There’s something about chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino that translates well abroad. I’ve seen him written up in Food & Wine, Conde Nast, Outside’s Go, and several other U.S. publications. They always call him some sort of adventurous chef because of the work he did designing the menu of the MV Aqua, a luxury cruise ship in the Amazon. Yet, whenever I talk to someone in Lima they say their restaurant experience at Malabar is bad. My wife’s uncle said his meals were horrible on the four occasions he went, though I’m not sure why he would have went four times if that was the case.
Malabar, which opened in 2004, was always on my list of restaurants to go, but somehow I never made it. Finally I go and, in my opinion, it may just be the best restaurant in Lima. I think Limeños in general tend to rate a restaurant more on the people in it and the flashiness of it rather than the food. The atmosphere is nice, but not overly brash. The main entrance is in the bar lounge area, which is more of a waiting space when the restaurant is full than a place to come on its own. The walls and furniture in the restaurant are either a blood orange or sort of Aji Amarillo color. My table faced a larger than life painting of two naked women in bathing caps, which, I must admit, was a little bit creepy while eating. Otherwise, everything is perfectly fine.
Upon sitting you are given tiny plates of snacks, mostly derived from hard to come by ingredients from the Andes and Amazon and Coast (Seeds, Olives, Fruit Sauce, etc), which is a characteristic that runs throughout the menu. Schiaffino’s use of these rare ingredients isn’t just a gimmick though; he knows how to use them. I don’t think any other restaurant in Peru incorporates the diversity of ingredients of found in the country – which is substantial – as well as he does. For instance, just on the first page of the menu under Entradas and Abre Bocas (more or less an amuse-bouche) you’ll find mini Juanes, guinea pig, cured alpaca ham, octopus, and cocona chutney. The secret is not so much the cooking here (though it is superb), but more the combinations of seemingly simple and overlooked ingredients. Brilliant for an eater like me.
The waiter knew we were looking to experiment and offered up a sampling of appetizers. The Pulpo con ajo crocante, pesto, and tapenade (Octopus with crunchy garlic, pesto, and tapenade) was on a stick and looked a little bit like rock candy with a dipping sauce, but tasted just as you would expect. The Barquillos con conchas y cubos de Atun (Cones filled with conch and tuna cubes) was a sort of tiradito served in an ice cream cone. While it looked nice, the conch and tuna did fine on its own and I could have done without the cone.
The main courses are equally as interesting. My wife opted for a saltado of octopus, squid, green beans, and onions with pesto that was a menu special. It was just what you would expect as one of the least adventurous menu items. As they were out of the Gamitana – a large river fish – ribs, I went with the Lechon crocante con lucuma, espuma de ajo y berros alinados (crunchy milk fed pork with lucuma, garlic foam, and watercress). The size was frightening. It looked like a pork knuckle, though this was mostly because of the crunchy skin that puffed out significantly. It was still enormous though I couldn’t finish. The lucuma was in a puree of sorts and went deliciously with the pork, though it was remarkable left alone as well.
01 Camino Real.
San Isidro, Lima.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.