By Buzzy Gordon
In addition to invigorating herbs, Peru is the home of some of the world's most sought-after cocoa beans. That is why Choco Museo, a rapidly growing chain now in six countries, has set up two outlets here, one in Cuzco and the other in Lima. Choco Museo's winning formula is conducting workshops starring arguably the world's favorite treat, transforming the humble brown bean into a viscous hot liquid or exquisitely rich truffle. Lima Mentor has partnered with Choco Museo to offer a choice of workshops for adults, families and even just kids. Once again, participants receive discount coupons to take home (or come back for more) of the many delicious varieties of chocolate bars manufactured by Choco Museo.
Where cocoa grows, so does coffee; so it is not surprising that coffee would also rate a workshop. One particular establishment, Tostaduria Bisetti, in the up–and–coming neighborhood of Barranco, has become the gold standard for evaluating quality coffee grown in Peru. It is there that I met a world–champion barista, who was on a buying trip for a new chain of upscale coffee shops in Hong Kong; after observing the process of grading and roasting beans, I joined him in practicing the arcane and fastidious art of cupping. Any aficionado of the beverage would enjoy the sights, smells and tastes of this workshop, while discovering which local brand to take home and continue enjoying.
Bread and Potatoes in Peru
One of the few aromas that can compete with roasting coffee is the scent of bread baking; Lima Mentor provides that and more in the boutique commercial bakery Pamplinas, run by Chef Renato Peralta, which supplies the breads, rolls and croissants for the best restaurants in Lima. In this workshop, participants learn about the everyday and holiday breads consumed in Peru. Tasting is not only encouraged: everyone leaves with a goodie bag of new favorites.
Like the rest of us, Peruvians do not live by bread alone; and the sumptuous world of Creole cuisine is brought to life in Lima Mentor's tour of the Surquillo produce market, followed by repairing to a palatial kitchen where expert chefs reveal the mysteries behind preparing two of the most popular local dishes: causa, a mashed–potato loaf stuffed with fillings made from tuna, crab or chicken; and huancaina sauce — a cheesy, piquant yellow accompaniment that is ladled generously over side dishes like potatoes and yucca. The cooking workshop can be booked separately from the market tour, although talking with the stall vendors and learning about the local produce and spices is both fun and educational.
The best introduction to Creole food is also arranged by Lima Mentor, at El Senorio del Sulco, where a lavish buffet features and endless array of cold and hot fish, seafood, chicken, duck, beef, pork and vegetarian dishes. The restaurant's views and exhibit of native masks are another feast, for the eyes as well.
On our last morning we traveled by skiff to a native village – one that the crew had never visited before (they change up the stops frequently) – and met with school children there. We also had the chance to buy local handicrafts. After disembarking at Nauta we stopped by the Manatee Rescue Center, which the Aqua helps fund and where biologists and volunteers care for endangered Amazon manatees that conservation authorities have seized from local people and fishermen. After the resident biologists gave a short presentation about the project, we were allowed to bottle feed several of the young rescued manatees.
As noted, Peruvian cuisine has been shaped not only by the European ancestry of the Spanish conquistadors but also, naturally, by its geography, in more ways than one. The Andes Mountains and plateaus produce perhaps the world's largest variety of potatoes, squashes and tubers, with more species than one can imagine. As a Pacific nation, Peru beckoned immigrants also from the Far East, most notably from Japan and China, whose culinary heritages have also left their mark. The Amazon is continuously yielding exotic ingredients that creative chefs never tire of experimenting with.
Accordingly, when the focus shifts to gastronomy, Lima Mentor has assembled an impressive roster of restaurants representing the foremost practitioners of the culinary arts in Lima, including the very popular fusion genre.
The leading restaurants selected in this category are (in alphabetical order):
Danica – Chef Vanessa Siragusa presides over two Peruvian–Italian fusion restaurants bearing the same name (one each in the most upscale neighborhoods of Lima, Miraflores and San Isidro).
Madam Tusan – Peruvian–Chinese fusion presented by Chef Gaston Acurio and his wife Astrid, the reigning rock stars of Lima gastronomy.
Maido – Despite his youth, Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura is already the doyen of Peruvian–Japanese fusion. Maido's formidable 19–course tasting menu is an experience not soon forgotten.
Mantra – Owner Jay Patel, the pioneer of Peruvian-Indian cuisine, substitutes Indian spices for traditional ones to give local dishes a whole new dimension. Maido and Photos Peruvian–Japanese fusion at its best, from young Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura. The tasting menu comprises no fewer than 19 courses.
Social – The restaurant at the Lima Hilton Miraflores styles its cuisine Peruvian–American fusion.
The following restaurants are universally acclaimed as the pinnacle of contemporary Peruvian cuisine:
Amaz – Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino is breaking new ground with this restaurant that transforms the bounty of the Amazon into a gourmand's delight.
Astrid y Gaston – The duo's flagship restaurant is ranked #14 in the San Pellegrino Guide of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.
Cafe del Museo – It is hard to imagine a more perfect afternoon/evening in Lima than a visit to the world&ndashclass Museo Larco, followed by drinks and dinner at this restaurant in the beautifully landscaped, floodlit garden.
Central – Chef Virgilio Martinez, renowned for researching the characteristics of indigenous ingredients from throughout the country, creates masterpieces in his restaurant, one of Lima's hottest tickets.
La Mar – Gaston Acurio's homage to ceviche plays out here; lunchtime only.
Lima 27 – A trendy bar–restaurant with informal, formal and al fresco dining areas.
Malabar – Schiaffino's primary restaurant shows off the inventiveness that branded him as one of Lima's top chefs.
Maras – The fine dining restaurant at the towering Westin Hotel is the domain of Chef Rafael Piqueras.
If you go:
Lima Mentor is constantly adding workshops (for example, local beer tasting is on tap for the near future) and fine-dining restaurants. Be sure to check the website for updated descriptions and booking information. You can choose as few as 1-2 workshops, with or without recommended restaurants, or Lima Mentor will customize your itinerary to combine workshops and restaurants with sightseeing attractions to create a 1-, 2- or 3-day all-inclusive experience.
Workshops start at $50 per person, with a minimum party of two required. All workshops include pickup and transportation from your Lima hotel, as well as translator.
Lima Mentor recommends Lima Easy as the best online guide for general information.
Text by Buzzy Gordon Photos by Buzzy Gordon and Cynthia Caceres