High priests of food heaven

Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant Mullu. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant Mullu. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
My hit list is always a lengthy one – there are so many menus to quarrel over and forks that need to reach precariously across a table – but this January, two eateries have been vying for first place on my dribble list.

The first remains elusive, a coy mystery who keeps popping up on billboards and bus shelters, the flirt. And in the middle of last week, I was still no closer to conquering this lusty lovely.

For the past few weeks, ever since Christmas and I spotted what was going on from behind a teeming stream of perspiring shoppers at the Alto Palermo shopping mall, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the installation of a certain escalator. This mechanical stairwell promises a passage direct to heaven as far as I’m concerned, a utopia that is being drilled and hammered together to create a third-floor, fast-food nirvana that opens tomorrow.

That’s right folks, we’re getting emotional about KFC. And Colonel Harland Sanders complete with string bow tie and goatee beard is finally setting up shop in town, with great big papery buckets of KFC fried chicken so tasty and juicy you’ll be licking the very prints from your fingers.

In a first for Argentina, the 11 secret herbed and spiced Original Recipe pieces are bound to be on the menu, although there’s no guarantee the Hot Wings, marinated in chilli peppers, will make the cut.

Not to be confused with CFK, our esteemed president of the nation, or the local Kentucky pizza joint that’s been knocking up thick ‘n cheesy pies since 1942, KFC totally has the edge in my book, so I’d like to thank the long-deceased Sanders for concocting his secret recipe while working in a petrol station.

If heaven is a third-floor fried chicken joint, I’ll be there – when the escalator cranks into motion tomorrow morning.

Now, the other attention-grabbing eaterie of the month is also serving up heaven-sent food, but of a very different variety.

Mention the name José Castro Mendivil, and it might not ring a bell. But say the words Osaka or Sipan, and alarms will start to clang given that these Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurants get many oohing and aahing with drooly excitement.

Castro Mendivil is the Peruvian chef who opened those fusion doors to the local food scene seven years ago, following cooking school in London. His latest venture, Mullu, a Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant, opened two months ago in Retiro and plays to style. But if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Castro Mendivil has quite the skill at converting quirky spaces, and after turning the most bizarre and narrow galley in Galeria Florida into the successful Sipan, the cube that is now Mullu must have proved challenging. But it works.

Knock on the door. Sesame will open and reveal a clever use of tables lining the walls in a U-shape. A semi-circular bar, complete with mixologist concocting the smoothest of Pisco Sours (and Peru wins out against Chile here), is set up for diners in order to maximize the space. Looks are deceiving as those metal basket stools and chairs are in fact exceedingly comfy.

Aguayo cloth lines one wall, while fresh artwork covers the other. Flames fly controllably high in the kitchen and diners can sneak a look at the culinary progress. The attention to detail is second to none – the menu comes printed inside a popular Lima sports newspaper, while the house logo is tattooed onto the table. The effect is personal, and it’s intimate without being cramped. And talking to Castro Mendivil, this is the restaurant he has finally been able to put his DNA onto.

However, this is not just about aesthetics. Let’s talk about his food, even if it is immaculately presented in conch shells and bamboo steamers. Using Tegui’s simple style of keeping all dishes with a course range the same price, piqueos include octopus in olive oil, Lung Fung crab claws in a nod to the Cantonese influence in Peru and scallops in a spicy cheese salsa (100 pesos to share).

Mullu’s Nikkei menu is clearly seafood heavy. Starters (120 pesos) include tiradito KON, slivers of salmon drizzled with passion fruit salsa ready to roll up but never quite as perfectly as the chef-rolled sample, god dammit, while the steamed white salmon sashimi is a revelation. Served up in a steamer on a large bed of coriander, the sliced fish is paired up with a lamb jus saved from another dish – a combination that looks odd written down on paper but is ambrosia in the mouth.

Other Castro Mendivil creations include Thai-Peruvian crab cakes in a nod to both cuisines and an unusual octopus confit pizza.

Ceviches naturally feature, while main courses, which I didn’t get to after filling up on the first two parts, include a seafood and steak noodle dish attributed to legendary chef Nikkei chef Humberto Sato (150 pesos), who is making waves of his own.

Although prices may seem steep, rest assured that the ingredients needed to construct Nikkei cuisine are finding their way in from Peru, and are all top-quality. A 20-peso service charge is pricey, however, and unfortunately sets the benchmark for others to follow.

Mullu styles itself as serving up for food for gods, and frankly those celestials beings wouldn’t settle for anything less.

Wining On verdict: Superb drinks, aesthetically pleasing, from the menus to the food presentation, and some mind-blowing flavours to kick taste buds into action. Try the unusual white salmon sashimi.

Ricardo Rojas 451, Retiro
Tel: 4311-2812

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on January 20, 2013
Photo courtesy of Mullu

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