thursday, april 13, 2006

Astrid y Gaston

Peruvian Chef Gaston Acurio has long been the brightest star in the Peruvian culinary firmament and his fame is steadily growing internationally.

His restaurants are popping up across North and South America but the heart of his cooking philosophy can still be found in his original storefront, Astrid y Gaston, tucked away in a corner the Miraflores section of Lima. This is the restaurant that was recognized as the 3rd best in Latin America and the 74th in the world by The World's 50 Best Restaurants.

Named for he and his wife, the restaurant opened more than a decade ago and has been a mainstay in the Lima culinary scene ever since. There are already branches in Santiago, Quito and Bogotá and plans are in the works to open new ones in Panama City, and Mexico City.

Acurio represents a new trend in cooking that moves away from the hyper stylized techniques that was in vogue during much of the 1990s and a return to more authentic cooking styles and ingredients, both of which Peru is particularly bountiful. Since becoming the premier chef of Peru he doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen of Astrid & Gaston but his unique stamp remains on every dish served there.

The exterior of Astrid y Gaston is surprisingly unremarkable. Although it is around the corner from my apartment, I didn’t recognize it for several weeks and then it came as a shock. But once you go through the doors you enter a luxurious restaurant where every point of the dining experience has been thought out and prepared.

The main dining room is airy and comfortable but has that touch of bustle you expect from a Peruvian establishment. The splashes of color melt seamlessly into the warm décor. Dining in the wine room is somewhat more intimate although not to the point of isolation.

The meal starts off with a basket of various fresh breads and a wonderful mango chutney that takes an act of will not to devour completely. It’s a great prelude for the meal to come but it’s best to have a whetted appetite rather than a dulled one. The dining begins in earnest with the appetizers and they pack a punch.

The dish named "Infancia" (or "Childhood") was particularly glorious. Shrimp and calamari layered in a tamarind sauce highlighted with peanuts. The skill of the chef is evident as the freshness of the shrimp bursts forth from the subtly sweet folds of the sauce. In his menu description, Acurio explains it as a medley of memories from his youth; peanuts from the stadium, tamarind from corner Chinese restaurants and the molasses candy sold by the vendors that gather in front of schools when they let out every day.

The food at Astrid and Gaston is noted for its uncanny ability to move beyond simply the tastes of the dish and envelop the diner in a sensory waterfall of textures, smells and colors. This dish is an exemplar on how good they have become at achieving this lofty goal.

Another excellent appetizer was "Miniatura" which was, logicically, a miniature version of the Peruvian staple Arroz con Pato with the breast of duck on a button of Tacu Tacu. Sweet red onions and a basil sauce highlight the organic and earthy flavors. The dish took this staple of Criollo cooking and fuses them into a powerful single punch.

The effort is also a good example of Acurio’s signature style. Trained in French cooking he originally tried to bring that cuisine to Peru but gradually changed his approach to use that training but also to embrace the broad spectrum of Peruvian cooking traditions and ingredients.

His genius was in recognizing Peru’s strength as a hodgepodge of different styles that, in turn, can be melded with other styles. That approach is clearly evident in the main dishes such as the confit of duck. The preserved duck leg is presented on a creamy risotto that is clearly drawing on the acme of French and Italian cuisine but its preparation is reminiscent of the Peruvian cooking staple Arroz con Pollo.

It’s a wonderful dish but it is the roast suckling pig that is nothing more than a revelation. I have rarely – if ever – consumed a dish that actually merited the description "melts in your mouth" but that is exactly the effect this one has.

The 3-week old pigs never weigh more than 6 lbs. and are bred at a special farm north of Lima. They are prepared as a confit and semi-lacquered. The slightly sweet roast sauce boasts hints of cinnamon and is a perfect base for your palette to appreciate the natural rich sweetness of the meat. It is accompanied with portions of Tacu Tacu and blood sausage. While these provide a respite from the richness of the main dish they are delicious in their own right.

After such a sumptuous repast, desert seems to be an impossibility but to overlook it would be criminal. The chocolate truffles with ice cream simply explodes with chocolate richness making one thankful for the more soothing delights of the ice cream are nearby to restore calm before heading forth again.

Astrid y Gaston also boasts one of the best wine selections in Lima and is a great place to venture into the often-overlooked world of South American wines.

The service is impeccable and prepared to answer every question you may have about the food and the restaurant. Astrid y Gaston is, as one business magazine put it "a hub for business diners and the upper echelon of Limena society." (Insistent cell phones are the only real sour note to the experience.) So expect to pay fine-dining prices.

Astrid y Gaston
Cantuarias 175
Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Phone: 51 1 444-1496 / 51 1 242-5387
Open: Monday - Saturday, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., 7:45 to 11:45 p.m.

more:  Food | Restaurant Reviews 

posted by kleph @ 4:07 pm |

comment posted by: Felipe Valenzuela on november 28, 2006 @ 2:49 pm
I completely agree this is the BEST Latin American restaurant. I only disliked the fact that after a 10% service charge, which is included as the total in the check, they expect an additional 10% to be paid preferably in cash. It seems Gaston is not giving his employees the tip!! Did you had the same experience?
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