328 The Embarcadero, SF, CA 94111 | 415.397.8880 | website
I’ve walked by this intriguingly modern and sleek awning many times and finally made plans to come here for happy hour with Libby and Chris after work. It’s located at Pier 1½ along the Embarcadero, a couple doors down from the famous Ferry Building and the sprawling restaurant includes a bar, a cebiche bar, the main dining room as well as an outside patio that offers lovely views of the bay. Much has been written about this American outpost of celebrity chef Gastón Acurio’s empire that opened a year ago, and having never sampled Peruvian cuisine, I was excited to at last be able to taste the famous cebiche that chef Acurio hopes will rival the popularity of Japanese sushi one day. Cebiche (aka ceviche, seviche) is raw fish or other kinds of seafood, flash-cooked by the acid of limón tossed with red onion and chili pepper.
We started off in the bar where Chris enjoyed a Pisco Sour that I forgot to take a picture of… but visit my friend Single Guy Ben’s post on his summer of Pisco Sours which features many excellent photos of the famous South American cocktail. Note: he rates the Pisco Sour at La Mar #1!
Libby enjoyed the Chicha Morada ($5) which is an unusual drink made from boiling purple corn with fruit and spices. It tastes both sharp and fruity, spicy and tart.
I had the Inca Kola ($4) was not at all what I expected, especially the bright yellow color! It’s flavored with lemon verbena, but tastes like bubble gum and was very sweet. It is reputed to be Peru’s most popular soda.
The restaurant was designed by Cass Calder Smith’s CCS Architecture (Restaurant LuLu, Plant Cafe Organic, Perbacco and the Lake Chalet). The main dining room has soaring ceilings and is full of bright windows accented by stately palms and brilliant blue chairs that makes you feel like you’re in faraway tropical land.
We sat in a cozy nook behind the cebiche bar, which was quiet and perfect for us to be able to dine and chat, versus the bar which was very loud. We also seemed to have our own personal server, who had piercing blue eyes and an enchanting spanish accent…. He was there before we even turned around to look for him.
We were served a basket of fried chips (potato, sweet potato and plantain) along with three different sauces made with aji amarillo, a delicate but piquant pepper that is used in the cebiche; aji panca, an earthy dried chili; and aji rocoto, a fiery red chili.
Chiles are one of the main pillars of Peruvian cuisine, they lend heat but not too much for my notoriously wimpy tolerance, and lots of great flavor.
Cebiche is something of a national obsession; there are 2,000 cebicherias in Lima alone. Here is the cebiche bar, which showcases the catch of the day just like a sushi bar. The approach is different however, because the actual slicing and dicing occurs elsewhere, so those who sit at the bar might be disappointed if they are expecting an experience like that in a sushi bar. But, the restaurant provides sushi quality fish in their celebrated cebiche, sparkling fresh and practically still kicking.
We decided to try the Cebiche Tasting ($28), which offers four very different types of cebiche, each bursting with fresh and vibrant flavor. You can order a shot of leche de tigre which is the liquid that results from making the various cebiche. This bracing runoff is served with chili pepper and a little bit of pisco or other alcoholic drinks like vodka or white wine. It’s believed that it has aphrodisiac properties, and has been used as a hangover cure and all around stimulant (thus the name, Tiger’s Milk).
I will show you the four types of ceviche we enjoyed. Mixto, combines Mahi Mahi, calamari, octopus and habanero pepper in ají amarillo leche de tigre with cilantro, red onion, Peruvian corn and yam.
Chifa (Mahi Mahi with peanuts, scallions, ginger, pickled carrots and daikon, mango, habanero, wonton strips and cilantro in pineapple leche de tigre). This borrowed flavors from Chinese cuisine and had a sweet and sour flavor that was nicely brightened by the ginger, scallions and cilantro.
I had to smile when I saw Nikkei, which means of Japanese descent, and this was my favorite. Chunks of Ahi Tuna, red onion, Japanese cucumber, in tamarind leche de tigre. The combination the flavors usually found in sushi dishes worked very well as a cebiche. The use of soy sauce and ahi tuna is so common like that of ketchup and french fries, but the bright flavors of the tamarind, lime and peppers and the subtle aura of sesame oil creates a fresh vibrant flavor with every bite.
The Clásico (California Halibut and red onions in habanero pepper leche de tigre with Peruvian corn and yam).
On a subsequent visit, I tried a half order of the Verde with Jalapeno ($10). It was a delicious mixture of Mahi Mahi, calamari, octopus, shrimp, red onion, habanero, cilantro, and celery, in a jalapeño leche de tigre.
The flavors of the seafood were nicely accented by the contrasts of the sharp lime and the peppery jalapeno, my favorite bites were the calamari. It melted in my mouth and I meticulously picked through the plate to make sure that I didn’t miss a single piece.
Aji panca is also the key ingredient in anticuchos, the Peruvian version of kebabs. It’s a mild red chile pepper with a smoky flavor. Traditionally made with beef heart, anticuchos are marinated in a mix of vinegar, garlic, cumin and aji panca, then grilled. I was mesmerized by the flavors of the marinade, it was spicy and got all over my fingers when I picked up the skewer. It really was finger licking good.
Anticuchos de Pulpo ($16), grilled octopus skewers, served over herbed mashed potato with chimichurri sauce and ají panca. I was so tormented by the memory of this dish that I had to come back for lunch and order this agin the next week!
The spicy mixture was topped by a zesty chimichurri sauce that really made my taste buds wake up and pay attention to what was going on.
Grilled Mahi Mahi skewers ($12), served over peruvian corn along with thick slices of fried potatoes and salsa panchita. This single skewer had big pieces of meaty mahi mahi, one for each of us. I really liked the fried potato slices, they were cooked just like fries, crispy on the outside, tender and silky on the inside.
I must also point out the choclo, which is included in many of the dishes. It is like corn but the kernels are much larger and very starchy. It resembles hominy and was served mixed with fresh herbs and was fantastic drizzled with the fiery rocoto chile sauce.
We didn’t make it to dessert, nor did we try anything beyond cebiche and anticuchos… but the few dishes we sampled beckon me to come back to explore Chef Acurio’s modern take on the culinary traditions of Peru.