It’s not easy for a new restaurant to stand out, or to even gain a foothold, in a city of the scale and sophistication of Tokyo. Bépocah manages that feat with ease — and in two very different ways.
Firstly, it is one of the most eye-catching restaurants to open so far this year. The long, thin, wedge-shaped building with its striking yellow-and-black facade has already become a minor landmark on its Harajuku side street.
More importantly, since the moment it threw back the impressive black wrought-iron gate that spans its front door, Bépocah has presented Tokyo with an authentic and particularly stylish array of Peruvian cuisine.
“We aren’t the first Peruvian restaurant,” co-owner Bruno Nakandakari tells me over coffee in the bar area that forms the lower level of this two-story structure. “There have been other places, but they are intended for Peruvians living here. Our food is aimed at Japanese customers.”
That is clear from the moment you step into the spacious lobby area. Instead of the usual cheerful ethnic ambience, Bépocah offers elegance. A wide wooden staircase leads up to a dining room with stylish place settings and discreet down-lighting. There is not a single tourist artifact or poster of Machu Picchu in sight.
Not that there has been any dilution in the food it serves. As Nakandakari is keen to point out, everything on the menu is exactly as you might find at a restaurant in Lima — or at least one that takes pains to source quality ingredients and serve them with care and panache.
Where to start? With cebiche, of course. Peru’s best-known dish (spelled as seviche or ceviche elsewhere in the world) gets a whole page to itself on the menu.
The classic recipe for marinating cubes of raw white-meat fish — hirame (flounder) or madai (snapper) are used at Bépocah — calls for lime juice, ají limo hot pepper and cilantro. Other variants include shellfish and shrimp, spicy marinades made with red or yellow hot pepper and even a black squid-ink version. All come with a couple of strips of corn and a scoop of sweet potato on the side.
I ask for a recommendation and am directed to the crema verde variation. This has extra amounts of green cilantro leaf incorporated into a thick, creamy sauce that coats the fish beautifully. Once I’ve finished the seafood, this salty, citric, spicy marinade is tipped into a glass for me to sip on, like a South American take on a savory lassi.
Leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) this drink is called, and it’s reputed to do wonders for hangovers, both before and after the fact. Just as well, as by this time I’ve already downed a couple of pisco sours — made with shots of clear grape brandy — and have established that Peruvian beers taste as anemic as mass-produced lagers anywhere.
As an alternative to cebiche, there are tiraditos. A specialty of the Japanese-Peruvian community, the recipe is much the same as for cebiche, except that the fish is cut into sashimi-like slices rather than chunkier cubes.
There are plenty more appetizers to pick from, both warm and cold. Visually, though, none compare to the causas. To describe these merely as mashed-potato cakes is akin to calling sushi just vinegared rice patties and fish. It may be technically accurate but it doesn’t start to tell the whole story.
Order the degustación course and prepare to be amazed. The long plate holds four edible sculptures, each a different shape and hue and piled high with colorful ingredients. A bright yellow cylinder is topped with avocado, creamed chicken and a wedge of tomato. A spinach-green orb is decked with diced octopus, onion and olive.
There’s a grayish-mauve cube — the coloring here is beetroot — with a slice of buri (yellowtail) and marinated red onion. The fourth is the warm orangey pink of red pepper, and holds a generous scoop of crabmeat. Like the creative modern pintxos found in Spain’s Basque Country, these causas rework a long-standing tradition with imagination and flair.
“There are a thousand things we do with potatoes in Peru,” says Nakandakari. Such as carapulca, a dish that combines the dried tubers with diced chicken, pork and peanuts in a rich stew. This is mountain fare, simple and hearty, with no need for any elaboration.
With the main dishes, too, head chef Cristhian Vásquez keeps the presentation simple and lets the ingredients speak for themselves. The grilled brochettes of tender beef heart (anticuchos de corazón) are outstanding; so are the stir-fried sirloin (lomo saltado) and, best of all, the seco de res, soft-simmered premium kuroge wagyū beef cooked down with a thick cilantro sauce.
To end the meal there is ice cream of aguaymanto, the so-called Inca berry that bears a close resemblance to the fruit of ornamental Chinese lantern plants. But this time, fortified by the tiger’s milk earlier, I choose instead to close with a shot of aguaymanto liqueur.
There is one more thing Nakandakari wants to make clear: Bépocah does not serve fusion food. Nor is it the kind of modernist cuisine that has won global accolades and elevated Lima-based chefs Gastón Acurio (Astrid y Gastón) and Virgilio Martínez Véliz (Central Restaurante) onto world restaurant ranking lists.
“This is authentic Peruvian cooking,” he says. “We are just presenting it in a contemporary way.” It’s taken a while to get here from Lima, but Bépocah has made it worth the wait.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.