2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage

2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage
VIVA CUENCA

VIVA CUENCA!

My mission in publishing this blog is first to provide a living history of my settlement and life in Cuenca, and to provide myself and the reader with a journal account delineating my reasons for why I have chosen to settle in Cuenca. Second, the posts are my way of staying in contact with family and friends back in the states, and to provide them with an understanding of a country and culture that most North Americans have little knowledge and awareness. Third, the blog is open to one and all who wish to compare and contrast the experiences of expat bloggers living in Cuenca, so that you can determine whether or not from your perspective Cuenca is an appropriate move for you. Fourth, my blog provides another example of how expats view and interpret life in Cuenca. Ecuadorians and Cuencanos who may read this blog are especially invited to post comments that may enhance all expats understanding and appreciation of Cuneca and its people, or to correct any misinterpretations in my assumptions and perceptions of Cuencano culture. Finally, I hope I can convey the feeling of love and appreciation that grows within me each passing day for this heavenly city nestled in the Andes and its very special people.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

LIVING IN CUENCA, ECUADOR AND DINING IN LIMA, PERU





One of the many perks to living in Ecuador is the easy travel to other countries in South America.  In the last year I took advantage of that perk by traveling to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina for five weeks.  I also spent a prolonged weekend traveling by bus with other expats from Cuenca to the coastal town of Mancora in Peru; where there was surprisingly very good food, as well as sun-drenched beaches.  In July, this year, I traveled with friends, Doyle Beard and Nancy Thalman, to Lima, Peru for eight nights.  On impulse of suggestion, we decided one afternoon while dining at Aji Rocoto in Cuenca to procure our airline tickets from Guayaquil to Lima for the approximately two hour flight, and two weeks later we were in Lima.


Suddenly, the three of us invested time in a Google crash-course on Lima.  We had a list of restaurants, museums, historical tours, and other activities with the hope of encompassing as much as we could in eight days.  We were further helped with assistance from Michael Wagner, the young owner and chef of the recently opened Aji Rocoto in Cuenca, which in my opinion, is the most exciting gourmet restaurant in Cuenca today.  Michael is from Lima, and a graduate of the Cordon Bleu Academy in that city.  Who better to guide us through the labyrinth of Lima culinary delights than Michael.  Michael's suggestions as not only where to eat, but also what dishes he recommended as the house specialties at the various Lima restaurants proved to be invaluable.

Why the big deal about cuisine in Lima, Peru?  During this decade, Lima has become one of the gastronomical capitals of international cuisine.  The fusion of Peruvian and Japanese cooking with their emphasis on fresh seafood in particular, has caught the International eye as gourmet restaurants now present this fusion fare to the haute cuisine big city markets throughout South America, Europe and the United States.  Peru, like Ecuador and Chile, is along the western South American coast; all of which are blessed with the freshest, least contaminated, and greatest abundance of seafood that can be found anywhere in the world.  

You may be wondering why this unusual pairing of a Peruvian fusion with Japanese cooking?  Simply, there are a large number of Japanese who have settled in Lima over the years, and Japan being a series of large islands traditionally has focused it dining habits around seafood as well.

An emerging practice in the gourmet restaurant realm is the world-wide franchising of fine-dining experiences into a standardize form of high quality.  Gourmet for some restaurateurs has become big business.  Astrid Gutsche and Gaston Acurio, the wife and husband team who trained in Paris, made their way to Lima, and contributed highly to Lima's current cuisine reputation as they opened Astrid and Gaston in Lima, one of the top five restaurants in Lima, usually ranking two or three in most ratings.  Some ratings rank it as the best in South America. 

The Acurios have franchised their culinary delights to many major cities in South America, the United States and Europe, further developing parallel restaurant chains in gourmet areas like Italian and Chinese as well.  These restaurants are ranked highly by food critics, and a recent restaurant opening in New York City cost its investors eight million dollars to open.  Nice deal for Astrid and Gaston, as they provide the brand and the formula without the economic risk.  

A standardize product is sent to the various restaurants around the world, and it becomes each individual chef’s responsibility to prepare and cook the prepared sauces without deviation to guarantee the  standardization of the product, while the actual combination and proportions of ingredients in the recipes remain concealed and protected from theft and duplication.  If the franchise financially fails, the corporate owners (in this case the Ascurios or their corporate company) do not take the hit, but the investors in the individual franchise do.  It’s a really sweet financial arrangement.  Of course, standards and new products and revisions must come from the international kitchen to insure quality, novel dishes, and refinement of dishes with a new flair to attract new customers and retain repeat customers.  Otherwise, the entire franchise can be in jeopardy, once it's reputation for quality is jeopardized or changes in taste are not accommodated. 

Noe is an example of a chain of fine-dining sushi restaurants in South America.  In Ecuador, Noe is located in Cuenca, as well as in Guayaquil, and in Quito.  I have found Noe to be very good; and  among the best with what I have eaten in some of the best sushi places in Chicago, Baltimore, California, and Hawaii. I don't pretend to know all about the nuances of sushi and sashimi, or how authentic places like Noe are with traditional Japanese sushi.  

 Noe Sushi Bar in Cuenca, Ecuador

I doubt authenticity of any cuisine in this day-and-age is possible as there is no one standard traditional Mexican, or Italian, or Thai, or Japanese cuisine.  Even in their countries of origin, there is such a variation of food preparations and tastes over time, from region to region, and among the various cooks within even the same neighborhood--similarities of preparation and taste, but each cook with his or her own personal touch.  

I doubt most people who generally patronize fine-dining establishments are able to tell the difference from a restaurant that offers a standardize meal to one that does not, as long as the aroma, and the flavor and texture to the palate is found to be tantalizing and satisfying.  The ambiance, the service, and the artistic presentation of dishes can all be the complement to good food, whether it is a standardized dish of preparation or created from scratch in the kitchen.  For better or for worse, standardization of gourmet food is increasingly becoming the norm.  Hopefully, however, there will continue to be a place for the individual chef operating from an individually owned restaurant as well.  I do feel sorry for a chef with a creative touch, who is impeded by the restrictions of following a formula dictated from afar.  Creativity is the difference between being an authentic chef and just being a cook who follows a set recipe.

Obviously, to be a creative chef in a large gourmet chain requires working out of the corporate head-quarter's molecular kitchen, which often looks like a cross between a science lab and a conventional kitchen.  Such chefs today need to have a background in chemistry to go along with whatever natural talents they have to produce whatever innovative product is needed to satisfy the tastings of the intended clientele or focus group in this increasingly new age of molecular gastronomy.

Since my friends and I made a spur-of-a-moment decision to travel to Lima, we were unable to dine at the Numeral Uno restaurante in Lima, which is Central led by owner and chef, Virgilio MartinezCentral is not only rated the best in Lima, but fourth in the world, and has earned a Michelin star.  Martinez is renowned for using new types of herbs and bacterial plant life unbeknown to culinary cooking until his innovating introductions. Reservations need to be procured weeks if not months in advance.  So if planning a gourmet tour to Lima, and you want to experience the restaurant with a reputation for Lima's best, I would encourage you to initiate reservations at least two months in advance.  We met an Australian couple who attempted to book reservations after they arrived in Lima, and they were told the restaurant was booked for the next six weeks.

While we were unable to dine at Central, we did visit Astrid and Gaston, under the culinary direction of Chef Diego Munoz, who offers a thirty-three course themed sample menu in the restaurant’s staid dining area.  We decided to forgo the sampler dinner and dined in a more casual room, La Barra, where we could order from the regular menu, and do what the three of us often did, either share are  plates or offer samples from our plates, so we could experience a variety of dishes even if at times only for a taste.  Seafood was definitely our fare for the afternoon. Unfortunately, with the loss of my camera, I no longer had photos of our dishes to post.  Luckily, at least Nancy had a couple of photos of the interior

                      

 

The La Barra dining room at Astrid and Gaston was very busy when we arrived.  We were among the last to leave.  The bar is partially viewed above, but the open kitchen area further to the left is not visible in this photo.
 

Nancy especially was taken with the ceiling design.  Notice that these are live plants that are hanging from their pots inversely from the ceiling.

We had among our appetizers, octopus.  Now, I've never had octopus except from Chinese buffets, where the octopus inevitably was the texture of rubber.  Often even with squid, it is difficult to find a restaurant preparation which delivers a tenderized squid.  Astrid and Gaston delivered an appendage of octopus that was about four or five inches long with a thickness of approximately an inch-an-a-half that was out-of-this-world delicious, and remarkably tender as well.  It was truly cooked to perfection.  Nancy and I also had a very good fillet of white fish, which was one of the best I have ever had.  Nancy liked it as well, but would have preferred that the sauce had a touch of lemon to it.

Malabar, with its well-known chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, is also ranked highly as one of Lima's top gourmet restaurants.  All of us dined on some very good seafood dishes and were not disappointed.  Chef Pedro puts his expertise to work, as he is known in Lima as its best chef for applying the dishes and fresh herbs of the Amazon to the palates of his clientele.  He has a reputation for always exploring new opportunities for new tastes and flavors.  



The yucca cheese bread called casabe (the round balls), and yucca cracklings were oh so delicioso.  They came with a house prepared Aji Negro and Brazil Nut Cheese, which was the perfect spread.





   Doyle had the Corvina of the Day with Clams (above photo)




    I had the Smoked Amazonian Paiche Fish with fresh palm salad,
    tropical red wild mushrooms, and fermented plantain juice.


  
Nancy had Homemade Noodles, Roasted Pig, and Crisp Mushrooms.


The first restaurant on our tour provided a very good meal, but did not appear on any critic's top ten restaurants in Lima.  Cafe del Museo, located in the Larco Herrera Museum, which is in a beautiful garden setting; and there we began our plunge into the delectable delights of fresh Peruvian seafood fusion dishes. 

Nancy had Spaghetti A La Huancaina Sauce with Shrimp in a creamy mild aji pepper and cheese sauce, topped with fried shrimp breaded in panko flakes.  I had Moche Steamed Sea Bass in a clay pot, served in its own juices with mild Peruvian spices, and accompanised by yucca.

Cafe del Museo with its indoor and extensive outdoor terrace furthered enhanced our meal by the fact that on this particular evening we practically had the place to ourselves.

 

 
             
Cafe del Museo, part of the Astrid and Gaston Gourmet Food Empire


One evening, we also dined at Las Bruges de Cachiche, which ranked as the third best restaurant in Lima on Virtual Tour.  The restaurant is located in a very large old mansion that has been converted into its current stateliness.  It was the single most attractive restaurant in our Peruvian dining experience.  The restaurant provided large open spaces that gave the appearance of separate dining areas as the spaces where divided by right angles, and by various height levels to the different eating spaces.  A grand piano was also on site.  We were amazed at how busy they were for a Tuesday evening.

Cerviche is a tradition from Mexico southward through all of South America.  Ecuadorian cerviche is prepared more in a broth, keeping with the Ecuadorian tradition of making fine soups.  Peruvian cerviche is not of a broth consistency.  Cerviche can be identified by various names dependent upon the type of fish or other seafood that is used in its making.  We had some very good cerviche at Las Bruges de Cachiche.  Cerviche is almost always served cold whether it is of Ecuadorian or Peruvian preparation.  However, the absolute best cerviche we ever had would be served to us the next day at Fiesta's Restaurant in Lima, and it would be served hot on Plantain leaves.  Once again at Las Bruges de Cachiche, the three of us dined on seafood delights, and Nancy very much enjoyed her Lobster Thermidor (below):



Almost all of our meals involved a focus on seafood, even when we ordered pasta dishes.  Corvina is a generic term used in South America for any variety of some 270 species of drum fish and croaker fish, which can be found all over the world.  Other varieties like tuna, or salmon, or trucha (trout) are often designated separately from corvina.  Lima is abundant in its use of fresh shell-fish as well, which is my favorite kind of seafood.  All of our seafood dishes were very good.  We certainly had no complaint with their preparation and variations of sauces.

While all of our seafood dinners were wonderful; Doyle, Nancy, and I unanimously agreed without a moment's hesitation that the absolutely two best meals we had in Lima were at Carnal and at Fiesta, and neither dinners were seafood.  The aforementioned restaurants were very good, the two to follow were outstandingly excellent.

Carnal is an excellent restaurant for steak anywhere in the world.  After five years of not enjoying a high quality steak in Ecuador, Carnal was an absolutely incredible blessing.  


 Kobe New York Strip Steak

From our New York Strip cuts of Kobe beef to our Angus beefs, the steaks were extraordinaire.  Broiled to perfection, and oh so tender.  Doyle and Nancy are from Houston, Texas, so they know something about good steaks.  They said their steaks were the best they've had anywhere in South America during the five years they have lived on the continent.  I especially enjoyed the fact that my  steak was served with fat along the edges, the way American steaks prior to the 1980's were served before some Americans became health conscious and foolishly were led to believe that all fat was bad for them.  The sizzle in the flavor and tenderness of the steak is in the fat.  




Our time at Carnal was a special day as we celebrated with Doyle his 85th birthday.
  
Our last full-day in Lima was enjoyed with another meal that truly was outstanding, which was Fiesta.  What a heightened way to end our gourmet tour of Lima's gastronomical treasures!  The restaurant was packed for its afternoon dining.  We partook of the best cerviche we ever experienced, followed by goat ribs braised with garlic, duck with rise chiclayo style, coriander, and famous loche squash.  Both dishes along with the hot cerviche were to die for. The cuisine at Fiesta is based on pre-Columbian northern Peruvian dishes known as chiclayo.

   

            The Hot Cerviche at Fiesta Restaurant


                 Jim at Fiesta Restaurant

What all of these restaurants had in common was very good service.  However, Carnal had a young waiter, I believe his name was Julio, whose service was exceptionally outstanding.  It was like he had a sixth sense, and just knew exactly what we needed and when we needed it.  He was always attentive, without hovering over us and making himself obtrusive, and he was never abrupt with us.  At one point Nancy began to cough repeatedly, but not for a prolonged time.  Julio was immediately there to provide her with a glass of water and placed a napkin under it without hesitation.  Nancy was very touched by his immediate and unsolicited response.

All the restaurants also had very good to excellent pisco sours (somewhat like a whiskey sour, only made from piscos (grapes), which is the national drink of Peru.  Fiesta had an excellent Passion Fruit (Mayacura) Sour that was out of this world.  Nancy and I imbibed on pisco drinks in practically every one of our restaurant settings.  Doyle was so thrilled to be able to order alcohol in Peru whose prices were not in the stratosphere like cocktail prices in Ecuador.  He loyally stayed with his Beefeater's gin, with each drink served over one large ice rock throughout all of his drinking endeavors.

I would characterized Peruvian cuisine as using recipes which are hundreds of years old, with spices that most Norte Americanos, Europeans, and Asians would have little if any familiarity.  Well on the other hand, the fusion dishes are innovative, as well as flavorful, and definitely not bland in taste.  Peruvian cuisine uses much in natural herbs and spices, but not in heat.

Obviously, since our visit to Lima was a gourmet tour for a brief period of time, we have no idea how Peruvian food tastes from regular "mom and pop" restaurants.  When I was in Italy earlier this year, it did not matter where one ate, it was next to impossible to have a bad meal.  Whether the same is true in Peru is an unanswered question for us.  Nor can we answer the question of how everyday meals in Peru compare with comparable meals in Ecuador. 
,
If there was a disappointment in our dining experience, it came with the desserts.  All the desserts were good, and some had an original flair to them; but none of them had that “wow” effect that made us feel “now that was truly outstanding”.

What most surprised the three of us was the relatively inexpensive price for such up-scale dining.   The cost of our average dinners with at least one appetizer, main entree, and dessert, not to mention two alcoholic drinks, and sometimes coffee, with tax, and with ten percent tip only cost us between fifty to one-hundred dollars apiece, dependent upon the restaurant and what we ordered.  I know from experience that it would have cost at least fifty per-cent to double in comparable restaurants in Chicago.  In the late 1990's, I paid one-hundred dollars for the set-meal price for an evening at Harry Trotter's, one of the top gourmet restaurants in the world during its time, and that did not include drinks, tax, or tips.

We can easily return to Lima tomorrow and visit six or eight new locations.  No doubt our new choices would be equally as tantalizing.  However, we would definitely return to Carnal and Fiesta.  Doyle, Nancy, and I hardly scratched the surface of the fine-dining scene in Lima, despite our best efforts.  We are just glad that living in Ecuador increased the likelihood that we would travel and explore other places in South America like Lima; and that for you foodies out there, we have provided you with a starting point in any consideration you may have in exploring the gourmet dining in Lima.


Part II:  What to See and Do in Lima Besides Eat, and Would I Live in Lima or Cuenca?