining room had two shelving units, displaying books by Chef Gastón, plants, and more.
- Indecent Bed
This course and its execution was the oddest and funniest I have ever seen at a Fine Dining restaurant. A ceramic representation of an untidy bed, with a crumpled up sheet and two pillows, represented the fusion between Japanese, Italian, and Peruvian cultures and foods in Peru, which has taken place in the bed……., what a sense of humor. It contained three bites, which I was told to eat with my fingers :
# Raw Sea urchin on toast, with Cilantro, representing the Japanese part of the Peruvian population, a very prominent marine taste. It had a jelly texture, and it was my first experience of sea urchin.
# clam empanadas, representing the Italian food and its culture, were crispy, a slight pronounced taste which lingered.
2. Marcona Sea Urchin
It was a surprise to me that sea urchin was repeated as an ingredient, coming directly after its use in the first course. It was sourced from Marcona, outside Lima, Corinna told me, served raw as a ceviche, in a pannacotta, reflecting the Italian side of Peru culture, and served with a pea purée and lemon caviar, a delicious eating experience, the lemon coming to the fore when taking a bite. This dish was beautifully presented.
3. Ceviche of all bloods
This course once again reinforced the fusion and union of the Peruvian people, with their Japanese, Italian, African, and Peruvian backgrounds, a ‘mix of all people’s bloods’, ceviche being loved by all Peruvians. The ceviche was of sea bass, while the corn was boiled as well as dried and toasted, and served with sweet potato, and Tiger’s Milk, a sauce of chili, onion, and lemon. It was a beautiful dish in its presentation. The corn and the sauce complimented each other, the sweet potato was soft in texture, and the sauce gave the dish a subtle bite. This dish was one of the most attractive in its presentation of the lunch.
# Sunflower and sesame seed baguette
# Blue corn and raisin baguette
# Brioche of sweet potato – this paired well with the avocado spread
# Rosemary focaccia, a very dated bread type
# Chapla, an Andes origin bread made with black quinoa, and with a sweet glaze topping.
Four spreads accompanied the breads:
# Artisanal whipped butter
# Avocado, topped with chimichurri
# Smoked tomato butter and powder of burnt tomato, topped with white organic honey. While I do not usually like cooked tomato, this butter was excellent.
# Lard and golden jelly. The jelly added sweetness to the lard.
5. ‘Our lifelong Peking cuy
Even writing about this course, two weeks after eating it, gives me the cold chills. I had to force myself to try it, a guinea pig being a household pet in our country, but a delicacy in Peru. This dish represented the Chinese influence on food in Peru. I did love its presentation, on a blue corn mini pancake, almost black in color, topped with pickled radish. One was to wrap the pancake around the guinea pig, and the radish gave it a crunchy texture.
At this stage a young waiter Alonso was clearing the table, and he could speak some English, telling me that he is 22 years old, and has worked in the restaurant for seven months.
6. Crispy pig feet
I was told that this dish is very popular in Lima, a lentil salad, with olives, baby tomatoes, and a red chili rococo pepper sauce.
I found it hard to photograph this dish, it being served on a white plate which reflected the light. It was a crumbed, and when I cut it open, a fatty liquid oozed out of it. Lentils are not my favorite at the best of times, and overall this dish did not excite me.
7. Scallop dumpling
This dish was prepared with purple corn, and Juan Carlos fetched one from the kitchen to show me. It really is a deep purple. I was told that they have up to 50 different corn varieties in Peru. The ravioli relates to the Italian heritage of Peruvians. It was served with lemon zest, Parmesan foam, a butter sauce, and borage flowers. It was a very salty dish. A spoon was offered too, so that one could finish the delicious sauce.
8. Lobster, a tribute to La Punta
The dish was designed as a tribute to La Punta in Callao, the main port of Peru. It is home to many Italians. The dish was served with a purée of green beans, parehuela sauce (a fish broth), basil foam, fresh Jujo seaweed, eaten raw as ceviche. The plate on which the dish was served had beautiful ocean colors. The beans were crispy, the lobster rare, and the seaweed was crispy, giving good texture.
9. Confited Suckling pig
This confit suckling pig was presented with corn, cilantro, yellow chili peppers, and a sauce.
10. Nikkei Angus Short ribs
The Angus beef ribs were cooked for 36 hours, and were served with a cream of carrot, ginger, smoked rice, chives, sausage, seaweed, and lettuce, a Japanese inspired dish. This was a Nikkei dish, a term I learnt in Peru, describing Peruvians whose parents were originally from Japan. I found the portion far too large, and found a bone in the meat. The plate on which this dish was presented had a chip! The dish also looked very similar to the pork dish.
11. Palate cleanser: Cava
12. Ode to the Fig
Two bowls were brought to the table. One was a large frozen fig. The second was a fig pannacotta, made with brown figs and syrup, miso crumble, and fig ice cream. The waitress grated the frozen fig over the second plate, creating a crispy crumble.
13. 100% Peruvian cigar
This was a lovely last course, a cigar crafted from 67% cocoa chocolate sourced from Tumbes, a region near Ecuador. Inside the cigar was a mousse of orange and aniseed, beautifully presented in a wooden box, on top of a bed of cocoa nibs. I was not able to eat it, already having had such a large lunch, so I asked the waitress for a take-away box. This dish made me think of Chef Rikku of the SŸN Group, who serves a (savory) cigar course too.
14. A last surprise
I was heading for the shop, to buy some heart chocolates as a gift, when I was encouraged to return to my table, where the waitress had set up a brown box with various drawers and layers as a surprise. She asked me to open it up, and the clever design of the box revealed various chocolate varieties from the chocolates available in the Astrid y Gastón shop. The brief I was given was to select whichever and how many chocolates I wanted to take home with me, being given me a take-away box for it.
The waitress had only served the dessert courses, having come onto the shift in the late afternoon . She spoke English well, and assisted me with the lovely chocolate surprise. She brought the bill when I requested it, and then asked that I add a tip to the payment, even if she had only served me for three of the 14 courses. It was an uncomfortable ending to an amazing lunch experience.
In the restaurant they played American style jazz initially, but the playlist evolved over the four hours. Peruvian Salsa music was played at one stage, sounding very Buena Vista Social Club to me. With the music and ‘cigar’ I did feel homesick for Havana.
I loved the sea urchin dish, the ceviche, the lobster dish, the ‘ode to the fig’ dessert, and the ‘100% Peruvian cigar’. The weakest dish was the ‘Crispy Pig feet’, not crispy, and it did not show up well in the photograph. Two meat main courses were too much, and the bread basket was far too generous too. I still regret having even taken a bite of the Guinea Pig dish. I was grateful to Juan Carlos for answering my many questions, and that I never felt rushed during the Lunch, something I sadly experienced at Kjolle and Central restaurants in Lima, at the lunches on the two following days. The vegetable and herb garden was a disappointment. The interior space was attractive, and reasonably warm on a cold day, except when a door to a terrace was left open later during the lunch, on a cold winter’s day. The English speaking ability of the a staff was far better than that of the Central waitrons,
I had such gratitude for this trip and the three-day Lima detour being possible, and for the luck I had in getting into Astrid y Gastón.
Astrid y Gastón, Avenida Paz Soldan 290, San Isidro, Lima, Peru. Tel +53 014422777 www.astridygaston.com Instagram: @AstridyGaston
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein