If climate, topography, raw ingredients, and cultural interaction are the building blocks of a great cuisine, Peru's has to be among the world's finest. The country's dozens of microclimates include tropical rain forest, teeming seashore, and the plateaus and valleys of the Andes, the second-highest mountain range on Earth. For millennia the region has produced an incredible abundance of protein and produce — 2,000 varieties of potato, for instance, and an equal number of fresh and saltwater fish, as well as fruit, squash, peppers, and corn in every size, shape, and color. The spectacular civilization that flourished here, the Inca Empire, employed advanced plant-breeding techniques and condiments like chili and peanut butter to advance the continent's most distinctive and complex cuisine. And when the Spanish and Africans arrived in the 16th century with their cooking fat and dairy products, and waves of French, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants joined them three hundred years later, the result was a pan-hemispheric style of cookery that has only evolved and improved with age. In fact, Lima's burgeoning culinary scene recently earned the title "Gastronomic Capital of the Americas" (take that, New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco).
La Furia Chalaca, a Peruvian restaurant near Jack London Square, lives up to its heritage. The family-owned destination prepares and serves several of the cuisine's most time-honored dishes in a welcoming, attractive setting. The ornate Spanish Colonial dining room is decorated with paintings celebrating the Peruvian fisherfolk traditions of owner-artist Carlos Anton. Several huacos, beautiful pre-Columbian stone and earthenware figures and vessels from Northern Peru, are displayed against the opposite wall. A variety of Latin American vintages are dispensed at a handsomely engraved bar. And the kitchen's devotion to organic produce, freshly caught seafood, and imported Peruvian spices results in a menu of exceptional food.
Potatoes are central to Peruvian cuisine, which is only appropriate: The marvelous tuber is an Andean native, developed some 3,000 years ago because corn wouldn't grow at such an altitude. As the locals' staple diet, its variations are practically inexhaustible. Primary among them is the richly satisfying papas a la Huancaino, in which slices of perfectly tender taters are dressed with a silky, eggy cheese sauce spiked with a hint of chili pepper and garnished with black olives and hardboiled eggs. Another potato-based appetizer, papa rellena, is a crisp, puffy mashed-potato fritter stuffed with spiced ground beef, olives, and raisins, a delectable variation on the tamale or wonton. But our favorite starter was causa, an Inca-era favorite. Yellow Peruvian potatoes are puréed and molded into a pillowy cake that's filled with a moist, spicy chicken salad and draped with a lilac-colored olive dressing — a treat for the eye as well as the taste buds.
Peru is also famous for the amazing abundance of seafood that flourishes in the Andes' flowing rivers and the icy, plankton-rich Humboldt Current. A lot of it makes its way into ceviche de mixto, the country's most renowned dish. This pre-Columbian delicacy is simplicity itself — raw fish marinated in lime juice until "cooked" and firm — and La Furia Chalaca respects the process. Prawns, squid, and nice big chunks of impeccably fresh sea bass emerged from their citrus marinade tangy and luscious with a sneaky afterbite of chili pepper — the traditional sweet potato, hominy, and fried yucca garnishing the platter nicely. Another seafood extravaganza is parihuela, a fisherman's rich stew. Here the squid, prawns, and sea bass are delicately simmered in an almost buttery cilantro-ribboned broth, the reduced essence of the combined ingredients: a bracing (and apocryphally aphrodisiacal) bowl.
A signature Peruvian entrée is carapulcra, a long-simmered casserole of diced pork and chuño, reconstituted freeze-dried potatoes (another Inca invention) — a largely unexciting dish. The seco de cabrito was a more satisfying option: two meaty shanks of lush goat meat, similar to braised osso buco but richer and sweeter, served cassoulet-style with creamy pinto beans plus a mold of al dente rice and nutty, crunchy cancha (toasted corn kernels). Equally delectable was lomo saltado, a lusty stir-fry out of the country's rich Chinese-Peruvian heritage in which slender filets of potato and sirloin mixed it up with onion, tomato, cumin, and cilantro.
For dessert there's alfajores, two flaky, buttery cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche, a caramel-like paste made from milk and sugar. Crema volteada, the Peruvian version of flan or crème caramel, was light and lush with a nice drizzle of sugar syrup on top. Arroz con leche (aka rice pudding) had a pleasantly rice-y flavor but was a bit too sweet and soupy — until we followed ancient tradition and mixed it with another dessert, mazamorra morada. This purple-corn version of Jell-O, studded with apple and pineapple chunks and spiced with cloves, cinnamon, and sweet potato flour, was a warm and comforting treat on its own and got even better when the creamy pudding was stirred in: a hint of the holidays, six months early.
There are only minimal vegetarian options on La Furia Chalaca's protein-packed menu. Appetizers include the papas a la Huancaina, fried yucca with Huancaina sauce on the side, and appetizer-sized brochettes of organic zucchini, mushrooms, onion, and bell peppers. There are also three salads: a Caesar, a potato-beet, and another of tossed greens and mixed vegetables. Other than that, it's sweets and liquor.
The restaurant's beverage selection is wide-ranging and intriguing. The classic Peruvian cocktail is the Pisco Sour, a fizzy concoction of sugar, egg white, lemon juice, and pisco, a grape brandy that's been distilled and enjoyed since the Spaniards planted vineyards along the Peruvian coast in the 16th century. The house rendition is a potent yet refreshing aperitif with just enough foam to bring out the liqueur's flowery fragrance. Even more venerable is chicha de jora, a milky beer made from yellow corn that dates back to the Incas (a chicha mill has in fact been uncovered at Machu Picchu). Flat and cidery with a sour aftertaste, it didn't live up to its millennial reputation. Another time-honored chicha, the unfermented chicha morada, cooks up purple corn with pineapple, cloves, sugar, and lime; the result was cool, festive, and refreshing, like a booze-less sangria. (The house sangria, on the other hand, was too sweet and Kool-Aid-like for our taste, but our server replaced it with a glass of wine at no extra charge.) Then there's Inca Kola, a bright yellow soft drink that's so popular in Peru it brought Coke and Pepsi to its corporate knees a few years ago. Sweet and unexpectedly tasty (what is it — honeydew? verbena? tutti-frutti? bubblegum?), sampling a glass of the stuff is practically a requirement. The wine list features two dozen selections, many of them from the old country (the Peruvian wine industry dates back three or four centuries, after all). Seldom encountered hereabouts and quite affordable at $18 to $45 per bottle, the wines are worth investigating, particularly the Picasso tempranillo crianza, a nice match for the seco de cabrito. Each vintage is available by the glass. Three Peruvian beers, Pilsen, Cristal, and Cusqueña, are offered as well.
Service at La Furia Chalaca is attentive and insightful, and the presentations — colorful mosaics on gleaming geometric platters — reflect the artistry of the cuisine. This is a fine place to become acquainted with one of the world's great culinary traditions.
What the Fork - March 24, 10:21 AM