Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Dish on Dining: La Mar

A Continuing Lesson in Peruvian Cuisine
Pier 1 1/2, San Francisco
Along the Embarcadero
PH: 415.397.8880
Open daily for lunch, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:30–10 p.m. (until 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Someone commented in another post awhile back that Peruvian cuisine is the new Thai, and I have to agree, what with all the new Peruvian restaurants popping up around town. Probably the most popular is the festive La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, which opened late last year along the waterfront just up the street from the San Francisco Ferry Building.

San Francisco is La Mar’s first U.S. outpost for celebrity chef Gastón Acurio, who plans an empire of cebicherias around the globe. (Along with his restaurant in Peru, he has plans to open a La Mar in Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica.)

A cebicheria is a restaurant focused on one of Peru’s most popular dishes—ceviche (which is spelled cebiche at La Mar). I’m a big fan of ceviches, which like Italian crudo or Japanese sashimi is basically raw fish cured with citrus. So I trekked out to La Mar on a couple of trips during the holidays.

Both of my visits were on busy Friday nights. The first time I decided to eat at the bar, which is off to the right of the front entrance, giving you a view of the Embarcadero traffic. (If you want a view of the waterfront, you have to eat in the dining room.) My night started off great because it was Pisco Sour night at the bar, and I’ve been dying to find a Pisco Sour in San Francisco since I had my first one in Buenos Aires.

The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru. Everyone drinks it there, and of course everyone talks about it when they talk about Peruvian cuisine. My visits to places like Limon in the Mission District were always thwarted by the lack of the Pisco Sour. When I tried it poolside in Buenos Aires, I fell in love with the frothy egg white on top with the three dashes of hot chili, all cooled off by the tart lemon juice and soothing pisco, which is similar to brandy.

With my Pisco Sour in hand, I perused the menu, which offered a lot more selections of Peruvian cuisine than I’ve seen in any other U.S. restaurant. I’m still continuing my education about South American cuisines after my Buenos Aires trip, so I was excited to see the many choices.

Side note: My bartender gave me a bowl of chili-roasted corn kernels that were delightfully crunchy, almost like corn nuts. I thought they were a nice compliment to my Pisco Sour.

Along with several ceviches, La Mar also offers causa, which is a traditional Peruvian dish made of whipped potatoes. There were also several classic entrees made of rice or the popular lomo saltado (a meat-and-potato dish), and then new inventions by Acurio and his head chef, Victoriano Lopez, who is really Acurio’s point man in the San Francisco kitchen.

I started with a ceviche, of course, and gravitated to the Cebiche Amazonas ($15) because of the combination of ahi tuna and mangoes. The dish, in an ice-like platter, came topped with a couple of prawns and spiced with aji panca. It sat in a pool of star fruit leche de tigre sauce.

The ingredients all tasted fresh, and I particularly liked the fact that the ceviche didn’t have the strong tart flavor of lime that can sometimes happen. It was a very balanced flavor. My only gripe was that there was too much of the sauce, which was watery and made me nervous picking up my fish pieces because I worried the slightest drop would mean a puddle of red sauce splashed onto my shirt.

I also ordered another appetizer, which was a play on the popular lomo saltado dish I mentioned. The Tequenos de Lomo Saltado ($12) is basically the ingredients of the lomo saltado made into a spring roll, another example of how Peruvian cuisine borrows freely from Asia.

Although not a fan of fried foods, I wanted to see how the Lomo Saltado could be interpreted into a spring roll. When the dish came out, it looked like any other spring rolls. It was freshly fried and piping hot; the skin was thin and crispy, just perfectly cooked. The ingredients included little bits of beef served with a peanut ocopa dipping sauce. While the ingredients tasted fine, I felt the essence of the meat was really lost in the vehicle, which was the crunchy spring roll skin.

The bar has several tall tables where people gathered for drinks and snacks, but I was determined to check out the rest of the restaurant. So I returned on another Friday night and asked for a table in the dining room. But the room, which in reality isn’t very large, was all booked up so the hostess seated me at the large (and blue-glowing) cebiche bar.

Just like a sushi bar, the huge cebiche bar is peppered with chunks of seafood under glass counters and cebiche chefs busily making the star dishes of the night. But unlike a sushi bar, you don’t interact with the cebiche chefs at La Mar. The seats are lower than the counters, so you can barely see the top of their heads behind the counter, and when you sit down, they don’t talk to you. Instead, a server comes to take your order, just like in the dining room except you don’t have a normal table.

Despite this wasted concept of a cebiche bar in my opinion, my server was very pleasant and extremely informed about the various Peruvian dishes. She easily explained the various ingredients that are listed in the courses, which is really helpful for someone just learning about Peruvian cuisine.

This time I started with the traditional causa, but ordered one using purple potatoes. The Causa Nikei ($11) is topped with ahi tuna with a nikei sauce, and served with avocado puree and a creamy aji amarillo and rocoto huancaina sauce. The dish arrives with the causa presented in three little towers, topped with the tuna served raw like tuna tartar. They’re garnished with strips of nori, the Japanese seaweed used to make sushi.

The causa, made up of the purple potato, was dense and starchy, like what you would expect a potato cake to be like. I actually expected it to be lighter like mashed potatoes because the menu says “whipped potato.” Still, I really liked the tuna on top. The chef tossed the tuna in a sauce that gave it more complexity and body, which really dressed up the entire dish. When dredged along the creamy aji amarillo sauce, you really get a lot of kick and definitely need a lot of water to soothe your mouth. I liked the powerful kick of the aji amarillo, but this is fair warning that the heat lingers for awhile so don’t overdo it.

I forgot to mention that you get a hint of the aji amarillo sauce at the start of your meal because La Mar serves a basket of fried plantains and chips with three dipping sauces that goes from mild to medium to aji amarillo spicy. I really liked the touch of the plantains and if I were into fried foods, I probably would have eaten the whole basket because it was expertly fried.

Back to my dinner, I ordered the Arroz Jugoso ($21) for my entrée. It’s a seafood dish that the menu described as “juicy arborio rice with Peruvian flavors.” The dish looks comforting and quite huge when it comes bubbling to your table. Every piece of seafood—from the seared halibut fillet on top to the plump mussels peppered around the dish—was fresh and well prepared. I really enjoyed this dish that reminded me of gumbo because of its soup base or a really wet risotto.

The jugoso, which also included generous offerings of calamari, octopus bits and clams, was rounded off with the Peruvian corn (which has really big kernels) and peas. It’s hard to really describe the so-called Peruvian flavor, but the dish definitely was well-seasoned—almost to the point of being salty but not quite going off the cliff.

You’d think after eating this huge plate of rice that I’d be done, and I really was. But I foraged forward to desserts.

La Mar offers a variety of desserts, including several fried items like beignets and fritters that I just avoided because I’ve tested La Mars frying skills and I’m satisfied that they’re experts in this arena. So I settled for one of my favorite standbys, the tiramisu ($10).

At La Mar, their version is made with a Peruvian fruit called the lucuma. My server explained that the fruit is in the avocado family and looks similar except that the flesh is orange colored. She says the taste reminds her of butterscotch.

Intrigued, I ordered it and out came a tiny slice of tiramisu with a scoop of ice cream, also made with the lucuma fruit. The tiramisu’s top layer was supposedly the lucuma cake because it had a distinct yellow-orange color that you wouldn’t normally see in the traditional tiramisu. Unfortunately, I couldn’t detect the flavor of the lucuma because all I got was the cocoa powder overly sprinkled on top of the cake.

However, my dessert experience was saved by the scoop of lucuma ice cream because it was creamy, rich and tasted just like butterscotch. (I don’t know if that was subliminal because my server had already planted the thought in my mind, but I didn’t care since I love the taste of butterscotch.)

I should note that La Mar, being so popular, quickly filled its dining room and with its high ceilings the noise was deafening. In a way, I was glad that I was sitting away from the scene at the cebiche bar, which was a bit more relaxed and quiet.

La Mar is an exciting, welcomed addition to the Embarcadero scene with a huge space that creates different experiences depending on whether you sit at the front bar, cebiche bar/lounge area, or the main dining room (there’s also outdoor patio seating by the water that I didn’t want to brave on a cold San Francisco night). While the food can be slightly off in a few areas, the overall freshness of the food and the authentic Peruvian ingredients hold a lot of promise. It’s definitely a fun place to begin anyone’s education about the cuisine of this region (and find a glass of Pisco Sour).

Single guy rating: 4 stars (Explore a new cuisine)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

La Mar Cebicheria Peruana on Urbanspoon


KirkK said...

Having eaten at Astrid Y Gaston in Lima, I'm quite excited at having a chance to check out La Mar. It looks good, we had a chance to eat at La Mar in Miraflores but went with Pescados Capitales instead. Peru has a huge Chinese population, and the largest Barrio Chino in South America. The cancha is a standard side dish in cebicerias, and really good dipped in the Leche de Tigre.

Anonymous said...

I have been wondering about this place, it certainly has a great location and I love ceviche, so that's definitely on my list. I'll take Kirk's advice since I enjoyed reading his posts on peru too!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a feast! I've been wondering about this place, too. Good to see it's worth a visit. Heck, if the Single Guy Chef gives it four stars, it must be worth a drive to try.

Anonymous said...

Thai cuisine is considered one of the world's most delicious and continues to maintain its enormous popularity in North America with its unique blend of tastes: hot, sour, and sweet.

Unknown said...

Peruvian food is really wonderful and tasty!