In 2005, Gaston Acurio had just opened his second restaurant in Lima, Peru. It was called La Mar. It was a modern rendition of a typical Limeño lunch only cevicheria, like Sonia, a closed door Chorrillos haunt that Acurio had helped rediscover with his television show, Aventuras Culinaria.
On a first visit to La Mar Lima, named after the Avenida La Mar (the street the restaurant sits on), a few weeks after opening, the hype was growing into Mount Salkantay. Even with reservations, you had to wait at the bar to be seated, which was overflowing with people. There were local celebrities there – models, news anchors, etc. The wait for a table would be more than an hour. Original Pisco based cocktails, fairly new to the cevicheria scene, kept everyone happy though. The concept, now exposed, was trendsetting few would realize and just about every other cevicheria in Lima followed with their own pisco creations. Gaston was there in the kitchen and occasionally walking through the dining room. The food was, honestly, not entirely different from the food being served at Sonia, with the exception of some Japanese and Thai fusion dishes. However, the plates were different, the seating was different, and everything was consistent. It was a success and began Gaston Acurio’s restaurant empire. The La Mar concept, by far the most popular, would be repeated a dozen times in the next few years in six other countries, alongside other concepts such as Madam Tusan and Panchita.
Flash-forward to 2011. On my first visit to La Mar NYC, a few weeks after opening, the atmosphere was Lima 2005 incarnate. The front end of the house was a little mixed up. We confirmed our 8:30pm reservation weeks earlier. The day of the reservation they called to confirm our 8pm reservation. “It’s 8:30pm,” we said, and even have the email to prove it. “OK, we’ll change you.” On check in, “We have you for 8pm,” they said. We explained we had an email and someone even called to confirm hours before. They had to give our table away they said. Anyway, they found another, and when we walked upstairs it seemed there were several open tables, which stayed that way, throughout the night. As we perused the menu, the waiter began pushing several northern California wines where he personally knew the vineyards. We of course all wanted pisco drinks. Why isn’t he describing and pushing these at the first significant Peruvian restaurant in Manhattan? So, not all is perfect, but that’s ok when the food, the only thing that really matters, is spot on.
Chef Victoriano Lopez has a complete handle of the kitchen. The ceviches, the anticuchos de corazon, the pulpo, aji de gallina, arroz con pato, and adobo and everything else I picked at all came through brilliantly, which can only be done using the right limes, the right purple onions, the right aji. While having a modern presentation, traditional Peruvian flavors still come through.
The prices are good. Not Lima prices by any means, but fair for New York. The wine list has lots of inexpensive options. The old Tabla space looks better than ever. Ceviche and causa tastings provide access to a lot of flavors with not a lot of cost. It’s the restaurant we all have hoped for in New York: something to kick off the Peruvian boom.
La Mar NYC
11 Madison Avenue