Now that he has more than thirty some restaurants set in a dozen countries, many of which are fusion concepts like Chinese-Peruvian or Italian-Peruvian, I sometimes forget just how revolutionary Gastón Acurio’s original restaurant, Astrid y Gastón in Lima, was and continues to be. I don’t think I will make that mistake again. As the flagship restaurant of the Acurio Empire prepares for a big move next year to San Isidro’s colonial mansion Casa Moreyra – a setting that will become a focal point of Peruvian cuisine for years to come, a project Acurio has said is destined to lose money because he wants more Peruvians to be able to eat there (they have other restaurants to make up for it he said) – it continues to break new ground.
In late 2011 Acurio brought in chef Diego Muñoz, who earned his spot with stints at Spain’s Mugaritz and El Bulli, as well as Australia’s Bilson’s. The move no doubt helped Astrid y Gastón inch closer to the top of San Pellegrino’s World’s Best list, moving from #42 in 2011 to #35 in 2012. This latest tasting menu, perhaps the last until the move to the new space, has its genius as much in its conception as its execution. This shows Acurio as the dreamer of Peruvian food. The man behind the curtain pulling the switches. This very literary menu, entitled Primavera 2012 (Spring 2012), which tells the story of Peru through its food, is where he is at his best.
While I have experienced many tasting menus in my life, few have impressed me as this one. Upon being seated you are giving a booklet, which holds a menu laid out like a timeline, a superb 3-minute DVD video (see below) with ambient music and brief clips of Peruvian chefs and farmers and the plates, and a poetic story in words of photos with insight into Peru’s culinary history. The entire 17-course menu is broken into sections of the country’s evolution.
The sections include La Naturaleza (Nature). El Hombre (Man), El Encuentro (the Discovery), El Refugio (The Refuge), and Hoy (Today). The first hits you. Few menus make such a strong statement in the first course as this one does. The only time I have seen something remotely comparable is at Pujol in Mexico City, where the first course is served inside of a smoking pumpkin. This course is served on a large bird nest, with five recreated elements/edibles normally associated with a bird’s nest: roots, branches, leaves, flowers, and a cracked open edible egg revealing its yoke that are all artfully designed from a diverse set of Peru’s abnormally high set of ingredients. It is as if they are saying here is the bounty of Peruvian nature and this is how we will show it to you, recreated in our own way. That first course begins the story of Peruvian cuisine, from it’s raw form to its increasingly sophisticated future, a concept that is emphasized in the vessels in which the food is served from crude stone plates and simple carved bowls to shiny metal plates to a siphon vacuum pot and a Popsicle street vendor hand-cooler.
Of the actual food, there are numerous highlights. A pallar, a large broad bean, served in a broth, which was as creamy as a slice of butter. Cuy, or guinea pig, was served –a layer of crunchy skin and Pekín style meat – in a maiz morada (purple corn) tortilla. Most dishes were common Peruvian plates like Ceviche de Carretilla and Chupe, though little additions like sea urchin or milk curd completely changed the textures and flavors. Pairings were not the traditional Peruvian sommelier wine pairings, but branches out into sparkling wine and even Peruvian beer (a Sierra Andina Pale Ale from Huaraz and a stout from a small craft distillery in Ate).
Peru’s past, present, and future told through food and drink, served in the one dining room that has propelled it forward more than any other. What other restaurant, anywhere in the world, could set itself up so beautifully? If this is any sign of what is still to come when Astrid y Gastón moves to Casa Moreyra they have my attention.
Spring 2012 Menu Price: 320 soles
Astrid y Gastón
175 Calle Cantuarias
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.