November 12, 2019, 18:55

The Cross-Cultural Cuisine of Llama San

The Cross-Cultural Cuisine of Llama San

In the U.S., eating beef heart may seem off-puttingly adventurous. Unlike, say, tripe, also known as stomach, the organ has no alias to hide behind; the diner must fully grapple with what it is. In Peru, eating beef heart—sliced into small pieces and grilled on a skewer, a preparation known as anticuchos—is as commonplace as eating a hot dog. Peruvians well know that the heart, cooked properly, is one of the most delicious parts of a cow, with a juicy texture and a clean beefy flavor similar to that of a hanger steak. To throw it away is wasteful not only in terms of sustainability but also in terms of pleasure.

The décor of the dining room, in the space that once housed the Spanish restaurant Tertulia, is spare and pale, punctuated by lush green plants.

Photograph by Frances F. Denny for The New Yorker

This is one reason to be grateful for Erik Ramirez, a chef born in New Jersey to Peruvian parents. He put beef heart, anticuchos style, on the menu at his first restaurant, Llama Inn, which opened in 2015, in Williamsburg, and seamlessly integrated the cuisine of his heritage, broadly interpreted, into the buzziest echelon of New York’s restaurant scene. Earlier this year, he put beef heart on the menu again, at his third restaurant, Llama San, in the West Village, which zeros in on a hyper-specific facet of Peruvian food by serving dishes inspired by Nikkei, or Peruvian-Japanese, cuisine. (His second restaurant, Llamita, also in the West Village, is a more casual version of Llama Inn.)

Japanese migrants began to arrive in Peru at the turn of the twentieth century, to work on plantations. The ensuing history is complicated, to say the least; the way they were treated was often despicable. Today, Japanese-Peruvians make up less than one per cent of Peru’s population, but, as is the case with many marginalized immigrant communities around the world, the influence they’ve had on their adopted country’s culinary traditions is outsized. Americans who have never heard of Nikkei cuisine may have eaten it nonetheless; a lot of the food at Nobu—whose founder, Nobu Matsuhisa, opened his first restaurant in Lima, in 1973—could be classified as such. With Llama San, Ramirez joins a handful of restaurateurs introducing it more conspicuously to the U.S.

Grilled Japanese eggplant is dressed in a pesto made with miso, pine nuts, and huacatay, a Peruvian black mint, and served with fresh cheese, sliced grapes, mustard greens, sesame seeds, and kernels of toasted Peruvian corn.

Photograph by Frances F. Denny for The New Yorker

Ceviche, a national dish of Peru, was, for centuries, customarily made by marinating raw fish for many hours, or even overnight; in the nineteen-sixties, the standard shifted after Nikkei chefs began to serve it much fresher, inspired by sushi techniques. At Llama San, barely marinated ceviches are a highlight. One features chunks of lightly cooked sweet scallop and creamy avocado, sprinkled with black sesame seeds, in a luscious leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) marinade flavored with chirimoya, or custard apple, a fruit native to South America. In another, cubes of tender tuna mingle with slippery wakame, crisp slices of fried lotus root, and earthy black-trumpet mushrooms in a tart, drinkable ponzu.

Aged-duck nigiri is made with cilantro-flecked rice, caramelized banana, and nasturtium leaves. A frothy cocktail called Quizas, Quizas, Quizas, garnished with a shiso leaf, mixes pisco with coconut, matcha, yuzu, and egg white.

Photograph by Frances F. Denny for The New Yorker

The beef heart makes up half of a sort of surf and turf, perched in coins, with lobes of lobster tail, atop a pedestal of fragrant, sticky Koshihikari rice, all hidden beneath a giant, delicate, crinkly rice cracker. The beef tastes of sweet soy, and the lobster is glazed in a ruddy sauce made with aji panca, a mild Peruvian pepper. It was my second-favorite dish, after the aged-duck nigiri. The most obviously bicultural concoction on the menu, it verges on cutesy but is irresistibly delicious, with slices of rich, meaty duck laid over mounds of sushi rice turned herby and emerald-hued with cilantro. Instead of wasabi, there’s a bit of caramelized banana; on top of each piece is an overturned nasturtium leaf, as picturesque as a lily pad.

With Llama San, his third restaurant, the Peruvian-American chef Erik Ramirez is one of a handful of chefs introducing Nikkei cuisine to the U.S.

Photograph by Frances F. Denny for The New Yorker

The dining room is heady with the aroma of palo santo, a strongly scented wood that has become the incense of choice in the kind of boutique that sells pricey hand-thrown ceramics and linen tunics. I assumed, at first, that this was an attempt at staying au courant, but Ramirez is more cultural attaché than trend chaser. Palo santo comes from a tree that’s native to Peru. It’s burned at the restaurant so that its smoke can be captured in a cocktail called Flaming Creatures, made with Japanese whiskey. (Dishes $16-$36.) ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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