Peruvian Chefs Add Flavor to Quito, Ecuador
Karla Gachet for The New York Times
By JAY CHESHES
Published: April 22, 2011
Karla Gachet for The New York Times
Karla Gachet for The New York Times
Seeking a world-class chef, he decided to look outside Ecuador, and recruited Julio Ostolaza, a young graduate of the Cordon Bleu outpost in Lima. “I’d traveled a lot around South America,” Mr. Jarrin said. “I’d always been particularly impressed by the food in Peru.” Under Mr. Ostolaza, Theatrum (Teatro Nacional Sucre, Calle Manabi between Guayaquil and Flores; 593-2-257-011; theatrum.com.ec; dinner for two, about $60) quickly became the hot ticket in town, serving a Latin-tinged Mediterranean menu amid sweeping red curtains and antique chandeliers. (All prices are without drinks or tip; the country officially adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000.)
While Ecuadorean cuisine has not evolved much beyond its peasant roots — simple meat and potatoes still anchor most meals in the highlands around Quito — high-end food culture is more developed across the Andean border in Peru, perhaps thanks to that country’s diverse population, with particularly strong influences from Europe and Asia. In recent years, in fact, Peruvian chefs have become a significant export commodity throughout South America — the country’s cooking schools are among the continent’s most acclaimed — trafficking in a melting pot mix of European, Asian and indigenous flavors.
Mr. Ostolaza may have been a trailblazer, but many have followed his lead. In the last two years alone, four top-flight Quito restaurants have opened with chefs imported from Lima. The result has been the creation, for the first time, of a serious fine-dining scene, offering one more good reason to linger in the city before taking off on that Galápagos tour.
Unlike Theatrum, other restaurants attract far more locals than tourists, in particular the city’s well-traveled elite. At lunch the dining rooms become real power canteens, drawing an impeccably clad business and government crowd. At restaurants around the city, a Peruvian pedigree bestows a certain snob appeal, perhaps as French chefs once did in New York.
While the new restaurants all share a similarly upscale sensibility, their often sprawling menus differ widely, reflecting the diversity of influences on Peruvian cooking. The food atLa Gloria (Calle Valladolid N24-519 at Francisco Salazar; 593-2-252-7855;lagloria.com.ec; dinner for two, about $60), Mr. Jarrin’s latest project, is heavily rooted inSpain, where the restaurateur lived during his youth. The restaurant, which became an overnight hot spot when it opened last June in a residential section of town, is an offshoot of a landmark by the same name in Lima, a mainstay of the fine-dining scene there for the last 16 years. Last year, through a chance encounter with the original’s owner, Oscar Velarde, Mr. Jarrin wound up bringing the concept back home.
“He invited us to stay for lunch,” he said over pisco sours in the dark bar at the Quito restaurant. “Seven bottles of wine later we were partners.” The new outpost features the same classic cooking as the original — remarkably tender suckling pig cooked in duck fat and aioli-drenched scallop fideuà (a noodle-based version of paella) are among the best-selling dishes — served in a modern space with poured concrete floors and abstract art on the walls.
The setting is just as sleek at the latest outlet of Segundo Muelle, the most traditional of the new crop. This popular cevicheria, which has a flagship in Lima, opened a second outpost last year (Quicentro Shopping mall, Avenida Naciones Unidas at 6 de Dicembre; 593-2-224-8796; segundomuelle.com; dinner for two, about $50), in Quito, squeezed into a two-level space in an upmarket shopping mall. Part of a growing international chain, the new branch, which features white walls, blond wood and marble-topped bars, offers an endless variety of raw and citrus-cured seafood dishes, including chili-kissed strips of corvina and sliced octopus tentacles in black olive sauce, prepared by a young chef who worked for 10 years at the Lima restaurant.
The same chic design sensibility seems to dominate at all of the new Peruvian-influenced spots: one modern white room after another with overhead spotlights and Latin Americanwines in showcase glass cellars. Zazu (Mariano Aguilera 331 at la Pradera; 593-2-254-3559; zazuquito.com; dinner for two, about $60), an early adopter that kicked off the trend back in 2005, is tucked into a luxury ranch house that wouldn’t seem out of place on the Malibu coast. Despite that, a seven-course tasting menu is only $35; dishes on a recent version included sashimi-style tuna encrusted in smoked chili powder and raw sole tiradito in a Parmesan-cream sauce.
To distinguish himself from the newcomers, the restaurant’s new Peruvian chef Rafael Perez (who recently replaced another one of his countrymen in the kitchen) has broadened the menu, adding international touches and the latest in modernist cooking techniques. “So many Peruvian spots have opened in the last few years,” said Jan Niedrau, the restaurant’s young German owner. “We’re a little more open-minded to other influences now.”
Last year Mr. Niedrau asked the restaurant’s sous-chef, Hugo Tsuda, a Peruvian of Japanese descent, to shift gears even further, assigning him a new pan-Asian concept. That restaurant, Zao (Avenida Eloy Alfaro N10-16 at San Salvador; 593-2-252-3496;zaoquito.com; dinner for two, about $40), a bald knockoff of the wildly successful Tao inLas Vegas down to its oversize Buddha, potent party cocktails and dance music D.J., serves a classic mix of Chinese-, Japanese- and Thai-inspired dishes.
With the high-end restaurant scene so crowded in Quito, simply hiring a Peruvian chef may no longer be enough to secure the right clientele. Location is at least part of the draw at El Dorado (Federicao Paez E14-200 at Gualguiltagua; 593-2-333-1486; dinner for two, about $90), which opened last spring high on a slope overlooking the city. The restaurant, run by two more Cordon Bleu Peru graduates, features some of the most ambitious — and pricey — cooking in town, with a focus on luxury ingredients few other restaurants carry. Its wagyu steak from Australia, for example, is cooked sous-vide, then finished off with a sear on the flattop. Ovidio Gabela, the restaurant’s 25-year-old owner and chef, was the first in the city to fully embrace the vacuum-bag cooking so popular among colleagues in the United States and Europe.
The encroachment of so many Peruvian chefs has left aspiring food pros from Ecuador struggling to level the playing field. The culinary school in the Universidad San Francisco de Quito is leading the charge, partly through its own white tablecloth restaurant, which serves upmarket riffs on Ecuadorean classics.
“In Peru they’ve made peasant food into gourmet food,” said Mauricio Cepeda, dean of the program. “We’re trying to do that too.”
Mr. Cepeda and his colleagues are also hoping to produce a homegrown celebrity chef to rival the superstar Gastón Acurio, who, with more than 30 restaurants and some two dozen cookbooks, is the de facto ambassador for Peruvian cuisine.
In 2005 Mr. Acurio opened his first outpost in Quito, a branch of his Astrid y Gastónmini-chain (Coruña N32-302 at Gonzalez Suarez; 593-2-233-3061; astridygaston.com.ec; dinner for two, about $80). Despite his renown, however, the restaurant initially floundered. Last year he took on new local partners, Rosa Laureiro and Francisco Pinto, a wealthy couple who also own the city’s TGIF and Pizza Hut franchises; they tweaked the décor and brought in a new chef. The updated menu still features Acurio originals like Peking-duck-style guinea pig with savory pancakes.
The new partners are such huge fans of Mr. Acurio they’re already planning to bring in two more of his restaurants, including a branch of La Mar, the cevicheria he also plans to open in New York toward the end of this summer.
“Peru has the most gourmet cuisine,” Ms. Laureiro said. “It ought to be exported all over the world.”