El Mercadito Peruano Does Ceviche Right
Several new dispenseries of peruvian cuisine have opened in the city recently, all good, none, so far, great.
The new colonia Roma branch of Barcelona's Yakumanka, backed by Peru's gastronomic spokesperson Gastón Acurio himself, is already a hot destination but its unrefined kitchen has a way to go. The trappings are right, the 'materia prima' beautiful but balance is off and that’s the key to the success of this seemingly simple cuisine. Ceviches and tiraditos here are either too acidic, salty or both. Cooked plates, such as anticuchos and fried rice can be overcondimented. There is hope, and I will return when the dust has settled. A few blocks away, there’s the promising, albeit grandiose Lima 700—the jury’s out on this one.
When it comes to ceviche, Peru’s most renowned dish, I have come to realize that this seemingly simple category is much maligned. Or should the word be malpractised. A Mexicanized approach to it just doesn’t work. Not to say I don’t appreciate a great Baja ceviche, I do, but Peruvian cooks, with a little help from the Japanese, have taken this fresh fish preparation to a higher level of polish: heavy lime, chile and long maceration is not what it’s about.
So I’ll stick with a surprisingly good stand in the middle of our gourmand mecca, the Mercado San Juan, where they DO do it right. Hosting a seafood-educated clientele many of Peruvian origin, Chef Miguel Cabrera, who is from Lima, oversees his micro-restaurant like a ballet master directing his company: he seems to have eyes at the back of his head. Many Peruvian dishes are influenced by the Japanese and Chinese who arrived there in the last 150 years. And let's face it, those Asian cooks know a thing or two about fish. The chef has brought this refined sensibility with him. El Mercadito turns out everything from perfect ceviche, both classic fish and mixed seafood to 'chaufa' fried rice, as well as criollo non-oceanic potato-based causas. Ceviches, are tossed in the traditional leche de tigre, literally ‘tiger's milk’, the emulsified sauce of oil, lime and fish juice. The previously mentioned ‘balance’ is crucial, as is timing.
On a recent Saturday visit, I sat sipping an amuse bouche of steaming cilantro-perfumed fish broth. I watched Miguel work, as customers vied for seats. He whipped up three robalo ceviches simultaneously tending a smoking sauté pan of mixed seafood. He tasted and adjusted the ceviches no less than 10 times, adding broth, a pinch of salt here, lime there. My tiradito, slices larger and thinner than those in the ceviche, was bathed in a mustard-colored sauce tinted by pureed ají amarillo, the sweetish chile from the homeland. Unlike in mismanaged preparations, the fish was not lost in the shuffle. This was as good as the exquisite one I had eaten in Lima’s Mercado Zurquillo last year.
Prices at El Mercadito are eminently accessible. It might lack fancy trappings and pisco sours, but the food is a fine representation of this South American country, whose gastronomy rivals that of our own.
El Mercadito Peruano
Inside the Mercado San Juan, calle Ernesto Pugibet 21, centro (Local 279, near the fruit stands, towards the left as you enter the market) see map
Open daily except Tuesday, 12:30 to 5 p.m.