Last June my life forever changed when I fell in love with Peru. Spoiled by the comforts and familiarity of San Francisco, the city of Lima originally seemed overwhelming. Lima is a fierce city full of poverty, wealth, nightlife, art, and promise, making my version of San Francisco seem like the Disneyland of urban life. After being claimed by the Spaniards from the Incan empire in the 1500's, Lima prospered as an international trade city until the 1800's when the Bourbon Reforms were established by the Spanish crown in attempts to re-establish power over their colonies. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, Peru saw an increase in Chinese and Japanese immigrants, which has been reflected in their regional cuisine.
My favorite part of Lima was the Miraflores area. Here every part of life is colorful, from the plethora of dog parks to the Sunday rollerblading mobs. The muggy fog of the city opened up, allowing the fresh ocean breeze to flow through the streets of Miraflores. But what truly converted us to the area were the restaurants.
Every turn led us to another restaurant full of fresh cebiche and delicately crafted causas, which are whipped potatoes often topped with sauces and seafood. And then there was, of course, the national cocktail, the pisco sour, which ensured each meal was never shorter than an hour. I fell head over heels for the wide variety of tapas and their Asian influence. It is the kind of food you can eat until you are ready to pop, but still feel light and fresh afterwards. Nothing ruins a good meal more than the head fog preceding a food coma.
Eating at La Mar in San Francisco was necessary for us to reminisce on our last trip, prepare for my return to South America, and try to convince my sister to come visit me through her stomach. Our meal started with potato and plantain chips with two dipping sauces that reminded us of a Mark Rothko painting, and Michael Jackson's Billie Jean on the overhead speakers. We shared every part of the meal, including the drinks.
For the drinks we ordered their Tempranillo from Spain by the glass, and a pisco sour. The wine was full of caramel on the nose, but devoid of harsh tannins or extra oak, allowing it to be light enough to pair fantastically with our cebiche and causas. We ordered:
- Cebiche clásico California Halibut in a classic leche de tigre with red onion, habanero, Peruvian corn and yam
- Cebiche mixto Yellowtail, calamari and shrimp in an ají amarillo leche de tigre with cilantro, red onion, Habanero, Peruvian corn and yam
- Causa limeña Dungeness Crab on top of a yellow potato causa with avocado purée, quail egg, cherry tomatoes, ají Amarillo huancaína sauce and basil cilantro oil
- Causa nikei Tuna tartar and avocado purée, on top of rocoto potato, with creamy rocoto huancaína sauce topped with Japanese nori
- Empanada sampler A tasting of each of our empanadas including chicken, mushroom, sweet corn, and beef
The cebiche and causas were just like those in Miraflores. The sauce on the cebiche was replicated perfectly, with lots of thinly sliced red onions. They even had a side of giant corn kernels, which we saw everywhere in Peru. As for the causas, well, they will be my last meal on death row. My instinct is to always go with seafood-topped causas, but I really just want to eat them all. By the time the three of us were halfway through the plate of empanadas, we were full. My favorites were the sweet corn and mushroom empanadas. After refilling our Tempranillo and pisco sour, we prepared our second stomachs for dessert. The coconut tapioca pudding topped with mint and pineapple sorbet did not disappoint. It was the perfect way to end the meal. Next time I want to try their grilled beef heart.
The service was exceptional. The waiter was friendly and very attentive. I have never used so many new forks or placemats in one meal before. Our water glasses were refilled what felt like every five minutes, which led to my sister needing to use the restroom 5 times. He even provided us with the occasional awkward joke: "I am not a waiter at 26 because I am good at math."
The employees all wore black and white uniforms, but bits of their personalities were shown through their extravagant hairstyles or accesories. La Mar is not a restaurant for the lighthearted. Everything from the intense blue lighting to the orchards in test tubes cried for your attention, but at the same time the restaurant made me feel relaxed. Maybe it was just the slightly crazy San Franciscan in me.
The magic of the restaurant was its ability to convince me I was back in Miraflores. To truly experience the Peruvian cuisine, you cannot leave without ordering cebiche, a plate of causas, and a pisco sour. Make at least half of your meal consist of small plates to share with those around you. The artistic and shareable nature of Peruvian cuisine always brings its guests together with abundant conversation. Let La Mar be a place you can open your heart to bright yellow or purple potatoes, and the person across from you.
Our dinner ended with another joke from the host as we were waiting, once again, for my sister to go to the bathroom: "How did you like my cooking?" My first thought was, how on earth is his suit so clean. My confused stare must have given me away, as he quickly explained he wasn't the actual cook. A staff with a sense of humor, albeit awkward, will always make me smile.
Pier 1 1/2, the Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 397 8880 / lamarsf.com