Thursday, August 28, 2008

Horray, Triumph for Taco Trucks

A Los Angeles County Judge overturned the unpopular ordinance regarding taco truck parking. I acknowledge that taco trucks may have lower costs and could be driving brick and mortar businesses out, but that's what competition is all about. Plus I would rather get a meal at a truck than many of the so-called taqueiras. Regarding the claims that taco trucks create noise and trash, I haven't seen it personally so I can't speak to that.,0,2873228.story?track=rss

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The VGT Omnivore's Hundred

Thanks to the investigative food blog browsing of my friend Audrey, I found this list. I figured it would be a fun way to fill an entry. So here we go.

Here’s what I want you to do:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at linking to your results.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison - at Josie
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile - Did you know Louisiana is the only place to have alligators and crocodiles?
6. Black pudding - as blood sausage, which Wikipedia tells me is the same.
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht - not big on beets
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich - Yes, but I don't understand the American love affair with this sandwich.
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart - One of the best hot dogs I ever had was from a cart in SF.
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle - I've had it shaved into other dishes, but often not in enough quantities to really tell what it tastes like.
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras - First time was actually relatively recently at Plumed Horse.
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper - more for my own safety than anything else.
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl - The best sourdough is in SF hands-down.
33. Salted lassi - I've had Persian doogh though.
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar - only because I don't smoke.
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects - scorpions and sandworms; I don't know if I could do a beetle or cricket.
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk - Just tried it the other day actually; There might be an entry later.
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu - Thought I did, panicked that I would be paralyzed. I think I just drank too much that night.
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut - For several year I actually gave up Krispy Kremes. But the first one I had after a several year hiatus was heavenly.
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal - Strangely enough, I only eat Big Macs when I'm overseas.
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine - didn't know what this was, but looks appealing on Wikipedia.
60. Carob chips - Why would you eat these by themselves?
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads - at Restaurant 2117.
63. Kaolin - maybe as a part of a stomach Chinese stomach medicine
64. Currywurst - haven't heard of it, but from the name, it sounds delicious.
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis - I'm not adverse to haggis, but it just doesn't sounds very good. Usually things boiled aren't very good.
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho - Surprisingly, I don't think I've ever had it.
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill - Initially, I would've objected, but Dave's Cupboard suggested that a deer could be roadkill. I'd gladly eat that.
76. Baijiu - There's a reason they serve it in tiny cups.
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky - This is a truly odd list, isn't it?
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant - I've only gone as high as two.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare - rabbit? Is there a difference?
87. Goulash - not big on Eastern European, i.e. borscht from above.
88. Flowers - I'm not sure what this means since so many flowers are edible.
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam - musubi baby!
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor - Why would you do that to a lobster that's delicious enough on its own?
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

70 Eaten

2 out

28 to go

Come on LA bloggers, lets see some lists!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why Locavorism is a Pipe Dream

I grew up in California and I've lived here all my life. While I don't necessarily want to stay here forever, I do love the state. As a foodie, California's appeal is apparent. The incredible bounty of the state is unparalleled by anywhere else in the Union. California's climate and soil conditions are so versatile and suitable to a wide variety of produce. Visiting New York, I hated paying a premium for fresh fruits and vegetables that look like they came from the bottom of the sale bin at 99 Ranch. Considering my love for the ingredients here, its easy to appreciate the utopian dream of the locavore movement.

Sure, eating local foods seems to be a great concept for building self-reliant communities. The food on your plate comes from no further than your nearest farms and ranches. The huge carbon footprint on that Australian rack of lamb is enough to deter some environmentalists. Why not have lamb from the farmers' market instead?

Well as Stephen Dubner and James McWilliams argue on the Freakonomics blog, the local food movement is just not very sound from an economist's perspective. When you emphasize small farms, you lose economies of scale. When you lose that, you create inefficiencies may have other undesirable effects. True, agri-business sounds pretty sinister these days, but mostly because these large companies are efficient at what they do. The Green Revolution has been credited with feeding groups of people with cheap and readily available foods, but perhaps at the cost of the environment. Yet how many people are willing to give up most of the foods on their local grocery shelves for the sake of the environment. I like to eat bananas, but they don't grow anywhere near me. How many of you are willing to make that sacrifice?

Not everywhere that people live is suitable for agriculture either. California is lucky in that sense, but ask the people in Arizona if they're willing to only eat locally. Would it be worthwhile to heavily irrigate Arizona for the sake of growing oranges? How can that be good for the environment.

On paper, the local food movement is quite appealing. But in practice, it just doesn't address all the complexities. Our agricultural system is flawed, but certainly not broken.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Destination Peru #10: My Gripe with Dinner Shows

When I traveled as a kid with my family, I never liked our tour groups. Although I like the convenience of having everything planned out, I never trust the food provided on these tours. They always have some sort of deal worked out with a less than stellar restaurants to gouge the customers. Just the same, I'm skeptical of asking taxi drivers for recommendations. It was like this when I went to Europe. We were in a Chinese tour group and only ate at Chinese restaurants. Don't ask me how I went through France without eating anything remotely French.

On my trip to Peru, we booked a tour that took care of lodging, transportation and several tours of famous sites. Luckily, they gave us freedom for our meals. One of the few dinners they did provide was at Tunupa. It is centrally located in the town square, and better yet, there was live entertainment. The show consisted of an Andean band playing some traditional instruments and dancers performing native dances.

While the performance was good, the food was not. Though Tunupa has a menu available, the provided dinner was a buffet. In general, I don't mind buffets. I realize that the food is not going to be outstanding so I judge it on a different scale. Even though the alpaca stew and spit-roasted pork were tasty, overall I didn't think it was memorable or spectacular. What bothered me most though, was that it was a buffet. Simply put, buffets and dinner shows do not mix. The dancers frequently blocked the main floor of the restaurant, resulting in diner stuck to one wall while waiting for the routine to finish. At least with wait service the diners are not quite as inconvenienced, assuming that the performances are timed well with each course. If you're going to start a restaurant with accompanying show, please plan ahead. Don't leave me standing with a chocolate hazelnut cake in one hand for four minutes.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Destination Peru #9: Inka Grill Introduction to Cusco

Cusco Cathedral

After our brief tour in Lima, we ventured up into the Andes en route to Machu Picchu. The town of Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire at its peak, now its a major tourist stop. Around the main square, little shops and restaurants gave the scene the flavor of a quaint European village. The cathedral in the center of town had more bling than the last thirty gangsta rap videos I've seen. Gold and silver leafed altar pieces were stunning. I have to give it up to the Catholic Church, when they want to dazzle you, they do so in style.

That's a candle that's accumulated over ten years.

For lunch upon arrival, we went to Inka Grill, one of the restaurants on my Peru research list. The classy interior and experienced staff definitely took the restaurant out of the little town its in and placed it in a cosmopolitan city. Of course the prices also reflected that. During my trip, the exchange rate was roughly 3 soles per dollar. When my uncle went their before the Argentinian economy collapse, the exchange rate was one-to-one. At those prices, the country would not be any cheaper to visit than America.

They served us some chips with spicy, minty cilantro dip to start with, but they weren't that good. In fact, they had been sitting out and were no longer crispy. I couldn't tell if the potatoes tasted any different.

Aji de Gallina

I ordered the aji de gallina because of its popularity as a Peruvian dish. It's a shredded, poached chicken in a creamy sauce with nuts, parmesan cheese and mirasol peppers. As a dish, it's hearty, but beyond that, the flavor was simple. I can imagine people eating something like this on a day-to-day basis.

Alpaca Tournedos

Live alpaca for comparison

Of course I would've ordered the alpaca a lo tupac turin if my brother hadn't jumped on it first. This would be first of someone of the more exotic foods I'd be eating. Alpacas are so common in the Andes, although I suspect the people raising them tend to frequent tourist paths. They're dumb looking animals, but very docile and tame. Similar to llamas except they're not raised as pack animals since they're too small to carry anything. They're domesticated only for their wool. I bought several scarfs and sweaters made of alpaca and I'll admit that they are indeed soft and warm. Too bad their meat is not especially delicious. The tournedos were tender and slightly gamey, but nothing particularly memorable. I won't be disappointed if I can never eat alpaca again.

Inka Grill Sampler

My mom decided to go broad and order the Inka Grill Sampler, which consisted of tamales, potato empanadas, anticucho and papas rellenas. Everything on that plate that looks yellowish is potato. In my opinion, it was overwhelming, but the different styles of preparations with presumably different types of potatoes had radically different textures. Anticucho was a dish I had heard much about and was eager to try. It is a skewered beef heart. Sounds tasty...or maybe a little sadistic. Either way, it was indeed chewy and beefy. There was a slight taste of organ meat, but it was mostly just an overwhelming sensation of beef. Did I say overwhelming? I meant just right. How could you be overwhelmed by beef? That would be silly.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Destination Peru #8: Chifas in Peru

Look familiar?

What about this one?

It's funny how Chinese restaurants look the same wherever you go. The same cheap furniture, tacky posters and paintings, and that ubiquitous bottle of soy sauce on every table. I suppose that you can say the same about any French or Japanese restaurant. But the frugality of Chinese decor will always be apparent. Chinese restaurants have taken a life of their own in Peru. Being such a diverse capital, Chinese have made their two million strong population felt in the Peruvian culinary scene. So much in fact that Chinese restaurants actually have a special name chifa, a transliteration of the Chinese 吃飯 meaning "to eat."

Sopa Wanton

Arroz Chaufa

Chifas are actually so common place in Lima that there's hardly a dining district without chopsticks and red walls. Wonton soup, or sopa wanton, often on the menu of even non-Chinese restaurants. As is arroz chaufa, fried rice. Just as Chinese food is in the States, the chifas in Peru serve a particular brand of cuisine distinct from its roots in the Orient. For one thing, sweet and sour seems to be big. A duck dish I ordered in Puno was peculiarly sliced and stir-fried instead of roasted whole. But given its uniqueness, I still found the food to be decent. The fried rice we had in Lima was particularly delicious. The chifas do have some strange habits such as serving jasmine tea with sugar (ack!).

Pato con ajo (Garlic duck)

We visited Chifa Parque Central in Lima and Chifa Nan Hua 南華 in Puno. Inca Kola has become a staple of chifas, much like the Belfast Apple Cider in Chinese restaurants in America. Still, I'd rather have my Chinese food with tea, but please, hold the sugar.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

New Food Friends

I just got back from a whirlwind dinner, meeting people with a myriad of specializations but with the single-focus of good food. FoodBuzz, as you seen on the banner on the left, hosted a dinner in Newport Beach for Southern California Featured Publishers. At first, I was apprehensive, not knowing what to expect, but by the end of the night I felt truly comfortable in excellent food company.

What makes you feel more welcome than someone recognizing your work? Fiona of Gourmet Pigs greeted me by name, recognizing my picture. Her review list is like my dream try list of places in LA. Hal of This Man's Kitchen remembered my churro post. Talking to him, I could see the charisma that makes him an actor. I got to hit up Ila of I Nom Things for her stash of shiso leaves.

Then there's the big-shot names I've only idolized from afar thus far. A woman in a sleek black dress came up to me an introduced herself as Sarah. Covering her eyes, I was startled to find the Sarah of The Delicious Life and Tastespotting. Talking to her, I could tell she had all the enthusiasm in person that she exudes on her blog. HC of LA & OC Foodventures and I talked about many of the great events coming up in LA and his extensive coverage of these events on his blog. I met Wandering Chopsticks who regaled me with stories of stalkers staking out her favorite joints or e-mailing asking to come over for dinner. Considering she hosts 80,000 hits a month, the crazies don't seem too far-fetched. I only got to speak to Bee of Rasa Malaysia briefly, but I could tell her personality was just as beautiful as the pictures on her site. Abby, who hosts meet-ups on Pleasure Palate told me of the budding food tourism industry in LA, something that I might want to look into in the future.

There were people with such specific focuses that it was inspiring just to see their dedication. Sitting next to me was Kathy of Panini Happy who drove all the way from San Diego to attend the dinner. I had an educational conversation with Matt the Rum Dood about some of his favorite drinks. His encyclopedia knowledge of rum completely floored me. Sarah of Go Eggless has specific dietary restrictions that inspired her to blog about places that suit her needs. It was fun trying to figure out why the restaurant's paella had aioli as an ingredient.

Although the crowd was foodcentric, it was good to see the other varied interests of the participants. Anyone can be a foodie. David of An Easy Recipe managed to quit his day job to pursue blogging full-time. He also writes about personal finance, travel and golf among other things. Seeing someone pursue his loves in life is always a great feeling and makes me optimistic for my own future. Nicole balances Art and Aioli an appreciation of the culinary and the visual arts.

Now I also have some blogs to consult when eating in the OC. Griffin of Griffin Eats OC and Daniel of Eat in OC gave me some recommendations right off the back, including some Peruvian places where I could find Inca Kola. And if you're looking for a Mexican restaurant in the OC, there isn't a better resource than Christian's Orange County Mexican Restaurants.

All this great company, did I mind that the food wasn't worth writing about? Nah, I gained much more than a full stomach. Although I will note that Blanca's lemon drop amuse-bouche was creative and unique. I hope to see all these people again. Check out their blogs.

Blog URL Name
An Easy Recipe David
Art and Aioli Nicole
Eat in O.C Daniel
Griffin Eats OC Griffin
I Nom Things Ila
LA and OC Foodventures Hiu Chung
Orange County Mexican Restaurants Christian
Pleasure Palate Abby
Rasa Malaysia Bee
RumDood Matt
The Delicious Life Sarah
This Man's Kitchen Hal
Wandering Chopsticks
Go Eggless Sarah
Panini Happy Kathy
Gourmet Pigs Fiona

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I Heard Lucques is the Best Restaurant in LA...

8474 Melrose Ave
West Los Angeles, 90064
$124 for two entrees, two appetizers, wine, cocktail and tea

Taking a break from my Peruventures, I thought I would share my thoughts on my dinner at Lucques. Alas, I could not make the famous Sunday Supper reservations, but I was able to grab an 8:15 on Monday night. It seems every major publication in the area gave glowing reviews for Lucques including S. Irene Virbilla of the LA Times and Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly, not to mention being ranked as the best restaurant in LA by LA Magazine. That said, I'd have to add my own blog to that list of Lucques reviewers.

Bread offering with almonds and olives

The atmosphere was quaint, as you'd expect from a restaurant set in the converted cottage of silent movie star Harold Lloyd. Wooden rafters give way to brick siding and open out to a small patio. In LA, there's hardly ever a restaurant that doesn't take full advantage of the beautiful evening weather with outdoor seating. The space wasn't large, but it conveyed elegance in intimacy. A group of slightly inebriated women chatted in a corner with a tall bottle of red wine, a clumsy suitor chatted nervously with his date nearby and what looked like a sugar daddy was showering his little ward with gifts of wines and desserts. Whatever the social circumstances, Lucques seemed to provide an appropriate backdrop.

Market lettuces with green goddess dressing, ruby grapefruit, avocado

The restaurant features one of those constantly updating menus depending on the seasons and availability of ingredients. It's also one of those menus which I could blindly point at and still be completely satisfied. Supposedly, the cuisine is Mediterranean-inspired but channeled through a Californian focus. Elements of Greek, Spanish and Italian dotted the menu, but the most prominent feature was the variety of ingredients. Indeed, with the dishes I tasted, I could sense the deep appreciation that Chef Goin has for the foods she works with. She allows each flavor to trumpet its own horn, whether the sweetness of the grapefruit or the tartness of the citrus dressing of the salad. Her expertise is not only limited to produce, but the delightful lamb carpaccio also showed a great respect for meat. The crispy fried fingerling potatoes and the creamy scallion aioli paired so nicely with the tender lamb that each forkful blended with complexity. The flavors are good enough separately, but combined they were heavenly. It reminded me of the scene from Ratatoutille where Remy describes to his brother how combining notes can create whole new chords of aroma and flavor.

And that was just the appetizers.

Slow-roasted Veal

The two entrees I tried, the slow-roasted veal with potato gratin and the crispy pork belly with peaches were hearty. So hearty in fact, the food doesn't look that exquisite. There wasn't the excessively large plate with a dainty morsel in the center with a single chive resting on its side. No, this was the food you wanted to see when you're hungry. Unfortunately, I had filled up quite a bit on the bread and appetizers already and seeing my pork belly made me somewhat anxious. While I would gladly order pork belly again as an appetizer, having a full serving as an entree is just too much. The pork had contrasting textures of the crisp skin and the tender fat that made eating it so interesting. But it was that fat, combined with a sauce heavy on the butter, that was simply too much for me. It was actually one of those moments where I could feel my life shortening. But who wants to live a life without food like this?

That night I knew precisely why Lucques received all those accolades. It reached out to an LA that was hungry. Hungry not for large portions, but food you eat when you really want to enjoy your food. Sometimes we get so caught up in experimental cuisine, where it's often more of a test for your brain than your stomach, that it's easy to miss the food that just makes us say, "Yum!"

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Destination Peru #7: Lost Churros, Please Help

Most Delicious Churro of My Life

Admittedly, I am not the most knowledgeable person when it comes to Latin American food. Up till now, my churro experiences have been limited to the sugary snacks found at Disneyland for $5 or whatever they're selling for these days. Yes, they are good, but they got nothing on the churro in the above picture. The shape is quite unlike the star-shaped ones available here, though I did see a few of those as well. This one is designed for filling, a brillant idea to invigorate the snack.

My family and I were walking through the Plaza de Armas in downtown Lima taking the obligatory tourist pictures and buying trinkets in the markets when I saw a line gathered outside a small storefront. There were no tourists here, just hungry locals looking for a neighborhood favorite. Whatever it was, I had to have it.

Los Autenticos Churros Espanoles de la Virgen Del Carmen

Nothing more than a counter facing the street and a bench along the wall, the shop served one thing. The name says it all, Los Autenticos Churros Espanoles de la Virgen Del Carmen. Pure, unadulterated pastries of fried dough filled with a creamy custard. I think it may have been manjar blanco, a thickened milk cream similar in consistency to condensed milk. The churros were pulled out of the hopper, dusted in sugar and handed to me wrapped in paper. It may have been fried, but it tasted like it was baked in heaven. Light on the stomach and light on the conscience, I felt good having it as a snack.

Sadly, I don't know the exact location of this churro shack. If anyone has any information, please comment. All I know is that it's within several blocks of the main square of downtown Lima, down a side street.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Destination Peru #6: Wet Your Whistle

I wanted to write an entry addressing the beverages in Peru. I mentioned the chicha morada, purple corn drink before, but there are many more worth mentioning. Also, the famous Pisco was also addressed previously.

The two drinks you'll find everywhere

The above picture shows the two most common drinks you'll find in Peru, much more popular than water. Actually Coke is also on that list, but we have Coke here don't we? Actually, more on that further down. Cusquena is by far the most popular beer in Peru by its sheer ubiquity. They seem to sponsor so much down there, including this remote wedding on a floating island in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

See the Cusquena gazebo?

For the non-drinkers, which seem to be very few, there's always the non-Coke standby Inca Kola. I've heard about Inca Kola during my research back in LA, but I was quite shocked to discover its florescent yellow coloration. My mom explained that it was likely due to the association of Incas with gold. I definitely racked up quite a few bottles of this during my trip. It tastes similar to bubblegum or cream soda. Apparently, it's also caffeinated. Pity I've never seen it before here, but I'll be sure to ask for it at my next Peruvian restaurant. In Peru, Inca Kola is closely associated with Chinese food. I'll explain more on that in the future.

Melon juice

Mixed fruit juice

Commonly, you'll see places serving jugos or juices from various regional fruit. I frequently saw banana, strawberry, papaya, pineapple, apple, orange, passionfruit and peach. The above melon juice is fresh squeezed from Astrid y Gaston. As with all the juices, it was sweet and refreshing. Also, they're all rather puply, usually not strained. While I usually like mine pulp free, it makes the drink healthier. I'm sure there's fiber or something in it. The mixed fruit juice is from a little restaurant in Agua Calientes that I will soon review. I tasted predominantely banana, pineapple and orange. Again, it's nothing unique besides the quality of the ingredients.

This was a Guarana soda my brother bought at the supermarket. I told him to try it because I'm in love with the Guarana Antarctica from Brazil. Sadly, the Peruvian counterpart seemed too artificial for my tastes. Asked to describe it, I would say that the soda tastes something like cream soda with a slice of apple. Please try it at your next churraschuria. Apparently, the guarana berry has two to three times the caffine of a coffee bean. Something to keep in mind next time I'm pounding these sodas at Fogo de Chao.

Something I notice when drinking Coke and Sprite in Peru. The sweetness is different. I have a feeling that the sweetener is more likely cane sugar than high fructose corn syrup. I've had sodas I've known to be cane sugar before, and the flavor is definitely superior. But I've heard conflicting information about HF corn syrup. On one hand, the body is supposed to find it indistinguishable from regular sucrose, common table sugar. But I've also heard people decrying HF corn syrup for being worse than transfats, cholesterol, salt or whatever our society is waging war on these days. Can anyone confirm or deny that for me?

Destination Peru #5: Alfresco in Miraflores

Malecon Balco 790
Miraflores, Lima
$10 or so per person for lunch

One of the restaurants that came up time and again on the Peru Chowhound boards was Alfresco for ceviche. Along with Puerto Madero, Pescadores Capitales and La Mar, Alfresco was on my list of possible lunch places. My plan was just to accumulate a selection of restaurants I know with a good reputation so that I could stumble into any one of them when a meal came up. However, when our driver picked us up at the airport, he immediately suggested Alfresco. So off we went!

The interior of the restaurant is casual, with a beach theme. The Northern wall has a large mural of coastal scene, and the large windows make the place bright and airy, even if Lima is never sunny in the Winter. From my research, I've heard that ceviche is only eaten at lunch and that Alfresco only served lunch, but when I arrived, I found an advertisement for their extensive dinner menu as well. I glanced at the menu, but I already knew what I came here for.

Ceviche, or sometimes cebiche, is something of a coastal delicacy popular in Lima. It's relatively common not only in Peruvian cusine, but also in any number of Latin American countries with access to fresh seafood. Ideally, it's a simple preparation of any type of white fish marinated in lime juice with some other flavorants such as red onions and chiles. You may have commonly heard that ceviche is raw, but the acid in the juice actually denatures the proteins of the seafood, in a form of heatless cooking. While it's debatable whether or not cooking has to involve heat, it's not debatable that Peru is home to some excellent ceviche. Due to the Japanese influence, Lima also has tiradito, which is a younger brother to the ceviche, lacking onions and less of a strong flavor more akin to Italian crudo.

To start, the waiter brought out a small bowl for the table. At first I was startled by its appearance, looking somewhat like little bugs. I know insects aren't completely foreign from the table in certain South American countries, as mentioned in my post about entomophagy, but I hadn't heard of any instances of it in Peru. Luckily, I realized that this was a bowl of cancha instead, roasted corn kernels. These make a terrific bar food and went well with my beer. I could definitely snack on these as an alternative to nuts or pretzels at the bar.

Again, a charge for bread meant the rolls that arrived were delicious. The larger ones were nothing particular, but the small rolls along the edge of the plate are onion rolls no larger than a half-dollar in circumference. I popped one into my mouth and got a surprise of rich onion paste filling. I always wonder how much more I eat when the portions are small enough to fit several into my mouth at once.

Finally our ceviche came. Since I didn't quite know what the portions were like and I wanted to try a combination, I ordered two different types of sampler platters for the four of us. The first plate in the top picture consisted of mixed ceviche, tiradito with lemon chili cream, causa (potato cake), octopus with olive sauce, a California roll and seafood salad. I don't even pretend to know which item is which, so you might have to use your detective work to figure it out. Although I do know the one on the bottom left is the ceviche.

The second plate consisted of flounder ceviche, tiradito in lemon pepper vinaigrette, crayfish cocktail, scallop tartare, octopus salad, salmon nigri and something call an Inka maki. In both plates, the plainest ceviche was always the best. The octopus is also surprisingly tender, lacking the chewiness common when served raw. I loved the presentation of each individual dish on scallop shells. It was quite a bit of food as just an appetizer for four people though.

With two appetizer, we decided to order three entree for the four of us. My scallops were disappointing. I wasn't sure how it would be prepared, but I didn't like the heavy sauce, which reminded me of the sauce served on takoyaki in Japan. I was also less than thrilled with the plating after they've already served the scallop shells with the ceviche. Although, it was nice to know they were using whole scallops.

My mom and dad shared a pretty grilled octopus salad. I actually don't remember much about how this tasted and there's nothing in my notes, so I suppose it wasn't particularly memorable.

As much as the other two entrees were letdowns, my brothers squid ink risotto was the redemption. I'll agree, it's not particularly appetizing to eat something that looks like that, but I wonder if there's anything really delicious that's black. The ink was fresh, so it didn't have a fishy taste. However, the waiter told us there was no calamari, so they were substituting it with crab, crayfish and shrimp instead. Makes you wonder what happened to the pens in the restaurant.

At this point we were all stuffed to the gills. Fresh seafood is usually pretty hard to screw up as long as the cooking process is kept simple and quick. I had my taste of the sea, now it was time to move inland.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Destination Peru #4: Miscellany of Fruits and Produce

As mentioned in my last post, Peru is home to a huge amount of biodiversity. What this means for me is a huge amount of things to eat. The above picture was taken at Vivanda, an upscale Whole Foods type market in Miraflores. Although many of the fruits and vegetables are recognizable as global staples, there are many that you don't see here unless in specialty markets.

For one thing, I was amazed at the varieties of heirloom tomatoes that have grown in popularity recently, but the number of those tomatoes are a paltry number compared to the over 3,000 varieties of domesticated potatoes in Peru. During my time there, I only had perhaps 5-6 that were consistently used in dishes, each with distinctly different flavors and textures. A potato can be intensely earthy, while its counterpart could be almost ethereal. One can be mealy and the other creamy. I suppose you can accomplish some of these different textures due to cooking method, but the differences in flavor are not so easily replicated.

Besides potatoes, there were also different types of corn, although not to the same degree. A constant staple was the large kernel corn you can see in my short ribs in the previous post. Below is a picture of a man selling boiled corn on the street. It was quite a common site actually, though typically with an Andean woman. My first impression upon seeing the giant kernel, each about 3-4 times larger than regular corn, was that it must be a large ear. Instead, I soon realized that the ears were the same size, but the kernels were just disproportionately large. I was also disappointed when eating it. There was no crunch, no satisfying snap to the corn. Each kernel was chewy and soft. In fact, it has almost no discernible flavor. I suppose I might be spoiled by the ultra-sweet GMO white corn here, but if this is what corn originally tasted like, then I would rather make a tortilla out of it instead. I think you would lose the pleasure of having a tasty corn on the cob treat.

Also, Peru has a purple corn most prominent as a drink chicha morada. The corn is boiled in water, turning the liquid the signature purple, and then pinapple and sugar are added as it cools. We bought a bottle at Vivanda, but it wasn't very good. It tasted artificial, and looking at the bottle I wouldn't be surprised if it was. It was much too sweet, but had an aftertaste of corn. I didn't see anyone eating the purple corn raw, but sometimes in a cooked state as a complement to a dish.

Every morning we had a complimentary breakfast served by the various hotels. In each hotel, there was always fresh squeezed papaya, pineapple and orange juice. Every fruit I ate was deliciously sweet, no "bad apples", not that I actually ate any apples. The plate below is a typical breakfast fruit platter I would make of kiwis, watermelon, papaya and an unidentified fruit in the top left. Those three pieces were sweet and a little mushy, but the seeds were round and extremely hard. If anyone can identify them, please comment below. My family also had many of the passionfruits in Peru. Considering how expensive they are in the States, it was a pleasure having them so cheaply we could eat them until we got sick of them. In the second picture, we bought a mandarin orange on the bottom right and three different types of passionfruit.

Of course I can't leave out meat. Commonly, there is the pork, chicken and beef that we all know and love. It is the alpaca and guinea pig that we don't see often. Strangely enough, I've heard that alpaca are illegal to slaughter for food, which makes me wonder where the meat comes from. Since I am much more a carnivore than anything else, I will go into these when I mention the restaurants that served them to me. But here's a picture of a typical meat market in Lima near Barrio Chino (Chinatown).

Sorry for the dearth of non-meal related pictures. Believe it or not, I'm still using a 256 mb memory stick on my camera. It wasn't until meticulously documenting this trip that space became a problem.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Destination Peru #3: Astrid y Gaston

I haven't done much traveling since I started this blog back in April. In fact, I didn't realize how big a part of my life food was until three or so years ago. Therefore, I have never traveled before with quite the intensity and commitment to culinary excellence as I did this last week during my trip to Peru. Luckily, I realized this before Peru, which has so many gastronomic pleasures to offer. When my mom asked me to find activities in Lima, I found restaurants instead. Prowling the Chowhound boards, I came up with a list of over twenty restaurants around the country at the cities we would be visiting from Lima, Cusco, Agua Calientes, and Puno. I figured with this list, I would have somewhere to go wherever we stayed. But with such an impressive list, I wanted to ensure that I hit up at least one place--Astrid y Gaston.

As you will see in this series of entries on Peruvian cuisine, the appeal is often in the cultural hodgepodge that comprises this South American country. Three main regions contribute heavily: the coast, highlands, and jungle. From the coast, we get fresh seafood forming such dishes as the ceviche and tiradito, a subtler cousin of ceviche more similar to Italian crudo or Japanese sashimi. The jungle provides an assortment of fruits and vegetables, many unfamiliar to us in the States. Up in the highlands, the cultivation of potatoes and other hardy plants combine with alpaca and guinea pig. One of the reasons I was so interested in Astrid y Gaston was its extensive menu encompassing multiple cultures and all these regions together.

This was my first time making a reservation for a restaurant in another country in a language I haven't used since high school. Luckily, Astrid y Gaston has a website with convenient English and a reservation submission form. However, as my trip approached, I still hadn't received an e-mail confirmation as stated on the site. When I got to Lima, I asked the helpful concierge to confirm the reservation for me. We got to the restaurant with no problem, its location being not too far from the hotel in Miraflores.

The interior of the restaurant could have been in any metropolis in the world. A team of professional waitstaff attended to our every need, including replacing my dad's silverware after each of the four times he dropped it. Diners can look back into the kitchen, with modern art lining the walls. The dining set of assorted plates were different for each table. The food was comparably expensive, more than ten times the cost of our cheapest meals. This was a place for the Liman elite and globetrekking tourists.

That is my brother sitting across from me

In Peru, as in many other countries, the classiest restaurants charge for bread. While that may sound ridiculous to me, I am at least assured that they will provide bread worth paying for. I wasn't disappointed. A collection of corn, potatoes and regular wheat bread was presented by the waiter paired with a dipping sauce of garlic cilantro and an unidentified spicy one. It was even served to us as a course, with the server explaining each component of the basket. The various baked goods were satisfying, but dangerous to the hungry customer. I needed to conserve my stomach if I was going to be eating here. The portions were enormous.

As an appetizer, I ordered the Limeña, a golden potato puree formed into neat stacks with tuna, crab, avocado and spicy cream. While the plate of four indeed looked pretty, the taste was underwhelming. On the bright side, I could actually taste some complexity in the potato that is largely absent from the varieties we have in this country.

Initially, I wanted to try the roasted kid for my entree. That's kid as in young goat. While I could've said goat, there wouldn't be that glee from the momentary shock on people's faces when you tell of your meal of kid. However, my brother was much more adament about ordering it; and so in the interest of diversity, I ordered the el asado de tira y el maiz morado--beef short ribs with purple corn in a red wine reduction and baby corn. The picture is as unappetizing as the ribs. They were simultaneously burnt and cold. Not quite what I was expecting or hoping for.

But to redeem my dish, the other three entrees were phenomenol. As a side note, in Peru, as in Britain, entree refers to the appetizer, causing much confusion for me and my Spanish speaking waiter. I let my brother have the nuestro clasico cabrito lechal del del valle de chillon--roasted kid in purple corn juice with Huamantanga potatoes. Come to think of it, many of the names of our dishes were quite a mouthful. His was my favorite item of that dinner. The meant was succulent and tender with a full flavor in the meat absent from the bland livestock we're used to. It's the most expensive entree there, but well worth it.

My mom had the Pachamanca urbana--a whole chicken cooked in an earthen pot with Andean herbs and potatoes. While a simple looking dish, besides service in said large pot, the chicken had so much flavor that I could hardly recognize the poultry we see so commonly here. While Pachamanca is traditionally reserved for feasts and celebrations in the Andes, served communally, this urbana version was just split between us four. I also doubt they prepared underground on a bed of hot stones as it should be, but no complaints here.

For my dad, I ordered the conchinillo de tres semanas del invierno--a suckling pig confit prepared for three weeks in a cocoa reduction and served with a poached peach. The skin was crispy if not for the sauce, but the meat as tender as a suckling pig should be. I am constantly disappointed I can't find quality pork like this more often without paying for Kurobuta or Berkshire.

For dessert, I wanted to try something fruity to encompass their wide selection of produce. I already had a melon juice with my meal which was fragrant and complex, but we decided to try the three flavor seasonal sorbets for dessert. While the menu lists 5-6 fruits, the ones we got are prickly pear (aka tuna verde), lemongrass with lemon and passionfruit. The prickly pear turned out to be the winner, light on the palate, while the lemongrass was much too sour and the passionfruit lacked depth. With the check came another little treat of chocolate truffles and candied fruits.

I would highly recommend anyone on their way to Lima to make a trip to Astrid y Gaston. It really is a fine experience and a good way to get your feet with to all that Lima has to offer. I don't know if I would return immediately, but that is only because there are so many other restaurants to try. However, I wouldn't be surprised if this represented the most progressive cuisine the country has to offer.

Astrid y Gaston
Calle Cantuarias 175, Miraflores
Entrees were about US$21