Peruvian cuisine has crept up on the London restaurant scene with three recent openings in the past year; indeed, the whispered word on the lips of the online food brigade at the moment is that speciality from Peru – ceviche. The last time I had ceviche was a few years ago at The Ledbury; the dish was let down by its sharp citrus marinade and gelatinous texture. A huge disappointment for two star cooking. I’d been put off ever since. But being older and wiser, it was time to give ceviche another go. So of the three new Peruvian restaurants, we chose newest kid on the block, Lima, to tickle our South American tastebuds. And tickled they were.
Ignore the charming but overpriced Charlotte Street Hotel bar down the road, and head straight to Lima to sample their Latin-influenced aperitifs – the pisco sours are, apparently, excellent, so said the next-door table. Talk about cocktail envy… The bar in the basement is dark and dingy, so ask for a banquette upstairs. Much attention to detail has been spent on decoration; from the autumnal colours and theme of brilliant blue running throughout, to the open kitchen and glassware on the tables; the result is fun and lively. For sure, chef-proprietor Virgilio Martinez has managed to capture a bit of his hometown in the heart of Fitzrovia. Some might think it over-the-top, but the place demands that you don’t treat it too seriously, and is a welcome relief from the stuffiness of some of the other restaurants in the area.
To start, sea bream ceviche, white tiger’s milk, sweet onion skin, inka corn (£8) was spot on: perfectly balanced tiger’s milk (lime juice, chillies, salt and pepper) and beautifully flakey fish. A nice touch being the little pot of crunchy corn on the side. The Ledbury’s got nothing on this, and I’m eating ceviche once again. Win-win I think. Braised octopus al olivo, white quinoa, Botija olive bubbles (£10) was visually spectacular. A generous amount of sliced and charred tentacle (with a most unusual meatiness) sat on well-cooked earthy grains, and purple blobs of intense black olive were dotted around the plate. A beautiful dish, and a benchmark for future octopus to aspire to. It was delicious. Finally, artichoke with green lime, fava beans, tree tomato emulsion, molle pink pepper and radish (£8) was another supremely pretty plate. Certainly not just a token vegetarian option; the creamy tomato emulsion gave it a depth of flavour comparable to the pescetarian starters. The artichokes were, however, slightly too al dente. The only glaring weakness was the wholemeal and white breads, which weren’t particularly fresh, and their accompaniments – chilli butter and a red pepper relish – which promised so much, but delivered so little.
Main of halibut, andean herbs, cancha corn parfait, mirasol aioli (£18) was proclaimed to be ‘one of the best fish dishes’ my companion had ever had. Again, a pretty plate – but we’d come to expect this by now, of course – and such powerful flavours from a delicate fish. A wonderful garlicky-chilli kick didn’t hold back either. Evidently, head chef Robert Ortiz knows his way around El Mar, but how does he fare with La Tierra? Well, suckling pig, roasted amazonian cashew, lentils and pear (£20) was the standout dish. The two triangles of confit pork, topped with crackling, were perfectly cooked. The pulses – often dry and chalky – were soft and plump, and they quashed my worries about their unsuitability as a bedding-partner to pork. As is so important with a fatty meat, fruity acidity was provided by a neat pear smear. Best pork ever? Probably.
Desserts might have been great anywhere else, but were a bit of a let down after such a start. Cacao porcelana 75%, mango, blue potato (£8) was icy cold, and thus failed to deliver the 75% it promised. I’d say we got about 20%. And you haven’t heard of blue potato crisps for a reason. They’re unpleasant. Equally disappointing was the Chanchamayo coffee, coca leaf, chancaca, olive oil (£6) – a tarted-up coffee ice cream – which, again, was lacking on any big flavour.
The wine list offers a handful of varietals from all over the globe, at prices to suit most pockets. As is pleasing to see, wine was available by glass, carafe and bottle. Personally, I would have liked the restaurant to focus on the excellent range of wine South America has to offer, but it’s still early days, and cocktails – as is the rage – seem to be more their thing. A tart, unremarkable chablis (£32.50 for 500ml) complemented the difficult-to-match starters, but was a little on the expensive side. A rioja crianza 2007 (£6 for 125ml), however, was an excellent match for the suckling pig. Always trust the rioja/pork combination. Service – rushed off its feet that evening – was generally pleasant and efficient, but a few things were amiss: we were slow to be served first-off, and coffees were not brought with desserts, as asked. But these points were noticed and apologised for. However, more explanation is needed for the more confusing elements to the menu; huayro potatoes 4000 metres, for instance.
I expect that we’ll be hearing more of South America over the next four years due to (cover your ears) the Olympics in Brazil. This restaurant clearly has a lot to offer in culinary terms, much of which we haven’t really experienced over here before, but the food isn’t quite straying into the top category. This, however, shouldn’t put you off. Lima might be a highly polished, if squeaky doorway into the realm of Peruvian cooking, but a doorway it is nonetheless. I’ve shown you where it is, now you know what to do…
Lima, Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia
24th August 2012, £169 for three (with service)
Food: 8, Service: 7, Ambience: 8