Today comes the sad news that Gaston Acurio’s first New York restaurant, the 2 year old branch of La Mar Cebicheria, has closed. Eater NY is reporting that the restaurant’s OpenTable page is down, the website no longer lists the New York location, and calls to La Mar go straight to an answering machine. Plus all of the restaurant’s fixtures and equipment were auctioned off on Monday.
Don’t fret though. There’s already talk of moving the restaurant to another Manhattan location, possibly in Chelsea as Acurio tweeted today. I’ve even heard there’s a chance it could be a T’anta like in Chicago when it reopens.
I have always been a strong advocate of La Mar NYC, though it did have some blatant issues. On my first visit a snarky manager said he didn’t have our reservation, but sat us anyway. Then I learned that this happened to everyone who went, including a handful of critics. This is something that I see over and over again in Lima when a hot new restaurant opens, but it’s not something that would ever fly in New York. There were other service issues too, but in the past year, particularly the past 6 months, everything was straightened out and if anyone dined there recently they would have seen that it was a complete turnaround.
The food, for the most part, was well received. The ceviches and tiraditos were excellent, the causas were decent, though the main courses could have been better. There really didn’t need to be dishes like Lomo Saltado or Aji de Gallina, not to mention a steak, on the menu. Some of the prices could have been more appropriate for what was being served, but this was one of the downfalls of being in such a high profile location along Madison Square Park, which was never right to begin with. The cevicheria going crowd is not the Madison Park crowd. The design wasn’t ideal either. It didn’t feel like La Mar in Lima, which I think if dropped in anywhere in New York piece by piece with the same food would get glowing reviews. The $5.5 million space felt like a fine dining restaurant, not a cevicheria. It felt as if they were trying to create a New York restaurant instead of a Peruvian one. The atmosphere that have made Lima’s cevicherias the talk of the food world was missing. Aside from the downstairs, which I was fan of, it wasn’t casual and comfortable. Plus, being beside three Michelin star Eleven Madison Square Park, one of the top restaurants in the world, didn’t help. It would have taken the team from Astrid y Gaston in Lima to make it work. Critics had mixed opinions. Pete Wells at the New York Times gave it 0 stars and called it “sometimes exciting, often disappointing.” Ryan Sutton at Bloomberg’s called it “the Andean equivalent of TGI Friday’s.”
Chelsea makes much more sense in my opinion. Peruvian food is going to happen in New York. Eventually. No one has got it quite right just yet. Look at Ceviche and Lima London in the UK or any of Ricardo Zarate’s restaurants in Los Angeles if you have any doubts of a great Peruvian restaurant being possible outside of South America. Even if it doesn’t come back, was it a failure? Financially, yes. On a wider scale, absolutely not. Acurio’s food is bigger than a single restaurant. If anything La Mar still moved the message forward and spread the word about Peruvian cuisine. It helped inspire other chefs to put aji amarillo and pisco on the menus of top restaurants all over NYC, helping support the thousands of farmers and producers around Peru that are seeing their regional potatoes and quinoa and amaranth and paiche and obscure aji peppers are valued. Awareness has been spread. It still has a long way to go, especially in New York, but a discussion has been started that extends far beyond pollo a la brasa restaurants in Queens.
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.