Lima via London: The Pisco Sour Finds Legs in England
As a Canadian, I can’t quite wrap my mind around the idea of a national drink. What would ours be? Icewine, maybe? Surely that would prove unpopular with the non-wine producing provinces. Beer, then? Nationally beloved, perhaps, but hardly unique to the Great White North.
In Peru, I hear, the national drink is so beloved, it’s celebrated en masse on the first Saturday of February. But Pisco Sour Day is a relatively recent invention, dating back to 2003, and it’s an even more recent import to London, England.
Extended this year into a week-long event by the city’s rapidly growing collection of Peruvian restaurants, London’s first Pisco Sour Week was observed by seven venues, all of which offered the cocktail at a reduced price of £5 (almost $10 Canadian). I’d love to know what they go for in South America.
I’m struck by the incongruity of it all…a proper British chill that sticks to your face like a wet t-shirt…It’s a long way from Lima, or so I imagine.
I’ve never been to Peru, and I’m willing to guess that a good proportion of my fellow Londoners are equally unfamiliar with the South American country. Yet London has become such a willing market for its cuisine that Startups, a UK-based news service and entrepreneurial guide, declared Peruvian food businesses among its best launch ideas for 2015. And it makes sense: two of the country’s staple grains, quinoa and amaranth, are becoming ubiquitous through dietary trends like clean and Palaeolithic eating. As Peruvian flavours become better known, why wouldn’t the demand continue to increase?
When I set out for my first Pisco Sour, I’m struck by the incongruity of it all. It’s the coldest week of the year so far, the wind carrying a proper British chill that sticks to your face like a wet t-shirt the moment you step outside. It’s a long way from Lima, or so I imagine.
LIMA Floral: Predictably flawless fine dining
I arrive at LIMA Floral, the Covent Garden sister restaurant to Fitzrovia’s Michelin-starred LIMA. A glimpse of the dining room looks light and airy, but I’m desperate for cosier surroundings. I head for the bar.
Though the sun’s just starting to set, thick pillar candles already flicker in the windows. The room is empty, so I take a seat on one of the high stools at the end of the bar, angling for a better view of the homemade concoctions housed by a series of tall Kilner jars on a shelf above the tidy rows of liquor. I spot what look like peppers floating in one of them and wish I had more time to sample the cocktail menu.
The bartender takes my order, all smiles, and returns promptly with a short glass of Pisco Sour. It’s good. The foam isn’t as dense as it looks. It begins to settle after a few sips, and as it does, the flavour of the cocktail seems to open up. The citrusy tang gives way to sweeter notes, and the pisco becomes more pronounced.
To my uneducated palate, a good pisco tastes like Christmas: hints of cinnamon and spice, orange peel, nuttiness. There’s still plenty of acidity to the cocktail, but these flavours give it a sophisticated edge. My only complaint is the glass, which traps an unfortunate quantity of foam along its sides. No spoon in sight, I’m forced to use my pinkie. (Sorry, Mom.)
A plate of black bream ceviche shows up not long after the cocktail. It’s a beautiful looking dish, though I’m not entirely sure what to make of the Olympic-formation onion rings poised on top. I’m taken aback by the texture of the fish, so luscious I can’t find any alternative to the “melt-in-your-mouth” cliché. Sea salt freshness is highlighted by a smooth, spicy avocado salsa, and crushed toasted corn adds a pleasing crunch. It’s a generous portion, intended as a starter, but more than filling.
I’m taken aback by the texture of the fish, so luscious I can’t find any alternative to the “melt-in-your-mouth” cliché
If all of this attention to detail wasn’t enough to explain how the first LIMA won its Michelin star, the toilets would have convinced me. And somehow, this makes me uncomfortable. The triangle-tiled floor, I’m sure, is a subtle reference to Peru’s Inca past. The Neal’s Yard citrus-scented hand soap recalls the flavours of my meal. It’s all very impressive, but I feel like a tourist whose view of the country she visited was shaped by the lobby of a luxury hotel.
So when next I set out, I’m hoping for a more authentic experience at Tito’s.
Tito’s: The humble haunt
Open since 2003, nearly a decade before the Peruvian craze really hit London, Tito’s is the veteran of the bunch. I find the restaurant tucked down a narrow side street in the shadow of the Shard. Despite this inauspicious location, it’s difficult to miss. Unlike LIMA Floral, whose entrance is like a puzzle designed to deter tourists and timid first-timers, Tito’s is unapologetic about its light box signage.
Locals tell me that this was once a mecca for expats, serving up a taste of home for nostalgic Peruvians. Inside, the décor still recalls this unmistakably family-style vibe: wooden floors and furnishings, mass market artwork depicting rural scenes, weathered plum accent walls, and lighting more than a shade too harsh for fine dining.
I’m the only patron again, but not for long this time. A family of three arrives shortly after my Pisco Sour, and I hear them chatting with the server in Spanish. This time, my cocktail is served in a coupe glass, which I mentally applaud. It’s not the traditional choice for a Pisco Sour, but I anticipate that the curvature will facilitate a more graceful ending to the drink.
I sip the cocktail, a mouthful of loose froth and sweet liquid. There’s no acidity driving me to keep drinking this one, and the booze is a little potent. I put it to one side.
I’m not hungry enough for any of the hearty mains on offer, and the calamari starter is bigger than I expected. Buried beneath a tangle of garnish and propped up by three chunky fries, the squid rings are heavily battered and worryingly uniform. I wish I’d tried one of the home-style dishes instead, though I suspect the allure of Tito’s has more to do with the atmosphere when it’s full of expats.
Pachamama: A Smart-casual spot
My last stop is Pachamama, another discreetly advertised bolthole, this one enviably placed at the foot of boutique-lined Marylebone High Street. This time I’m surprised to find the restaurant empty: it’s the lunchtime peak in a central London business district. Where are all the suits?
I’m seated in what I term – halfway through my cocktail – the Anthropologie section. (It really does look as if they’ve swiped the majority of the décor from the branch up the road.) Wooden furniture is painted in duck egg hues, artfully exposed patches of brick smatter the wall, there’s one red velvet bench and a tasteful woven tapestry. Oh, and there’s a life-sized black horse sculpture peering over my shoulder, surveying the bar area from behind a pillar in the dining room corner.
Pachamama’s Pisco Sour may be the best of the bunch. It’s pleasingly acidic, citrusy above all, but loaded with spicy complexity like cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. The froth begins to settle more quickly than I’d prefer, but there’s enough left at the end to finish with a spoon (though not before an eager server tries to whisk away the glass).
I sample three dishes, one from each menu category (fish, meat and veg). The first, a shrimp ceviche, is a mistake. Though the menu description seemed simple enough, the plate is loaded with extras like yellow pepper and sweet potato. Worse, it’s eye-wateringly spicy. Most worryingly of all, I discover an uncleaned piece of shrimp in the middle of the dish. Maybe this is what drove the suits away.
I perk up again at the arrival of fried eggplant with smoked yogurt and pecans. It’s a beautiful dish, especially once the yogurt neutralises the last traces of spice left on my tongue by the ceviche. Between the spice crust and the silky eggplant flesh, there’s plenty of interesting texture on the plate; I find myself scraping up the last traces of yogurt and wishing for more.
The lamb belly is equally flavoursome, perfectly caramelized on the outside for a nice balance of crackling and toothsome meat. I resolve to stay off the fish menu next time.
The future of London’s Peruvian food scene
After my brief tour of Pisco Sour Week, I wonder if my flatmate was right to suggest that the Peruvian trend is catering to London’s jaded palates. Aside from the pisco, I’m not sure what unifies this burgeoning restaurant scene. There’s bound to be variation between the community-oriented fare at Tito’s and the Michelin-starred offerings at LIMA, but I can’t identify anything that seems uniquely Peruvian. At least, nothing apart from the Pisco Sour, and even that has a Chilean counterpart. But at least it’s a place to start. I’d hate to see London’s food scene getting jaded already.
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- Lima via London: The Pisco Sour Finds Legs in England - February 24, 2015