Peruvian food has long been hailed as the finest in South America. Finest because it seamlessly blends the influences of every group who has called the country home: Incas, Spaniards, Africans, Italians, Japanese and Chinese.
This was obvious when a steaming stone dish holding something called chaufa aeropuert ($26) arrived at our table at Miami's La Mar by Gastón Acurio.
Rice seems to be the only thing the dish has in common with other Latin cuisines. The rice is pan-fried to crispy and mixed with Chinese sausage, roasted pork, shrimp omelet, pickled salad and soy-based nikei sauce. It's not quite Chinese in its seasoning, but more like a one-dish smorgasbord of flavors and textures that's impossible to resist.
It's just one of the many wonders served at this 3-month-old treasure inside the Mandarin-Oriental. Add La Mar to your list of must-not-miss Miami restaurants. Peruvian chef and restaurateur Gastón Acurio operates 40 restaurants worldwide, including Astrid and Gaston in Lima, consistently called the best restaurant in South America and one of the best in the world. He's been called Peru's unofficial culinary ambassador.
Peruvian food is everywhere in South Florida, but in the hands of La Mar's 31-year-old executive chef, Diego Oka, it is a wonder. I'm thinking of the classic Peruvian stir-fry known as lomo saltado ($31). I've had $10 versions served with frozen french fries in dinerlike settings, but the deliciousness served here is in a whole other category, with tender Angus beef, red onions, tomatoes, soy sauce, cilantro and, yes, papas fritas — french fries.
Just as many ethnic groups have influenced food in Peru, so has its geography, from the Pacific Coast's seafood to the Andes' potatoes. So La Mar serves tender octopus and calamari a la plancha ($19), with crushed potatoes, chimichurri, large kernelled corn, and anthicuchera sauce made with mayonnaise and aji Amarillo chile. Flaky pork adobo empanadas ($12) are served with a green sauce made from the Andean herb called huacatay.
There is ceviche, of course, which is best sampled at La Mar as a trio of tastes ($29), each made with the restaurant's special blend of leche de tigre, the citrus-based sauce that gives ceviche its flavor. In one version, fluke is mixed with cilantro, chile and red onions. In another, tuna gets a hand from red onions, nori, avocado, daikon, cucumber and tamarind.
For a true taste of Peruvian seafood, order whole-fish Nikei ($45) — Florida yellowtail snapper one night — which is presented in such a way that it looks to be trying to leap from the platter. It's deep-fried, but virtually grease-free, and served with a spicy sauce, bok choy and Chinese-style white rice with broccoli. Eat this dish if you dine at La Mar.
To understand Peruvian potatoes, order La Chanita ($24), a sampler of six causas, whipped potatoes and aji made from different kinds of tubers with different accompaniments. The Nikei, for instance, gets its flavors from Japan with tuna tartare, avocado, nori and chile-flavored cream. The Cangrejo is made with beets instead of potatoes, and topped with crab, avocado, spicy cream sauce, fried kale, tomatoes and quail egg.
I hope I'm not making the food sound complicated, because while it may be exotic, it tastes simply delicious. Wait staff is careful to ask the table if anyone has any allergies and if anyone is put off by spice.
La Mar offers all kinds of interesting desserts, including purple corn sorbet with meringue, yogurt, corn, guanabana cream and cinnamon ($11). There are sweet potato and pumpkin fritters with honey sauce ($11), and a wonderful selection of house-made alfajores ($11), the sandwich cookies that I associate more with Argentina, but are remarkable at La Mar in flavors that include dulce de leche and coffee.
Service at La Mar is as good as it gets, professional and helpful when a table of non-Peruvians struggle over a few dishes. I wish the 235-seat indoor/outdoor dining room was a bit more inviting. Every surface is covered with wood — even the ceiling — so I found myself wishing for more light and better acoustics. I'm sure the gloomy woodiness, and the plant wall, is a nod to the rainforest, but it verges on theme restaurant.
Once cooler weather returns, the patio will be where I want to dine, with its awesome view of downtown Miami. One meal at La Mar, and you'll be spoiled for any other Peruvian restaurant.
500 Brickell Key Drive, Mandarin Oriental, Miami
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Loud
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $13 valet; free at lunch