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Scaling the heights of Lima’s food scene

Nutritionist Manuel Villacorta shops for produce mostly native to South America.Christopher Muther/globe staff

This is a city that breezes by in the rearview mirror for most travelers rushing east to the green peaks of Machu Picchu. What they see of Lima after disembarking from their planes are strip malls, inexpensive Chinese restaurants, and workers waiting to squeeze into packed buses. There’s dust, exhaust, traffic, and noise. First impressions are deceiving.

I once fell into that tourist category. Three years ago, I used Lima as a rest stop before heading off to Arequipa, Cuzco, and the bucket-list visit to the 15th-century Incan citadel. But on my final night in Peru I stayed in the Miraflores district of Lima. I had dinner at Astrid y Gastón, which is where everyone who spends a night in Lima has dinner, and then walked around Kennedy Park.

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I had a good feeling about Lima. It may have been the balmy swimming pool at my hotel, the dozens of cats I bonded with in Kennedy Park, or the fact that my altitude sickness had finally disappeared. Whatever the reason, my initial perceptions of the city were obliterated that lovely evening. I decided that Lima needed a second chance.

When I returned this spring — it was fall in Peru — I spent all my time in Lima, staying in the Miraflores neighborhood. I enjoyed the leafy district’s sweeping ocean views, walking paths through tony neighborhoods, and I needed to get back to Kennedy Park to spend time with those cats. I had an agenda. I wanted to persuade some of the 3 million tourists who dart off to Machu Picchu that it’s worth their time to stay a few extra days in Lima. There is culture, history, and, more importantly, there’s food. Those who follow gastronomy trends have declared Peru the next Scandinavia.

Chefs here take celebrity to a next level. Astrid y Gastón chef Gaston Acurio has 44 restaurants in 13 countries. He’s so successful and popular that there are murmurs that he should run for president.

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As I strolled around the sprawling Surquillo Market my first day, it struck me that Peru has one very large advantage over Scandinavia on the culinary wrestling mat. Northern Europe has one short growing season. South America has a year-round bounty of vegetation. Guided by nutritionist Manuel Villacorta and restaurant owner Joaquin de la Piedra, I was overwhelmed by the offerings in the market. I had never seen most of these alien-looking fruits and berries.

Villacorta, who has written books on Peruvian food, said there are still new discoveries coming out of the rain forest. As we walked through the stalls, vendors introduced him to fruits that he had never tasted before. Women offered me bites of fruit that appeared to have come straight out of a Dr. Seuss illustration.

“We’re eating things now that we didn’t know existed a few years ago,” he said.

One of the fruits Villacorta has championed in his books is the pichuberry, a sweet, tart little sphere grown by the Incas that contains a ridiculous amount of vitamin D.

Later at de la Piedra’s restaurant, we sampled some classic Peruvian dishes with a twist. I still have hungry dreams about sweet potato doughnuts.

Peru is a massive city of 9 million divided into 43 distinct districts. I walked for miles at a brisk pace over several days and only covered four of them: Miraflores, San Isidro, Barranco, and the Historic Center. The colorful seaside town of Barranco, once filled with the vacation homes of the wealthy, is considered the bohemian and hip part of the city. I parked myself on the porch of Victoria Bar, a 1905 mansion that has been transformed into a club, while I listened to an amazing set from DJ Mario Silvania and sucked down pisco sours.

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Cosme, in Lima’s upscale San Isidro district, recycles water bottles to its ceiling.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

On the subject of pisco sours, I heard whispers — well, more like shouts — that the bar at Hotel B, a converted Belle Époque mansion in Barranco, served some of the best in the neighborhood. I struck up a conversation with the very friendly bartender about food (of course). He offered some variations on the classic cocktail, but as a traditionalist, I insisted on taking mine without hibiscus syrup. In between Barranco restaurants, I visited Mario Testino’s MATE museum in an18th-century townhouse, filled with his glossy pictures of supermodels, celebrities, and royalty.

One of the drawbacks of going to a city with so many good restaurants is finding the time to eat at all of them. There are many worse problems to have while traveling, such as wearing Tevas in public or getting stuck watching “Annie” (the 2014 version, of course) on a plane. But restaurant overload can be frustrating.

I turned to friends for help, but I only learned of more places that I needed to check out. Over lunch at the ceviche restaurant-of-the-moment, El Mercado from celebrity chef Rafael Osterling, a pair of friends started ticking off more places I needed to try before leaving Lima. Central, La Picantería, Maido, and Canta Rana.

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As she rattled off the list, she added, “Lima is all about food.” There are entire neighborhoods that are being transformed as the restaurant scene begins to expand out of Miraflores and the Barranco. An area that was once all garages and autobody shops near Miraflores is now the latest area getting a hipster makeover.

Because people love superlatives, the most popular post-trip question I heard was, “What was your favorite restaurant?” That’s like trying to pick which cat was my favorite at Kennedy Park. The cat answer was a black-and-white shorthair I christened Creative Black Tye. The restaurant answer was IK. It’s a Peruvian fusion restaurant with an interior that feels almost spa-like. The round tables are made from recycled wood, while the food is served on alabaster platters. Smooth stones are carefully arranged at each place on the table, acting as props for the metal tongs. It’s all in the details.

Getting a table at one of Lima’s hot spots during prime dining hours requires some advance planning, as I found out at Cosme in the upscale hood of San Isidro. At the time of my trip, the restaurant had been open only three weeks, but it was already impossible to get a dinner reservation. I settled for brunch. Homemade soda was a perfect match for the Mexican-style street corn — although most of the time, my eyes were glued to the hundreds of recycled plastic bottles filled with multicolored water and affixed to the ceiling.

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Lima was founded in 1535 and its Historic Center is a UNESCO Word Heritage site. It was a nice contrast to the modern neighborhoods I had been exploring. I admit that I felt guilty being in Peru without visiting Machu Picchu or Lake Titicaca, but I was able to console myself with memories of sweet potato doughnuts and some of my best meals ever.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.