La Mar: Peruvian Classics Elevated to Haute Cuisine
The unmistakable snapping of rice in a superheated stone bowl hints at what's to come. The heavy gray-and-white-flecked basin typical of Japanese eateries seems misplaced at first in a Peruvian restaurant. But the nutty, charred scent of crisping grains soon dispenses any concerns about eating a Korean-Japanese mashup of sweet soy, roast pork, Chinese sausage, and pickled ginger.
billwisserphoto.com Cebiche sampler at La Mar.
A black-clad waiter bows and sets the yawning vessel in the middle of a table facing floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that open to views of Brickell's condo canyons. He punches through the pale-yellow egg crepe hiding the sweet-smoky combination. With two large serving spoons, he scrapes the almost burned sushi rice stuck to the bottom of the bowl, dispersing its delicious crunch into each bite. It's neither a ceviche nor a taxi-yellow plate of papas a la huancaína. But it's still distinctly Peruvian.
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"The Japanese really changed Peruvian food," says Diego Oka, executive chef of Peruvian culinary ambassador Gastón Acurio's La Mar, which opened this past March inside the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key. "They taught us how to eat fish raw, how to cut it, how to clean it, and how to eat it right at that moment to tell what it is and whether it's fresh."
billwisserphoto.com Inside La Mar.
When diplomatic relations between Peru and Japan opened in the late 19th Century, thousands of Japanese from that country's southern islands left for the mountainous nation on South America's Pacific Coast. A century later, Japanese culinary traditions are so tightly braided into Peru's that the Andean nation's modified nigiri and sushi rolls are commonplace on menus around the world. The tender ceviche of today is starkly different from its first iteration decades ago, when it was prepared more than a dozen hours before it would be eaten to allow the lime juice's acid to kill any lingering bacteria.
"It had the texture of wet paper," Oka says.
Oka was born to Japanese parents who themselves were children of immigrants who had crossed the Pacific. Oka's grandfather immigrated to Peru in the 1940s and sold Salonpas, a pain cream similar to Icy Hot, to make ends meet.
Over the past decade, Oka has traveled the world to help open many of the three dozen restaurants Acurio has established in a dozen countries. The Brickell Key restaurant is his first in Miami, following American outposts in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. The shaggy-headed chef is widely credited with helping put ceviche, an iconic Peruvian
creation, on a global stage in the mid-2000s.
At La Mar, a square ash-gray bowl filled with a punchy classic ceviche -- studded with soft chunks of sweet potato and toothsome kernels of giant corn -- offers firm, nearly translucent, uniformly sized slices of fluke in a bright-yellow lime bath with a generous helping of the ground Peruvian yellow pepper ají amarillo. Another holds perfect, gem-like cubes of velvety, ruby-red tuna and crisp cucumber disks with sesame oil and toasted nori emboldening the lime juice wash.
Though the two may appear identical to other ceviche dishes around Miami, they're not. The fish is cut with such precision and the tart, lime-based leche de tigre is balanced with such a deft hand it's clear the cooks working in near silence at the open raw bar and grill are held to a higher standard.