Celebrity chef Gastón Acurio has brought his world-renowned Peruvian fusion to Mandarin Oriental, Miami, where the waterside setting is a perfect match for the fresh seafood offering. No wonder La Mar is the talk of town
The north terrace of La Mar by Gastón Acurio at Mandarin Oriental, Miami, overlooking Biscayne Bay
Lomo saltado with stir-fried Angus beef, red onions, tomatoes, soy sauce, coriander and papas fritas
In 2006 at the fourth Madrid Fusion – the International Gastronomy Summit widely regarded as one of the world's most important epicurean forums – Lima in Peru was named the 'Gastronomic Capital of the Americas'. Then in 2012, at the World Travel Awards, Peru beat renowned food-driven tourist spots such as Spain, Thailand, Italy, China and France to be honoured as the 'World's Leading Culinary Destination'. And in 2014, international luxury hotel brand Mandarin Oriental validated global opinion by installing the world's first high-end Peruvian restaurant – La Mar by Gastón Acurio – in its Miami property.
The Magic City was a fitting choice in which to break new culinary ground. Sitting at the 'crossroads of the Americas', Miami is a riveting blend of cultures, ethnicities, languages and cuisines from across North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe. And it is home to intrepid entrepreneurs in the fields of design, architecture, art, nightlife, fashion and food. As a result, it draws a diverse mix of travellers who not only wish to enjoy this fusion of cultures in a stunning coastal locale, but who also want fabulous accommodation and culinary options while doing so.
La Mar's exterior
'Miami has evolved into a first-class, first-rate destination,' acknowledges Mandarin Oriental, Miami's general manager, Jorge Gonzalez. 'You no longer have to distinguish between Miami and Miami [South] Beach when you talk about the city.'
Nigiri criollo with tuna, ají amarillo sauce and crispy squid
Indeed, Miami in general, but particularly the Biscayne Bay downtown area where the hotel is located, has moved from the realm of experimental to experiential, drawing those who now have perhaps the same taste for elegance as they once did for living on the edge. Thus it's equally timely and relevant that Mandarin Oriental, Miami, which has one of the most stunning views of the ocean and the downtown skyline, has joined forces with Peru's number one celebrity chef, Gastón Acurio.
'Gastón Acurio is not just a fantastic chef, but also a fabulous human being,' Gonzalez continues. 'He is not just a businessman and author, he is the ambassador of the whole country; he is the face of Peru.'
Gaston Acurio and Diego Oka find the best producers available
La Mar's chef, Gastón Acurio
Certainly, Acurio – once described by Bon Appétit magazine as 'Peru's great culinary populiser' – is a national spokesman. He has introduced his country's multifaceted fare through his dozens of restaurants in the Spanish-speaking world, his hundreds of thousands of sold cookbooks, and his cable TV shows, which are viewed by millions. Like a rock star whose success is too big to be contained by one country, he crossed over the Pond – or, in this case, the Amazon – into the global consciousness during the aforementioned Madrid Fusión summit, when he gave an impassioned speech immortalising cebiche, or ceviche as it's called elsewhere.
The musician analogy is apropos, considering that Acurio – the youngest child and only son of a well-known Peruvian politician – was once the lead singer of a heavy-metal group. In fact, in his late forties, the chef exudes rock star edge, with longish hair and a shabby-chic fashion sense that only endears him more to his public. Educated at le Cordon Bleu in Paris and married to a German, Astrid Gutsche, he opened his first restaurant in Lima in 1994, applying classic technique and modern thought to his country's native ingredients. The result was his support of cocina novoandina, or neo-Andean cuisine, a novel approach incorporating Peru's most beloved and abundant ingredients: fish, citrus, quinoa, potatoes and chilli peppers (particularly the yellow chilli pepper, ají amarillo).
Octopus and calamari a la plancha with crushed potatoes, antichuchera, chimichurri and choclo
Acurio then set out not to conquer the world, but to prove to it that Peruvian fare is worth the same consideration that gastronomes pay to French, Chinese, Japanese and Italian cuisine, because of the availability of pure, raw ingredients and because of the country's culture. 'Peruvians are born to be chefs,' he claimed. 'Everybody loves to discover new things, so this is the right time for us to share.'
If you look at the growth of Peruvian restaurants in Miami alone, Acurio has proved to be correct. A decade ago, there was a handful. Today, there are around 200, ranging from cebicherías to family run and upscale. The worldwide accolades given to Peruvian cuisine may have assisted the growth, but so too has the relaxing of immigration and travel regulations. It is easier for Peruvians to move to cities like Miami where there is already a large Peruvian community. In turn, the growing exposure has led to a greater interest in visiting new foodie capital Lima.
'It's not that Peru is “the best”,' says Acurio. 'Tokyo, Paris, New York, Barcelona – a lot are “the best”. But if you ask somebody now which culinary destination they want to discover, it is Peru. We're now part of a movement, which is why it is important that we don't just do a good restaurant here, but we do a great restaurant.'
The Cebiche bar where food is prepared in front of guests
Acurio is earnest and sincere. Even though this is his third restaurant to open in the United States – he has one in San Francisco and another in Chicago – he speaks without condescension. You can't help but wonder how a revered chef from the English-speaking world would react, having to explain his cuisine to foreign journalists time and again.
Like Miami – and Acurio – Peruvian fare is a masterful blend of cultural and ethnic influences. European explorers and their slave cultures had the first impact on the native community, followed by Sephardic Jewish and Muslim refugees fleeing the Inquisition. Japanese and Chinese immigrants in turn held such sway – first with street food, then in homes, and finally with restaurants – that nicknames developed for these food cultures: Nikkei for Japanese and Chifa for Chinese.
Whole jumbo prawn anticuchos with basil pesto, rocoto garlic butter and potatoes
It makes sense that La Mar has an extensive menu that veers from causa (a unique, whipped potato appetiser flavoured and topped with delicacies ranging from olives to octopus) to chaufa (pan-fried rice, Chinese sausage, roast pork, shrimp omelette, pickled vegetables and sweet soy sauce, all cut up and mixed together at the table for the guest). Specialties include lomo saltado (strips of beef stir-fried with peppers and onions, then served with French fries over white rice) and paiche (Amazonian fish) with tamarind sauce. So whether you fancy a salad bursting with ají vinaigrettes, or a pork empanada or two, or a big, soothing, but still highly flavoured, bowl of parihuela (fish soup), La Mar awaits.
But at La Mar, as in Peru, cebiche always reigns supreme. 'We're very lucky that in Peru we have an amazing Pacific area, with maybe more variety than anywhere else. [Seafood] is our calling card, we depend on our product,' says Acurio. 'And it is the responsibility of the chef to represent the fisherman and do great things to great product.'
Peruvian Fortunato chocolate mousse with caramelised Andean grains and lúcuma fruit ice bombs
Which is why at Acurio's Miami restaurant the menu reflects the national obsession with raw fish and shellfish, quickly cured in leche de tigre, the basic marinade of lime (and sometimes other citrus fruit), various ajís (chilli peppers) and flavourings (from onions to soy sauce). Garnishes range from chunks of boiled sweet potato to toasted corn-nut-like cancha. Then there's cebiche's Japanese cousin tiradito, which differs by way of knife cut. More like sashimi, tiradito is thinner and flatter than the chunks used in a cebiche, and the sauce is typically put on the top rather than mixed in with the fish and garnishes.
Clientele familiar with cebiche and tiradito shouldn't expect average presentation, however. Acurio and his executive chef, Diego Oka, who handles day-to-day duties at La Mar, look at their produce in the same way that an interior designer sources furniture. First, they find the best suppliers and producers available, and continually strive not only to improve both quality and variety, but also to give credit where it is due. 'Every day we try to search, to connect with the fishermen,' Acurio says. 'When something is good, 99 per cent of the time, the chef is the one who gets the recognition. A lot of people forget where the food comes from; it is the fisherman and the farmer who do the great things.'
On my visit there wasn't an ingredient out of place
Then, of course, there is the design. To a less critical eye, tossing together a cebiche is hardly like decorating the White House. But to Acurio and Oka, if a tiny tangle of microplaned sweet potato teeters off a scallop, it is as disastrous as an interior designer incorrectly positioning a cushion on a sofa.
On my visit to La Mar, however, there wasn't an ingredient out of place; take, for instance, the cebiche sampler, which is certainly the way to go if you can't make up your mind between flavours. The clásico (fluke, red onions, cilantro, ají limo and choclo), criollo (squid, scallop, yellowtail snapper, ají amarillo and cancha) and Nikkei (tuna, red onion, nori, daikon, avocado, cucumber and tamarind) vary in hue and intensity – in general, the darker the colour, the more concentrated the flavour – but each was masterful in its textural play. The vibrancy of the leche de tigre also wakes up the palate, preparing it for additional spice to come in, say, the form of mussels steamed open in a zesty ají amarillo broth, followed by a crisp, deep-fried whole fish of the day. The dark Peruvian-Japanese sauce accompanying the fish (usually a snapper) features a zing more often associated with Szechuan cuisine – so keep your drink handy.
La Mar's south terrace catches a welcome ocean breeze
Alongside La Mar's choice of more than a dozen succulent and stylish cebiche and tiradito options, including those with Nikkei (daikon, soy) and Chifa (sesame, peanuts, wonton strips) influences, there are several areas in which to appreciate them. For the most authentic experience, sit at the cebiche bar and watch the chefs slice and dice to order.
La Mar's executive chef, Diego Oka
Elsewhere inside the Nathan/Pereira Arquitectura-designed interior is a rustic, spacious, service-oriented café, with two additional bars. The first, a cocktail bar, is a terrific quieter alternative to the upstairs MO Bar + Lounge (which often showcases Latin jazz) and is already well known for its variety of pisco sours. The pisco, a Peruvian grape brandy, can be complemented here with tangy guava or passion fruit, although traditionalists may have theirs classically done, shaken only with lime, bitters and egg white. Variations include a delightful pisco punch mixed with pineapple cordial, offering a sweeter profile, and the chilcano de pisco with zippy ginger beer. The cocktails are garnished with fresh flowers, but don't be fooled – there's muscle underneath those pretty petals.
In the second bar, guests can make like Limeños and order anticuchos, the name for grilled, skewered street fare. This set-up provides an alternative vibe – a quick, tapas type of dinner. But the food – the mouthwatering whole jumbo prawns with basil pesto and rocoto garlic butter, say, or the intensely delicious asparagus with ají amarillo potato cream, garlic chips and botija olive tapenade – belie the more casual presentation.
Sit at the cebiche bar and watch the chefs slice and dice to order
Alfajores with dulce de leche, lúcuma, coffee, chocolate and peanut
During the summer, which in Miami lingers until mid-autumn, sitting inside is advised. But at night and during the cooler months, scoring seats on the waterside terrace designed by award-winning architecture and interior design firm Arquitectonica will be a hard-won victory. Here, the accompanying light ocean breeze will blow away every last care.
'It is an amazing space,' Acurio says of the restaurant, which is the only one in the United States that so far bears his name. 'This connection to the ocean, it gives flavour to the spirit and the soul. I am so honoured and happy to have this small “Peruvian embassy” here.'
If La Mar is a consulate, then Acurio is its diplomat. There is, perhaps, a hint of the politician in the chef as well. 'Traditional or avant-garde, farmer or fisherman, we all work together, for the hotel, for the city, for the culture,' Acurio says, referring to his team. 'Right now, Peruvian fare is having one of its hottest moments. But we need to be united, to make sure that it's not just a moment, that it is for ever.'