Food & Drink | A TASTE OF HOME

Embark on a Peruvian adventure without boarding a flight

by Alex Dutson

Special To The Japan Times

Sitting in the wood-clad, dimly lit dining room of the Miraflores restaurant, I begin to feel like I’m planning a year volunteering abroad. A glance at the Peruvian flag on the wall, the figurines on the bar counter and the map plastered across the door, and I imagine gleefully imposing myself on whichever rural village most needs a new school or well. My mind soars. For a fleeting moment I’m perched atop Macchu Pichu, legs tucked up to my chest against the bracing wind, surveying the sun-soaked vistas.

In my bones, though, I know this isn’t even remotely realistic. A four-day haul up a big hill to see a pile of old stones isn’t my idea of a good time, because to be honest, I’m barely up for even a gentle stroll in the country unless there’s a pub lunch at the end of it.

A better reason to visit Peru would be the cuisine. Of course, I’m making this judgment having eaten only at Miraflores (28-3 Sakuragaokacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3462-6588; www.miraflores-shibuya.jimdo.com). This may seem hasty, but I just have a feeling in my gut that it’s likely to be Tokyo’s best approximation of the ubiquitous picanterias (eateries) that dot the length of the country — places of far more intrigue than any pile of Inca ruins — where you’ll find steaming plates of roasted cattle hearts and bowls of pounded papa a la huancaina — sliced potatoes enveloped in a spicy yellow pepper sauce with a silky, Bechamelesque consistency.

I may have been swayed in my judgment by Miraflores’ version of Peru’s national dish ceviche, which in the last 10 years has waltzed its way onto the plates and into the consciousness of the world’s gastronomes thanks partly to the influence of superstar chef Gaston Acurio. At it’s most basic, it’s a dish made from freshly sliced chunks of seafood “cooked” in a citric marinade of lime juice, salt and aji chili, which stiffens and firms up the fish, rendering the flesh slightly opaque. In taste terms, you can think of it as sashimi’s edgier, more flamboyant cousin.

At Miraflores, the ceviche arrives as a roughly hewn pile of pillowy soft octopus, snapper and squid nestled between crisp fronds of iceberg lettuce. The marinade has done its job, and the flavors are all clean, brisk and lively. To the side, enormous kernels of Peruvian corn jostle for space with a topping of sliced red onion and smattering of coriander.

The seafood alone is reason enough to visit Miraflores, and standards stay high through the main course — a hot cast-iron plate of arroz con marisco, which resembles paella and delivers big in robust seafood flavors. A fat-lipped mussel slips off its shell like a briny seafood bonbon, while giant whole shrimp hum and purr with garlic, their brittle antenna poking out of the rice in a futile gesture of resistance. This is seafood with eyes and heads and shells, a big slap of seared chili and fish protein for those who like to get stuck in. The portion is big enough for two — but I don’t want to share.

Another much-vaunted Peruvian restaurant is Bepocah (2-17-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6804-1377; www.bepocah.com), and I make my way over to this yellow slab of a building with the vague hope of wrapping my jowls around some cuy — that other Peruvian specialty consisting of a guinea pig roasted and blackened under hot stones, usually served with the head still on.

It only takes two seconds inside the primped, sleek interior to see that this probably isn’t the place to find some cuy. Undeterred, I ask anyway.

“We have had customers asking if we plan to serve guinea pig,” says Natsue Nakandakari, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Bruno, “but that’s more of a highland dish and not the coastal style of cuisine which is our concept.”

If crispy roast rodents isn’t Bepocah’s style, neither is rusticity. Everything here is drenched in technique. The ceviche is served six different ways, each showing precise knifework. Rice is served in geometrically exact cylinders and chili sauce in neat smears. There are impressively heavy glass plates.

In flavor terms, there’s a lot to love at Bepocah. The rocoto relleno, a stuffed bell pepper dish from the lower Andean city of Arequipa greets you with a dribble of roasted cheese. Its innards, a mix of ground pork and onion, have a delicious lingering spice and a big hit of smoke from the dried ahipanka chili that is soothed by warm cumin and sweet sultana.

At times, though, the presentation is a bit overwrought. Take the degustacion de causas, Bepocah’s version of provincial staple that in its simplest, pre-Hispanic iteration was little more than potato and aji chili. Here it was gussied up as four different-colored spheres of potato, each balancing a tiny spoonful of chicken, octopus, onion and crab meat. There was a single leaf of chive here, and a quarter of a quail’s egg there, but little visible suggestion of the dish’s heritage or how it might actually be eaten by Peruvians.

I know that some people like their food meticulously presented and served in tiny portions, wherever they are. For these people, Bepocah checks all the boxes. But I find myself yearning for some Peruvian grills and make a separate stop at Arco Iris (Motomiya Bldg. 2F, 1-15-5 Higashigotanda, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo; 03-3449-6629) in hope of finding them.

The grills do not disappoint. The anticuchos — garlicky skewers of grilled cow hearts — are a chewy, dense plate of offally moreishness. But things go downhill from there. The chupe de camarones — supposedly a spicy seafood and potato chowder — is rather bland and served with a scattering of little shrimp, while the Chinese-influenced, soy-oriented lomo saltado is limp and oily without a dominant flavor.

I try to look past the bad points and imagine my Peruvian adventure, but this time all I can think of is Miraflores.