PHOTOGRAHY BY JUAN CARLOS PAZ DEL RIO
u201cGood morning, sir,u201d said the pleasant voice on the phone. u201cYour shoes have been shined, compliments of the hotel, and your breakfast buffet is now being served at our poolside restaurant on the roof.u201d
It is safe to say I never expected to be on the receiving end of such astonishing words, particularly not in Lima, Peru, a city I first visited 20 years ago as a shiftless, 20-something wannabe writer in flight from what Philip Roth calls the u201cAmerican berserk.u201d It was a Thursday morning in February, the height of Peruvian summer, and when I pulled back the curtains of my room at the Belmond Miraflores Park Hotel, I was overcome by a vision of palm trees, gentle breakers rolling in from the Pacific, majestic alluvial cliffs rinsed by fog. This vision had nothing to do with my memories of Lima, which tended toward the Dickensian: dingy hostels, bad plumbing, food-borne illness. Disoriented, I closed the curtains.
But 15 minutes later, sitting on the 11th floor of the hotel, with a made-to-order omelet and a bowl of tropical fruit before me, I took in the north-scrolling coastline, surfers carving the Playa Redondo break, paragliders riding thermals high above the cliffs. I eyed the immaculate swimming pool and the entrance to the spa. The previous dayu2019s travel from Denver had been long, and Iu2019d checked in after midnight; a day of swimming and reading, maybe a massage, sounded about right. But alas, there would be little time for leisureu2014I had a job to do. In a few hours, I was expected at one of the best restaurants in the world, the first of several I planned to visit over three days. As I basked in the warm, peppery smell of the ocean, my old memories dispersed like morning mist, ushering in an epiphany: Lima, a city Iu2019d once avoided the way New Yorkers once avoided Port Authority, is magnificent.
Itu2019s hard to say which transformation shocks me most: Limau2019s or my own. In 1998, I was fresh out of grad school with a degree in creative writing and, consequently, fewer than zero job prospects. Iu2019d just extracted myself, far too messily, from a relationship that was more serious than I was equipped to handle. Back home, my friends were getting married, buying houses, vacationing in Cabo, while I stayed up all night in a shared apartment, writing short stories no one wanted to publish. Life in the U.S. felt demoralizing and horrifyingu2014it was the era of Ken Starr and Paula Jones, the winds of impeachment blowing ever stronger. I knew I wanted out; my existence, I sensed, was too narrow, too unfulfilling. And, as Paul Theroux wrote in u201cThe Best Year of My Life,u201d u201cWhen people ask you questions you canu2019t answer u2026 find new people.u201d
The people I found were Peruvian. Cusqueu00f1o, to be precise, the locals and expats in the ancient Inca capital, high up in the Andes, at the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Though Iu2019d planned to spend just 10 days there, I was instantly enchantedu2014it felt, I told skeptical friends, like a place Iu2019d lived in a previous life, somewhere I really belonged. I would spend most of the next two years in Cusco, scurrying to the Bolivian border every 90 days to renew my visa. I learned Spanish, traveled the country, began writing a novel, and, as they say, started over.
But Lima, an houru2019s flight from Cusco, was a world apart. The U.S. State Department still warned about terrorist activity, and guidebooks cautioned against taking taxis, as scores of tourists had lately found themselves in back alleys with a driveru2019s knife at their throat. Peru had stumbled out of its devastating decade-long u201cdirty waru201du2014in which the government of Alberto Fujimori, scrambling to contain the vicious Shining Path insurgency, turned the country into a quasi-surveillance state of secret prisons and roving death squadsu2014just six years earlier, in 1992. By the time it was over, nearly 70,000 Peruvians had died, and Lima was in shock, its colonial plazas deserted, its residents paralyzed by years of car bombs and kidnappings. Waves of refugees from the provinces had bloated the population to around 7 million, most settling in shantytowns on barren land to the north and south. When I arrived, the city still felt traumatized: As with San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire or Detroit after decades of decline, a comeback seemed unimaginable.
But now, here I was, in a sport jacket and newly shined shoes, checking in for my dinner reservation at Astrid y Gastu00f3n, currently the No. 33 restaurant in the world, according to the Worldu2019s 50 Best list. Itu2019s now a commonplace that Lima is the culinary capital of Latin America, and Astrid y Gastu00f3n, opened in 1994 by Le Cordon Bleuu2013trained husband and wife team Gastu00f3n Acurio and Astrid Gutsche, is where it all began. Originally a tiny French restaurant in Miraflores, A&G has since 2014 served nueva andina cuisine in the San Isidro districtu2019s Casa Moreyra, a grand colonial hacienda that once presided over 20,000 acres of farmland. The sweeping double-staired terrace, the soaring ceilings, the perfect cocktailu2014this was not the Lima I remembered. Twenty years ago, if I had to spend a night in the city, I got by on a plate of lomo saltado (sautu00e9ed beef, vegetables, and French fries) from a street cart and made sure to be inside before dark. Like most Peruvians, I knew nothing of the renaissance Acurio and Gutsche had launched and couldnu2019t have afforded it in any case. Any story about how Lima and I have evolved starts here.
I was joined by my friend Cu00e9sar, an education theorist at the University of the Pacific, and we relaxed into a dozen-course tasting menu of gustatory wonder that stretched to nearly four hours, punctuated every few minutes by the staff of the expansive open kitchen cantando los platos (singing the plates) as they came out: perfectly seared scallop served in a seashell with a green-apple congelado (a kind of dry sorbet); Peking-style cuy (guinea pig, a traditional Andean dish) with turnip and ginger, served on a purple-corn tortilla; a coconut-banana congelado bathed in masato (fermented yucca root) and garnished with salt pork. The dishes bordered on performance art. Even the bread basketu2014which included biscuits made from loche, a pre-Columbian squash, and bread from milled coca leavesu2014seemed designed, with every bite, to radically alter my view of Lima. Astrid herself came by to narrate the third dessert, carrot-paper cigars filled with chocolate mousse and sprinkled with nibs of dried olive, served on a ceramic plate that parodied the Last Supper. Each sculpted face represented someone closely involved with the restaurant, she explainedu2014a beloved regular, a mau00eetre du2019u2014though the face next to Gastu00f3nu2019s was obviously not hers, as it was u201ctoo ugly.u201d
The next morning, with some time, and calories, to kill, I set out for a summertime stroll through Miraflores. All along the malecu00f3nu2014a six-mile ribbon of greenspace that runs atop the cliffsu2014families were out picnicking, kids skateboarding, yogis saluting the sun, dogs rolling in the grass, ice cream vendors doing a brisk business. Moving inland, the narrow streets were quiet, shaded by pistachio and laurel trees. Pastel-colored Spanish casitas alternated with skinny concrete-and-glass condo towers, evidence of the cityu2019s ongoing construction boom, all leading to the idyllic Parque Kennedy at the districtu2019s heart.
Miraflores has always presented Limau2019s most charming face, but 20 years ago I would have thought twice about walking around with a computer bag slung over my shoulder, even in broad daylight. Back then the malecu00f3n was parched and desolate. At the height of the war, the Shining Path set off a truck bomb outside an apartment building on Calle Tarata, killing 25 residents. Although those days are gone, old habits die hard: Rooftops and property walls still sport razor wire, and more than a few homes have security booths at the front gate. But, in general, the district has relaxed into a stylish, semi-urban coolu2014Santa Monica meets the Upper West Side.
Hereu2019s another sentence I could never have imagined hearing: u201cWould you like another beer with your piranha?u201d This one was addressed to me before the ninthu2014or was it the 10th?u2014 course of the 17-course menu that has made Virgilio Martinezu2019s Central the No. 2 restaurant in Latin America and No. 5 in the world. (My answer was yes; Lima now has a burgeoning microbrewery scene.)
If Astrid y Gastu00f3n is performance art, Central is the laboratory of a mad scientistu2014and if you venture to the second floor of its Miraflores townhouse, you can peek into that scientistu2019s workshop, where herbs dry on clotheslines, cabinets are crammed with dusty specimen jars, and whiteboards are scrawled with crazy ideas. From the street, Central is hard to find, marked only by a small brass nameplate in the cobblestones and a dark-suited greeter at the door. When I arrived for lunch with my friend Patricia, a child psychologist, the atmosphere was subdued, foodies and tourists studying their menus with looks of perplexed delight: What on earth is an air potato? (dish No. 7.) How does one eat forest cotton? (dish No. 6.) Martinezu2019s menu explores Peruu2019s myriad ecosystems, each dish keyed to the elevation at which its ingredients are found. From an exquisite arrangement of octopus, crab, and squid (Sea Coral, 10 meters below sea level) to a chilled edible clay flavored with lemon curd and cushuro, a berry-like algae that grows in mountain lakes (Humid Green, 3,700 meters above sea level), we plumbed the depths and scaled the heights. We savored the unexpected flavors of giant Amazon snail and huampo bark resin. We ate dried alpaca heart. Your parentsu2019 Michelin star Central is not.
When I lived in Cusco, at 3,400 meters above sea level, I ate neither air potatoes nor algae. I subsisted on prix fixe menus that cost 6 soles (roughly $2) and might offer a tiny piece of boiled meat, white rice, and tea, or anticuchos: skewers of marinated cow heart with a roast potato stuck on the end, sold on every street corner for 2 soles. If I wanted to splurge, Iu2019d blow 10 soles on a small oven-fired pizza (always a disappointment). Even if Iu2019d had the money, I probably wouldnu2019t have spent it on huampo bark. I wasnu2019t in Cusco for the culinary experience; I was there to find myself, to become a writer. And in many ways it workedu00adu2014the stories I wrote during those years were some of the first I published; the novel I started won me a fellowship at Stanford. More importantly, my time in Peru gave me a broader perspective on the world outside the U.S. than most Americans ever gain. The people I met, the stories I heardu2014from those who survived the war, and about those who didnu2019tu2014changed what I thought was worth writing about. At Central, as I sipped a digestif of mallow, capsicum, and mint (dish No. 17, Medicinals and Plant Dyes), I thought about the weird turns life takesu2014the starving artist is now a tenured professoru2014and how those years shaped me. I know they made me a better writer. I hope they made me a better person.
After two days of gastronomic wizardry, I was longing for something more familiar, more down to earth. Thereu2019s no more quintessentially limeu00f1o meal than Saturday afternoon ceviche, so Patricia and I Ubered down to Chorrillos, a beach town a few minutes south of Miraflores. Once a summertime getaway for the cityu2019s ruling class, Chorrillos had by the end of the war slumped into depression and disrepair. Iu2019d only been there once before, to catch a glimpse of the massive womenu2019s prison that looms over a busy avenue like a cheerless, razor-wired Costcou2014I was researching a new novel about the war, and, like many women jailed on terrorism charges in the 1990s, the novelu2019s protagonist spent some unhappy times there. Iu2019ve spent the past six years working on the book, which examines postwar Peru and the inequities and resentments that still fester. There arenu2019t many fancy restaurants or five-star hotels in it. Like most of my characters, part of me still feels alien in such places.
But I felt right at home at Sonia, a laid-back joint just off the picturesque Malecu00f3n Grau. Fashioned like a seaside palapa, with lots of bamboo and football-team pennants, as well as poems about fishing life, adorning the walls, Sonia has been serving perfect, no-nonsense ceviche for almost 40 years. u201cEs tu huarique, es tu caleta,u201d the menu proclaims: u201cItu2019s your hangout, itu2019s your hidden treasure.u201d I was conspicuously the only tourist. The menu offers no fewer than 11 ceviches, and I went for the gold standard: lenguado, or flounder, which Sonia dubs the Ceviche of Champions, served with choclo (giant corn) and cold sweet potato to soothe the sinus-clearing burn of lemon juice and aju00ed pepper. We shared a plate of choritos u00e0 la chorrillana (Chorrillos-style mussels) so fresh they might have been harvested that morning. As the day warmed up, we pushed back our chairs and sipped Cusqueu00f1a beers and listened to the live quartet playing traditional criollo songs. By the standards of Peruu2019s celebrity chefs, the meal was basic and cheap, but in some ways, it felt like a more authentic Lima, a communal ritual still within (occasional) reach for most Peruvians. I would not have missed it for the world.
We were back at it that night, joined by Patriciau2019s partner, the poet Jorge Frisancho, for a visit to chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffinou2019s u00e1maZ, which specializes in ingredients and techniques from the Amazon jungle and was ranked No. 47 in Latin America last year. Though approaching gastronomic exhaustion, we couldnu2019t stop ourselves from sampling the sapuchos (grilled plantain topped with soft cheese) or the giant snails in a turmeric-chorizo broth. Tucked into our comfortable booth, with a view of the busy streetu2014where young professionals streamed into upscale restaurantsu2014Jorge and I talked about the war years, when as a college student heu2019d had to navigate violent demonstrations and military occupations on his campus, and the years that followed, when the Fujimori government enriched itself and kept civil society in a state of paranoid lockdown. Patricia recounted her work in the campo, with children whose parents were killed or disappeared.
The main courses at u00e1maZ were succulent and memorableu2014freshwater prawns mixed with Amazonian fruits and boiled in a bamboo log over an open flame; braised duck in a stew of achiote, lime, and bitter chocolateu2014but I felt unexpectedly gloomy, the nostalgia that had crept up at Sonia confusing me as I picked at my snakefruit semifreddo. Despite the distinctive cuisine, we were far from the jungle; for all the progress of recent decades, the Amazon tribes and indigenous Andean communities enjoy few of the privileges of this new Peru. Limau2014magnificent Limau2014has recovered nicely, but outside the capital one might be forgiven for asking if the war was fought to secure the blessings of rooftop swimming pools and perfect pisco sours.
From my years living in Peru I remember only two specific meals. The first was in Cusco, on my 30th birthday, which I celebrated with a makeshift barbecue in the little garden outside my room. My friend Lili and I went to the outdoor market at dawn to buy a fresh cow heartu2014a massive, gleaming, bloody organ, 12 or 15 pounds at least. We sliced it into chunks and marinated them in garlic and aju00ed, and then roasted them two by two on a charcoal grill the size of a MacBook. My friends and I snacked on anticuchos and drank Cusqueu00f1as throughout the afternoon; when night came, we went dancing. It was the best birthday I ever had.
The second was on the night I left the country for good, in the spring of 2000. On my layover in Lima, I remembered a restaurant Iu2019d tried early in my time in Peru, when my father visited for a few days and declared his unwillingness to eat street food. Weu2019d found a dignified old Argentine steakhouse on the malecu00f3n called El Rincu00f3n Gaucho, where we feasted on beef, lamb, chicken, and alpaca while watching the thrashing gray Pacific. Two years later, tired of bad pizza and subzero Andean nights, ready to return to my own country and pursue my writing career in earnest, I found my way back to El Rincu00f3n Gaucho (it had moved to the Barranco district, to make way for a new shopping mall) and ate slowly, trying to take stock of my time in Cusco, how Iu2019d grown. But it would take many years for me to fully appreciate all that Peru had given me. I suppose Iu2019ve been writing this novel as a way to give something back.
Now, after days of indulgence at some of the finest restaurants in the world, I was again preparing to leave Peru, not knowing whenu2014or ifu2014Iu2019d return. With a red-eye leaving at midnight and classes to teach the next day, I set out on foot for El Rincu00f3n Gaucho. I thought it would make for a lovely symmetry, a fitting end to a story ostensibly about food but really about how Peru and I have both changed with the passage of time. It was a warm, clear night, and traffic was heavy along the Avenida Miguel Grau, a north-south thoroughfare that I once would never have dared to walk alone. All over Lima, construction cranes were silhouetted against the dusk; weekend revelers spilled out of cafu00e9s and zoomed past in taxis. It was Sunday night in a thriving, modern city. I checked the address on my iPad, eager for this rendezvous with my younger self. But El Rincu00f3n Gauchou2014like so much of the old Lima, the good and the badu2014was gone.