Monday, December 22, 2014

Cobaya Diego at La Mar

It was big news when Gaston Acurio – Peru's most famous and celebrated chef – decided to open a restaurant in Miami. But Acurio has literally dozens of restaurants around the world; he's clearly not cooking in all of them at the same time. At Miami's La Mar, the executive chef responsibilities fall to Diego Oka. In an Edible South Florida piece last year, I recounted Diego's introduction to Acurio as a nervous 16 year old peeking around the corner of a supermarket aisle. He was invited to visit Acurio's restaurant the next day, and pretty much never left. After working with Acurio in Peru, he opened La Mar Cebicheria Peruana in San Francisco with him, then came to Miami to open our own version of La Mar.

Perhaps unlike many other U.S. cities (including San Francisco), Peruvian cuisine is nothing new here. In fact, South Florida already had over 200 Peruvian restaurants when I last counted, as La Mar was opening. But there are few, if any, places, that show the same creativity and attention to ingredients as are on display at La Mar. We got a preview of what Diego could do when he went off-menu at our Cobayapalooza dinner in July, and were eager to see more.

Last week a small group of guinea pigs assembled on the patio behind La Mar in the Mandarin Oriental, overlooking the lights of downtown Brickell across a sliver of Biscayne Bay. After some Pisco Sours to set the mood, Diego served up seven courses that were simultaneously creative and grounded in Peruvian flavors.[1]

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Diego flickr set – apologies for the wonky artificial lighting, but the dark outdoor setting left me with no choice).

The menu started with a tiradito – a dish reflective of the mingling of local and Japanese food traditions that leads many to call Peruvian food the original "fusion cuisine" (indeed, el jefe Gaston Acurio recently published a book called "500 Years of Fusion"). Typically prepared with sashimi-style slices of raw fish that are then bathed in a ceviche-style citrus and chile bath, Diego's version here used slices of raw scallop, tongues of uni and brilliant orange salmon roe, all napped with a creamy rocoto chile leche de tigre.

Another modern iteration of a traditional Peruvian dish followed: a potato causa made with luridly hued purple potatoes, paired with blocks of seared tuna, a green mango chalaca sauce and crispy sweet potato strings.

(continued ...)

Oka followed that with some crispy smoked sweetbreads, served over a mound of creamy potato purée infused with the vibrant yellow hue and the fragrant, almost fruity heat of aji amarillo chiles. A soft egg, some crispy julienned potatoes, and a dab of herbaceous, bright green chimichurri completed the dish.

The next course was one of my favorites of the evening – a gigantic Nigerian prawn, served over quinoa "achupado,"[2] and a chunky lobster chupe, then topped with an ocopa sauce brightened with the Peruvian herb, huacatay,[3] and dots of fava bean foam.

Oka called his next dish "lobster a la piedra." A tranche of lobster in a stone bowl, together with a baton of crispy yuca, choclo, onions and – a big hot stone (to keep the dish warm) – was doused tableside with a warm leche de tigre broth for a hot take on ceviche. I would have never expected to like a hot ceviche, but I really enjoyed the lash of acidity this brought.

As a savory finale, the servers brought out massive butcher boards bearing gigantic, eight pound whole fried fish. Interspersed with the nuggets of fried fish were whole soft shell crabs, all doused in a sweet-sour-spicy Peruvian / Japanese sauce. Alongside, Oka served a fried rice topped with char siu style barbecue pork belly with a raw egg stirred in tableside, all in a hot stone bowl in the fashion of a Korean bimbimbap.

Dessert brought some drama as well, as the servers brought out pyramid-shaped boxes that looked like beehives. These were opened to unveil a series of stacked platters, each of which was topped with a creamy Peruvian chocolate mousse speckled with crispy quinoa and sesame seeds, and crowned with a lucuma bombe. I loved the contrast of textures here.

None of these dishes were particularly traditional, and yet they all still felt distinctly Peruvian. Diego's menu really highlighted a lot of what I enjoy about the cuisine: the interesting ingredients, the freshness of the flavors, the undercurrent of spice and acidity that anchors most dishes.

A big thank you to chef Diego Oka, as well as to all of the team at La Mar, for putting this dinner together and making it happen. And as always most of all, thank you to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these kind of events possible.

La Mar
500 Brickell Key Drive, Miami, Florida

[1] Thanks to the small group of guinea pigs for their patience in what turned out to be a long night. I think it was well after 11pm when we wrapped up. While I really enjoyed the food, and the night was perfect for outdoor dining, there were some lengthy gaps between courses and serving temperatures on some courses were not ideal. There were a lot of other diners on La Mar's patio that night and I suspect the crew may have been really pushing to keep up.

[2] I'm still trying to figure this one out. The literal translation Google gives me of "chupado" is "sucked". Dried?

[3] Peruvian "black mint," which is actually in the marigold family.

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