a very Peruvian, very Japanese way of serving and eating raw fish where it was sliced thinly but then inundated by a mouth-puckering, punch-to-the-balls marinade
Consider, if you will, the potato: solanum tuberosum. You might think that there really is not a great deal to deliberate upon. The humble tuber, the lowly spud, that most unassuming and downright ordinary of all our habitual dinner table staples. What, really, is there to say?
The very term ‘meat and potatoes’ tells you all you need to know, surely. Even the expression itself is ponderous and clumsy, lolloping heavily off the tongue like Eric Pickles falling down some stairs. It is the answer, always, to the muttered enquiry of “what’s for dinner?” Because let’s face it, unless you are vegan or breatharian, that probably what is for dinner.
The phrase is any scenario or situation that is dull and tedious, but which is in some way necessary or undertaken under grim sufferance. Like putting the bins out, or going for a colonoscopy. The potato perfectly portrays the slow-witted and the ugly in expressions such as Couch Potato or Potato Faced. Socially and politically, the proverbial Hot Potato is something to be avoided at all costs.
The spud could just as easily be thought of as solid, stolid, reliable. Noble and understated, it is the plucky runner-up and never makes a fuss. It is a reassuring presence on any plate: our culinary comfort blanket. We know where we are with the potato. It is there to provide substance and turn that plate of food into dinner. Quite often turning dinner into something exultant. A furrow of indulgently creamy, crunchy-on-the-top mash on a Shepherd’s Pie, perhaps. Or the perfectly hot and fluffy, goose fat-crisped, roast accompaniment to the Sunday joint. Take that however you wish.
Never mind that meaningless, culturally insincere prefix ’The Great British…’, the true origin of the potato is of course South America: Peru to be exact. It is as Peruvian as ponchos and pisco. Studies link the discovery of the potato, or papa, to the area around Ayacucho and the Valley of Chulca in Peru’s High Andes some 10,000 years ago. The word papa is originally Quechua and simply means tuber. That is somehow apt as it certainly is El Papa: The Daddy of Peruvian cooking.
It has always been an important staple foodstuff for Peru. But far more than that, it is an edible almanac of a country’s way of life. ‘Potato Day’ is a national holiday. The ritual of colourfully and flamboyantly celebrating the potato harvest is piously observed among Andean farming communities. It is said that there are 5,000 (known) varieties grown in the country while according to the Smithsonian Institute “the range of potatoes in a single Andean field exceeds the diversity of nine-tenths of the potato crop of the entire United States.”
Which kinds of puts us to shame, really. In the UK you would only ever unearth that level of devotion to root vegetables among close-knit groups of professional hobbyists: bearded, Hobbit-like men in jumpers hidden away in sheds and village pubs, and who feature on regional news programmes with alarming regularity whenever a member of the Rusty Trombone Irregulars from the village of Little Felching wins some or other competition with some King Edwards whose protrusions look hilariously like scrota.
Spuds notwithstanding, Peru’s cuisine is diverse; certainly not just the llama dung and peasant spittle of popular reckoning. There is a symbiosis at play here. Like all of the world’s most enjoyable cuisines, Peru’s has been suffused, melded and without question enhanced by half a millennia of immigration and inbound trade from Europe, Africa and, remarkably, Japan (as evidenced by the countless raw fish and sashimi-type dishes to be found there).
It has been said that good things are currently going on in Lima (the city). Described these days as a progressive and cosmopolitan hub with an ever-flourishing restaurant scene, it has gained much recent international prestige to the extent that Ferran Adrià has described goings-on there as a “gastronomic revolution”. Others report that the city is a Latin American San Sebastian where a plus ultra band of pioneering chefs, a Charge of The Mamelukes, are turning Peruvian cooking on its head.
And now, all this appears to have transmogrified over to London. And to Lima (the restaurant).
Lima, then, is a Peruvian Restauran situated in Fitzrovia a stone’s throw from Tottenham Court Road and is the inspiration of Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez. The dining room is smaller than you might think. The March & White interior of vividly coloured paintings, cleverly angled mirrors and sleek yet workman like slates and browns prevent it from feeling either too poky or too exclusive. Those appreciative of a bit of extra elbow room may find their fellow diners are sat a little too close, however.
At first glance the menu is peppered liberally with the weird and the wonderful: virtually every dish seemingly accompanied by something foraged from the Dark Heart of the Amazon – Sacha Inchi Oil, White Kiwicha, Algarrobo Tree Syrup. And what the hell is a Crazy Pea? Sadly, I never found out. There’s not really anything on the menu that will ambush the unwary and unadventurous. Lima is not that sort of place. Choices are really quite orthodox. That’s not to say it’s all just smoke and mirrors, all mouth and pantalones, it means business. Food here is as vivid as a Rivera mural and equally as meticulous. Meticulous in its detail plus bagfuls of bright colour and flavour.
Starters include distinctive tiraditos, ceviches and causas. A Scallop Tiradito, Aji Pepper and Cassava was a very Peruvian, very Japanese way of serving and eating raw fish. It was sliced thinly then inundated with a mouth-puckering, punch-to-the-balls marinade, eschewing any subtlety whatsoever. The point further emphasised by it being flamboyantly yellow in colour. Rather superb, actually.
A Sea Bream Ceviche was first-rate. Served with toasted giant cancha corn it was like being slapped around the face with a fish by a man in a pith helmet as the Nell Gwyn Suite plays in the background. The bream, a perfect fish for ceviche, was sweet and spankingly fresh. In any decent ceviche the fish isn’t actually fully raw. The acid in the lime juice denatures the proteins in the flesh, mimicking the act of cooking with heat. The flesh dries, become taut and opaque while retaining its rawness in both taste and brightness of flavour.
A lobster main course was a luminous patchwork of colour, if somewhat busy-looking, with plenty of the white meat and no shortage of zest. An accompanying bowl of leche de tigre ramped up the zest factor even more. Suckling Pig ‘Andean Style’ was the tenderest and juiciest pork sampled in many a while. It was meltingly, piggishly robust and helped on its way by golden wedges of crackling. Accompanying piquillo and rocoto peppers worked wonders in lending a smoky backdrop.
And puddings, Chocolate Mousse with Cinnamon Cream was made from the coveted Peruvian Cacao Porcelana bean. Characteristically mellow and buttery, it was demolished in short order. Even with an unnerving adornment of Blue Potato Crystals – somewhere between plantain and Walkers crisps – this was a luscious treat. Dulce de Leche Ice Cream, Beetroot Emulsion and Maca Root was not as successful. Beetroot was entirely the wrong flavour here. It would have enjoyed a much more natural flirtationship with chocolate as opposed to the caramel it came with.
As for drinks, well obviously you’ll be on the cocktails. Sharp, foamy pisco sours are unquestionably the house speciality and damn fine they were too. Look out for the Cuenta del Diablo containing resh red chillies.
Inevitably you have to weigh all this up against the sustainability and ethical dilemmas posed by flying expensive ingredients several thousands of miles from a third world country to dinner tables in a fancy-pants London restaurant. But purely as a gastronomic end point – and showcase for modern Latin American cookery – Lima is brilliant. Refined, imaginative and most importantly fun. Although barely a potato in sight.
31 Rathbone Place
Phone: +44 203 002 2640