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The Road Less Traveledby Lisa Shames | Photography by Anjali Pinto | CS magazine | October 30, 2013
Quick! Name three of Peru’s signature dishes. If you find yourself stuck at guinea pig and pisco sour (actually a cocktail, but I’ll let it slide), don’t feel bad. Unlike other South American countries—looking at you, Argentina, with your empanadas and grills full of succulent meat—the cuisine of Peru has mostly flown under the radar outside its borders, especially here in the U.S.
But chef Gastón Acurio has been working hard to change that with 33 Peruvian restaurants in 13 countries, including Lima’s Astrid y Gastón, No. 14 on this year’s “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list, as well as numerous TV shows and cookbooks. Celebrity chef status aside, Acurio considers himself an emissary of sorts for his country. “In Peru, all the chefs feel as if they are ambassadors of our culture,” he says. “We have this amazing food in our hands, and our dream is that the world one day will love it the same way we do.”
Bold statement, sure, but if Chicago’s Tanta, his newest restaurant, is any indication, Acurio is well on his way to turning that dream into a reality here.
At his 126-seat River North spot, Acurio, along with Chef de Cuisine Jesus Delgado, has opted to feature samplings of Peru’s various cuisines. That means on the menu of small and large plates, you’ll find cebiches and tiraditos (riffs on ceviche and sashimi), a selection of street foods, Chinese-influenced dishes (del Chifa) and items typically found in Peru’s home kitchens. Or, as the writing on the wall behind the bar says in Spanish, “Our menu is like a trip to Peru.”
And, boy, what a trip it is. To help get you in a festive mood, you’ll find a brightly colored mural along one wall of the long dining room. A skylight adds warmth, as does the earth-toned fabric on the banquette. In the background, the omnipresent sound of cocktails being shaken—more often than not, some terrific pisco sours—can be heard. Even the downstairs restroom area gets in on the fun with two paintings flecked with small, colorful round objects, a nod to turrón, a traditional Peruvian cake. Next year, Tanta’s second-floor rooftop deck will open.
Like any good excursion, Tanta offers a mix of surprises, learning experiences and more familiar things. Full disclosure: On one of my visits, I invited a Peruvian expat along as my “tour guide.” But even without an expert at your table, the friendly staff at Tanta is quick to explain the menu’s 12 sections. The little basket of complimentary chifles (plantain chips) makes for tasty reading material accompaniment, too.
Raw fish lovers have some tough choices to make here. Do you get made-to-order cebiches (I’m fond of the nikei, made with ahi tuna, avocado and tamarind) or perhaps a niguiri (creative takes on nigiri) or two? Then there are the beautifully plated tiraditos like the criollo, which uses a wonderfully tart lime and aji amarillo (yellow pepper) sauce underneath the bite-size slices of the catch of the day (fluke, on my visit) and Peruvian corn kernels. Like the cebiches, eat this dish with a spoon to get the leche de tigre, the tangy broth-like sauce, in each bite.
On the cooked appetizer side, there are anticuchos, the small skewers found on the streets of Peru. The octopus with fried garlic and a lovely lavender black olive sauce, and the super-tender beef heart with huacatay (a mint-like herb) sauce and, yes, more corn kernels (I could make a meal out of just those), got big thumbs-up from my table. Throw in an order or two of the causitas—think little mounds of whipped Peruvian potatoes topped with various ingredients, including a zippy crab salad—and call it a meal.
Or, order another round of drinks—the refreshing on-tap Lima Llama, perhaps?—and move on to the larger plates. Chinese immigrants to Peru are to thank for dishes such as chaufa aeropuerto, a bowl filled with pork fried rice and topped with a shrimp-studded omelet. Be sure to dig deep to get at the crispy bits of rice on the bottom, reminiscent of the soccarat in a good paella. A homestyle dish of duck with cilantro-flavored rice suffered from an overzealous salt shaking in the kitchen but still showed promise. On my next visit—oh, yes, there will be more—I plan on trying the paiche, an Amazonian fish that does indeed come from the Amazon, we were told, and chupe, a stew with prawns and potatoes.
But wait, there’s still dessert to consider. If all six of them are as good as los picarones, warm pumpkin and potato fritters served with a spiced syrup sauce on the side, calories be damned.
Says Acurio, “We hope Peruvian food one day will be in the hearts of all the world.” For now, we’re happy to have it in our stomachs.