You probably want to eat Peruvian food. It's a refined cuisine, artisanal if done right. Yet it's not wildly exotic. The jump from Mexican is equivalent to that from Chinese to Malaysian or Thai. Peruvian food tells a New World story of vegetative plenty, tropical craft, indigenous pride. There's not a whole lot of it to be had in New York, but it's definitely here, and more is coming. Remember, it wasn't very long ago that our Thai restaurants were few and far between.
There is now some very decent Peruvian to be had in the East Village. Recently opened Lima's Taste is an unflashy place on a quiet block of E. 13th St., owned and run by a couple. The wife is the chef, and she was trained by her grandmother. The excitement and value she and her husband serve up in their brick-walled little room puts that entire Ave. B strip to shame. Modest good restaurants don't always survive in this trend-chasing excuse for a neighborhood?if you have an interest, please support Lima's Taste.
We had a little trouble with the service. Our party was arriving gradually, some from uptown, some from Brooklyn, so we in the advance guard decided to try some ceviche while we waited. But our waiter must have gone on break without telling the kitchen about it. We drank our Crystal beers (undistinguished mellow Peruvian lagers) and wondered what on Earth had happened to the guy. When he finally came back around, though, he was super-attentive, and everything else we ordered arrived quickly. He even guessed we didn't want an intermission between courses, and he was right.
Back to the ceviche de pescado: it's the first dish on Lima's Taste's menu, and a great way to get started there. Maybe if authentic Peruvian cuisine becomes popular in New York, upscale Latin-American restaurants will no longer be able to fake ceviche like they do. When seafood is cold-cooked in its citrus marinade?it takes a while?its taste is explosive compared to the instant version. Lima's ceviche de pescado ($9.50) contained strips of fish, large chunks of sweet potato and a shower of red onions?no shellfish. The strong flesh of what we guessed was cod (turned out it was flounder)seemed electrified by their astringent bath. Sweet potatoes soaked in this cool, cloudy sauce were even better.
Other appetizers make their mark with smotherings of lemon-kissed red onions, cilantro, tomato and/or corn. Mussels a la Lima ($6.50) piled all of the above into each shell, making the plate a table-set worth of bite-sized cold mussel salads. Shrimps wrapped in bacon ($9) also demanded a communal-dining approach. Though the meat of the dish was exactly as advertised, the accompanying spicy green dip provoked a brainstorm. What besides pureed peppers and maybe some mint was in this chalky, late-biting sauce? We couldn't figure it out, and the help couldn't (or maybe wouldn't) say.
Papa rellena is a labor-intensive, traditional Peruvian appetizer by which an entire restaurant can be measured almost fairly, like the tortilla española in a tapas joint. What it is, sort of, is a beef patty translated into potato. That is, it's a crust of deep-fried potato completely surrounding a core of meat. Papa rellena also usually has raisins and olives in there. Lima's Taste's papa rellena ($6.50) did. It was excellent.
The potato alone rocked. Crisp and golden on the outside, then beyond the shell it was mashed mushy, coming out inexplicably light and dry. Imagine a perfect french fry at 700-percent scale, in a football shape. A quarter of the way in, nibbles of sauteed beef start showing up, along with raisins, swollen yet mild. Olives were only a vague presence, seemingly unrelated to the flavor bullies of Mediterranean cuisine. They and the raisins provided subtle touches of fruit, helping tip the balance of this meat-and-potato dish decidedly toward the tuber. You can get a feel for what it's like, eating this, to subsist largely off of roots. Even the flavor of the beef?oniony?called attention to Earth.
Another specialty appetizer, causa ($7.50), brought another winning preparation of potato. This time it'd been boiled, mashed and palmed into a half-shell, akin to a thick noodle. The shell comes stuffed with a scoop of Peruvian chicken salad (there's also a vegetarian version), dressed in creamed avocado and sweet yellow peppers instead of mayo. Seasonings of cilantro and lemon give it an airy feel, and the rare absence of an abundance of onions make causa ideal for diners who are afraid of that. Of course, it's more fun to see if you can eat as many as are served.
Speaking of roots, an interesting fact about Peru is that even though it was the seat of Spain's New World empire, its people managed to preserve a lot of pre-colonial culture. It's easy enough to save art and recipes, but in order for customs to survive over centuries, it takes a sustained currency of heritage?a will-to-tradition that must also be passed from generation to generation. What comes through in the robust flavors at Lima's Taste is that artisan's pride. Spanish and Asian techniques and ingredients were assimilated into Peruvian cuisine because cooks knew they could use them without overshadowing the mighty potato, the mighty pepper or the all-but-shamanic Peruvian mastery of them.
Entrees of seafood picante ($16) and aji de pollo ($12) gave us two examples of Lima's Taste's pepper sauces. In fact, the only difference might have been the amount of pepper heat our party selected for these two rice dishes. We got the picante medium, and it was creamier. That was a bit of a shame, because seafood in heavy cream sauce always reminds me of a seafood Newburg I overdosed on as a kid once, at a buffet. The hotter pollo sauce, also cheery, bright yellow and somewhat creamy, featured significantly more pepper flavor. The picante managed to thrill the scallop fans in our party, thanks to specimens so delicate they flaked. The included shrimps, mussels and squid also made for hearty eating. The sliced breast meat in the aji de pollo, though, was a much better complement to the spicy-sweet taste of the thinner yellow sauce, I thought. You might not want to bother with either the seafood picante or the aji de pollo if you'd want them milder than medium-spicy. There's little point in pepper sauce if you can't taste peppers.
We found Lima's Taste's escaveche chicken ($13) to be its star attraction. It's a browned breast filet in a vinegar-pepper sauce, with sides of yucca and sweet onions. The pepper in the sauce is panca, a South American variety that doesn't show up in Mexican food. It's often described as "fruity" and compared to smoky chipotle, but I think those descriptions come up short. The character it lent the escaveche sauce was more reminiscent of a red wine reduction than any other chili. Watery and brown-red, with a full flavor almost neutralizing a tangy vinegar backswing, the sauce tasted as fantastic with the yucca fries and onions as with the chicken.
Our appetizers were a tough act to follow, and still the entree course was up to snuff, so we decided to try some dessert, even though we were full. Purple corn pudding ($5) turned out to be a bad dish to encounter with a bursting belly. The menu description reads "Boiled blue corn (only grown in Peru), with pineapple and prunes." What you get is a conic glass of what appears to be dark purple jelly, but on inspection is actually much more starchy than any fruit spread. A spoon pushed down to the bottom almost came out with the whole dessert en masse. It was as sweet as grape jelly, too. We decided it'd be nice on toast, for breakfast, but after dinner it was just too The Blob.
Lima's manjar ($4.50) was a chocolate cake with only a dusting of cocoa flavor, but it was true, bitter chocolate. The sweetness came via a candy-like dulce de leche frosting. Next time, I'll try my luck with cinnamon flan ($4.50).
Lima's Taste has a small but diverse wine list, with one red each from Australia, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Chile. Most of that same territory, plus California, is covered in the whites list, which also appears to be carefully selected.
Lima's Taste, 432 E. 13th St. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A), 228-7900.
Lima's Taste will have to work hard to thrive in the tumultuous East Village, even though its direct competition is out in Park Slope. Coco Roco has been praised in these pages and many others, and a recent return/ research trip found it as deserving of its accolades as ever. The tiradito de lenguado ($9.95)?halibut ceviche in yellow-pepper-and-lime sauce?could inspire a table celebration, just like Lima's Taste's ceviche de pescado. The two restaurants are also very similarly priced. Given the Manhattan Peruvian's superior (real-estate-ly speaking) location, you'd expect its popularity to be assured.
But Coco Roco makes itself a part of its neighborhood in a way that Lima's Taste has not, at least not yet. Sorry a state of affairs as it is, it might be wrongheaded to expect the local Latin-American community and other longtime locals to sit down alongside the East Village's or Park Slope's relocated children of privilege. Coco Roco is a slow-food establishment, but it does a thriving side business?out of the front of the restaurant?in rotisserie chickens, rice and beans, plantains, yams, yucca and papas fritas. They also grill six-dollar steak, pork and chicken sandwiches up there. The strategy seems to have won the restaurant a loyal clientele of people who might not have ever bothered with Coco Roco had they not wandered by and tried some takeout.
Lima's Taste would perhaps be wise to take a similar tack and make its presence felt on its block. As much as we food snobs like to hoard the good stuff for ourselves, fine-crafted Peruvian is too ancient and folksy to be only funneled to the adventurous.
Coco Roco, 392 5th Ave. (betw. 6th & 7th Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-965-3376.
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