Dining at Astrid & Gastón, the original Lima branch that launched 1,000 ships as it were, is a far grander experience than simply picking up a menu and deciding what to eat. And by grand, that doesn’t mean the interior is dripping in chandeliers and solid gold busts, with diamond dust sprinkled every course.
It’s an experience that requires time and energy, a commitment if you will, that is unlike any other culinary one that I’ve certainly had. Some may scoff, saying that pomp and circumstance divert attention from the food, which should be the main attraction.
But I beg to differ: if you had paid good money for the best seats to a Broadway show, you’d want more than off-key singing and some vague plot. You’d want feathers and glitter and girls in high heels. Fortunately, there aren’t any feathers topping any A&G courses, but it is a complete performance that recently led the restaurant to take home the number-one spot in the Latin American version of 50 best Restaurants.
There’s no doubt that Gastón Acurio is synonymous not just with Peruvian cuisine but with Peru itself. Driving around Lima, cabbies are on first-name terms with their nation’s most renowned chef; even if they have never met him, they know exactly who he is, talking about Gastón as if they had just seen him in the local cebichería yesterday. (Who knows, in Peru, anything goes, so maybe they had.)
Founding Astrid & Gastón in 1994 (Astrid, of course, being his pastry-chef wife) in the heart of middle-class Miraflores in a former colonial mansion, A&G is set to move premises and open at Casa Moreyra on February 14, 2014. A colonial mansion on a very different and larger scale in posh San Isidro, it will surely mean this top player can only raise the bar further with respect to Peruvian haute cuisine.
If that is at all possible. In August, I tried El viaje, this winter’s epic tasting menu. The inner immigrant within delighted in this remarkable feat stretching between Liguria and Callao, Lima’s port. Remarkable, because the whole concept transports you back to an autumnal voyage in 1930s Italy.
Open a leather package to find not just a menu replicating a boat ticket but a photo-lined diary, intimate exchanges between an Italian immigrant and his new Spanish-speaking colleagues, a letter from his mother, a postcard of Lima in 1928. While El viaje is haute cuisine at its finest, it also bridges the culinary differences between the two worlds while fusing them. Too much? This is the reason it is the best restaurant in the continent.
The six-page menu comprising 25 stages (fear not, some were one indulgent bite) kicks off with Negroni. Clearly I had no idea what was coming as I simply expected the classic cocktail in a regular glass. Of course not. It was a deconstructed cocktail in a bowl, a little alcoholic concoction poured over the passion fruit and mandarin. Sharp, to the point, a classic Italian start to the meal. And the whole Viaje did not cease to amaze or break down culinary barriers.
An aside. Eating is extremely important in Peru and goes beyond sustenance. And any Peruvian tasting menu needs time dedicated to it. I went into Astrid & Gastón at 1.30pm, and left at 6pm. Yes, I was the last to leave, but the penultimate diners only vacated the premises about 15 minutes before me. This really is no ordinary dining experience, and it should be respected.
After the appetite whetter came one of the most innovatively presented courses I’ve ever seen. “The mother says goodbye. Her final gestures of love go into the suitcase.” The thought of the mamma packing some snacks for her bambino is heart-wrenching! But of course, you’ll open your own piece of luggage, leather of course, to reveal five heavenly bite-size chunks of goodness; onion and artichoke antipasto, salted fish with lemon and mascarpone, Parma ham and fruit. Grazie, mamma! Makes moving onto the next course that little bit harder.
Coming up, an awful moment of hindsight involving a small furry friend. At the time I didn’t digest the fact I was scoffing down guinea-pig terrine teamed up with papaya and seeds of other Peruvian fruits served upon the deck of ceramic boat complete with a buxom prow reminiscent of that 1930s ship. Elaborate, yes. Delectable, absolutely. I licked that cuy stacked boat clean with no qualms.
One other absolute plate-licker formed part of the Integration sequence. “Callao receives them. Two countries embrace. Sharing, learning, celebrating…” The book says seafood and solidified cow’s milk are not friends but Peru begs to differ. Dehydrated clams and Parmesan, topped off with a coral bouillon poured in front of you, so perfect and mouth-watering that real-size portions should be made available in a side room. (Just a thought, Gastón.)
Rest assured that you don’t come away in need of a stretcher. Service is well paced, so every last morsel is enjoyed. Wine pairings from the Spanish sommelier are of interest to the Argentine palette given that they run the gamut of Spain, France and Chile — one highlight was a Pinot Blanco from Tiefenbrunner Castel Turmhof winery in Italy, tropical pineapple and fresh minerals in one hit.
Astrid & Gastón is number one in Latin America right now. Save up and splash out at the original that launched 1,000 ships.
El viaje tasting menu: S$500 with wine pairings
Astrid & Gastón
Calle Cantaurias 175,
+51 1242 4422
Buenos Aires Herald, September 22, 2013
Ph: Astrid & Gastón
IF you enjoyed reading about this top restaurant in Lima, check out this piece on the award-winning Central.