Peruvian cuisine makes long-awaited invasion of Toronto
Cuisine from the South American country has made a belated arrival in Toronto's restaurant scene
The tiger's milk, deep orange and thick as cream, is exquisite. Tender veal hearts, skewered on sharp sticks and glistening with glaze, hum with a metallic tang. Passion fruit crumbs, "cooked" with liquid nitrogen, sizzle on top of a bright yellow cocktail. Welcome to the eccentric, playful, utterly delicious world of modern Peruvian cooking.
It's been a long time coming, but contemporary Peruvian food is poised to introduce one of the world's most dynamic, complex and, frankly, fashionable cuisines to the city.
Tiger's milk, incidentally, isn't actually derived from milked tigers – think of the liability – but comes from the Spanish leche de tigre, a rich, acidic sauce that serves as the base and marinade for all manner of ceviches and tiraditos (Peruvian sashimi), the ur-dishes of Peruvian cooking. Veal hearts, though, those are very real.
Over the past few years, the culinary world's nexus has shifted several thousand kilometres southwest from Copenhagen to Lima. Peru's been recognized by the World Travel Awards as the best culinary destination on Earth for five years in a row. Three spots in the Peruvian capital made last year's World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards list, with chef Virgilio Martinez and Pia Leon's Central restaurant even surpassing long-time winner, Noma.
In New York, Eleven Madison Park chef Erik Ramirez recently opened the Llama Inn to glowing reviews. Martin Morales's popular Ceviche restaurant in London's Soho neighbourhood now includes a second branch on Old Street. Similarly, the Michelin-starred Lima Fitzrovia – where the kitchen is overseen by Central's Virgilio Martinez – has recently been joined by Lima Floral and the group was to open another branch in Dubai in late March. Closer to home in Montreal, chef Marcel Larrea's Tiradito was one of that city's most celebrated openings last year.
Toronto, for all of its traditional, family-run Peruvian restaurants, such as the venerable Boulevard Cafe on Harbord, St. Clair West's El Fogon, Paracas and La Cocina de Dona Luz, has been a little slower to embrace the trend.
"I'm surprised," says Elias Salazar, one of the chefs already making a mark with this style of cooking with his various culinary residencies and pop-ups, "because if you go anywhere else in the world Peruvian cuisine is doing quite well. I think part of it is that a lot of Peruvians here haven't travelled back to Peru in years and it's easier to start with a traditional restaurant because maybe they don't have the proper training or knowledge of what's going on with food in Peru itself, not only with dishes or trends, but with connections to local farmers."
Peru has an uncanny ability to absorb and integrate influences. Building on a 500-year-old Indigenous tradition, the country has seen its cuisine shaped by Spanish conquistadors and the slaves they brought over in the 16th century. The Chinese rail workers who immigrated in the 19th century blended their food with Peruvian ingredients to create Chifa. Peru's Japanese population created Nikkei, one of the world's most intriguing cuisines. Combined with a diverse geography that stretches from the sea to the rainforest and an embarrassment of agricultural riches, the result is a kind of greatest hits of the world's best flavours.
"Even South Americans see Peruvian food as something exotic and unique because it is so diverse in the way it comes together," says Arjun Gopi, food and beverage director for Toronto's Ritz Carlton. "Peru is the only country, apart from Brazil, maybe, that has the kind of geographic diversity that it has: from the Pacific coast to the desert to the Andes and then over to the Amazonian rainforest, so they have a variety of techniques and ingredients that are applied. It's really an amalgamation of different cultures and techniques and products and that's what makes it fun, but it's also what makes it complicated."
That complexity is part of the reason that after launching their Peruvian menu last summer the Ritz spent a few months just giving out samples to guests to generate feedback. "We spent quite a while making tweaks and playing around with techniques to get the right flavour profiles," Gopi says.
Now, in addition to an excellent tuna tiradito, really one of the best bar snacks in the city right now, there are skewers of marinated hanger steak done like anticuchos, a vibrant striped bass ceviche topped with a tangle of fried sweet potato shavings and a cocktail menu built around things such as eucalyptus-infused pisco (a clear brandy), chica syrup (made from a fermented corn drink) and huacatay (a ubiquitous Peruvian herb)-infused gin.
Joining the Ritz in offering modern Peruvian is chef Martin Ore's Mochica, the new Toronto outpost of his popular 12-year-old Montreal restaurant of the same name. In a red and black room decorated with sexually adventurous ceramics and a Warhol-inspired Andean portrait wall, he offers solid renditions of a variety of ceviches – including a vegan version with organic quinoa – tiraditos and anticuchos. He is also the only restaurateur in the city offering an alpaca burger.
It's not just Peruvian restaurants that are excited about the cuisine either. At chef Steve Gonzales's sleek new Latin-inspired Baro Restaurant on King West there's a posh fried rice dish called chaufa, a classic example of the Chinese/Peruvian Chifa hybrid, done with duck confit and edamame, and an entire section dedicated to modern ceviche and tiradito preparations. His albacore tuna tiradito with squash and passion fruit, incorporates lulo, a delicate yellow fruit with a tannic rhubarb quality that gives the dish character and his hamachi ceviche with ponzu sauce, lotus root and nori is poised in some delicious longitude midway between Japan and Peru.
Even at the sexy new Pinky's Ca Phe, an ostensibly Vietnamese restaurant that isn't afraid to follow its instincts where the flavour leads, there's an exceptionally well-balanced ceviche: yellowfin tuna, surf clams, scallops in a leche de tigre marinade shot through with coconut milk.
Looking ahead, things only get tastier. Last month, it was announced that chef Nobu Matsuhisa, easily the most renowned and successful proponent of the Nikkei style of Japanese/Peruvian cuisine in the world, will start construction next year on two 49-storey towers that will include a hotel, 700 residences and a Nobu restaurant in the entertainment district.
Additionally, the success of Elias Salazar's Limon Modern Peruvian Kitchen pop-up at Rush Lane & Co. that ended last month has brought that talented chef one step closer to securing a permanent location. "I'm talking with a number of people now," he says, "and there's a lot of demand, but I want to make sure I do it right."
In the meantime, he's about to start offering modern Peruvian dishes direct to customers via a host of local delivery services: Foodora, Uber Eats, Door Dash, etc. starting in April. Salazar plans on replacing sad desk lunches with grilled beef heart skewers, vibrant street-style ceviches topped with squid chicharones (a take on the traditional fried pork belly version) and causas (Peruvian potatoes covered with aji amarillo sauce) topped with pulled chicken and avocado.
"This city's built on ethnicities and different types of race and different types of people living together," he says, "just like Peruvian food. I think there's no question that the city is finally ready for something Peruvian."