Restaurant Reviews

Peru Peru

When first told that NASA incorporates Peruvian foods into the inflight meals of American astronauts, I pictured bowls of ceviche floating gravity-free through a spaceship, and lime wedges trailing nearby in very slow motion, lazily bumping into free-tumbling tamalelike humitas. Upon snapping back from my reverie, the rationale became clear: They must have finally figured out what cuisine pairs best with Tang. But I had it all wrong. Since 1985, whoever is in charge of meal planning at NASA has fortified the space diet with ancient Peruvian plants such as the grain quinoa, the cereal kiwicha, and the root vegetable maca, solely on the basis of their highly touted nutritional content. Salmon Salmon, a petite, 42-seat Peruvian eatery in West Miami, doesn't serve any of the NASA-approved comestibles. Nor does it prepare humitas or have much to do with salmon either, but it does launch honest, homestyle Peruvian seafood dishes at nonastronomical prices.

The decorative scheme is more nautical than astral, an obligatory fishing net dangling from the ceiling, and dark, planky wood walls suggesting the cabin of a boat. A display of amateurish Cubist artwork neither adds nor detracts from the cozy and unpretentious setting, but a full deck's worth of diners hoists the room to life. Salmon and Salmon has spawned quite a loyal following since Fabio Salmon and his son José first docked it at this location in 1980. (José's wife Liliana joined when Fabio passed away.)

It's best to set sail with ceviche, which is served with raw red onion slices on top and, in keeping with Lima tradition, sturdy hunks of boiled potato, sweet potato, and corn on the side. Octopus, shrimp, squid, and corvina formed a sparkling tandem of tastes in ceviche mixto, the seafood imbued with a mild citrus kiss lipsticked with lime juice, cilantro, and red onion. The only thing missing was aji chili peppers from the Andes — actually any chili peppers would have done. Peruvian cuisine is not fiery by nature, but Salmon Salmon's fare is noticeably bereft of piquancy. Our waiter did plunk down a devilish dish of rocoto chilies puréed with garlic, onions, cilantro, and vinegar.

Another category of chilled seafood starters is based on mussels, shrimp, raw oysters, or raw clams, your choice topped with either finely diced onions and tomatoes or a similarly minced mix of onions and herbs (parsley and cilantro). We tried half a dozen clams laden with the latter, the bivalves so plump and briny that they withstood, even prospered from the onion onslaught. More red onion rings capped a heaping appetizer platter of fried corvina and calamari, the seafood thinly coated in savorily seasoned batter and cooked to an exceptionally clean crispness.

Peru grows 2000 species of sweet potato, and twice that many varieties of other potatoes. Most prevalent use of the latter might be as the base for papas a la huancaína (from Huancayo), three domes of boiled potatoes blanketed by a smooth, turmeric-color cheese sauce pepped with a hint of peppers.

Peru's coast boasts as many species of fish as the land does spuds, but Salmon Salmon mainly casts its net around shrimp, squid, octopus, mussels, and corvina. A majority of these come garnished with sautéed tomatoes and onions, creole sauce, or coriander sauce, although an exception would be the gutsy garlic-butter that laced a generous plate of small and medium-size shrimp. Another fetching catch is the whole fried snapper, a full, fleshy fish meant for two to share.

Cau cau, a tripe stew thickened with mashed potatoes, exemplifies the creole cooking prevalent in Lima. The fricassee featured here substitutes tripe with mussels, clams, scallops, squid, and shrimp simmered with turmeric and currylike spices; as is custom, rice gets served on the side. Further creole influence can be discerned in the spiritedly seasoned shrimp, squid, and corvina found in Salmon Salmon's arroz chaufa, although the base of fried rice primarily reflects the culinary style of the 100,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived in Peru between 1849 and 1874.

When presented with tacu-tacu at Salmon Salmon, I did a double-take: It looked like a giant potato pancake but was a pan-sized, pan-fried patty of rice mixed with mashed red beans and aromatic spices. With its delectably smoky flavor, the tacu was perfectly paired with an impeccably grilled fillet of trucha — better known as trout. The delicate pink skin and pristine freshwater flavor will make you wonder why more restaurants don't serve this fish. A lime-juiced "salsa" of onions, tomatoes, and cilantro was served alongside. I don't know how many types of onion are grown in Peru, but nary a course goes by here that doesn't contain copious amounts of it.

Salmon Salmon's sole carnivorous option is skirt steak, either grilled or fried straightforwardly, or topped with onions and tomatoes. Peru's signature lomo saltado is also served, and it, too, features skirt steak, albeit smaller pieces, with tomato and onion (and French fries). We sampled a seafood-infused take on this classic, called lomo marino, which brought a covered stockpot of dull soy-based beef broth swimming with sautéed tips of skirt steak, corvina, scallops, squid, shrimp, and predictably soggy fries. Houston, we have a problem: The taste was that of bland Cantonese surf 'n' turf.

The waitstaff teams together to provide efficient service, though during one visit, they neglected to distribute the wine list (which happens to be brimming with bargains) and didn't advise us that entrées come with choice of rice, French fries, or salad. I didn't notice the latter omission until later perusing the take-out menu. We were served boiled white rice with our dinners.

A creamy wedge of what appeared to be flavored cheesecake was actually a mousse made from the tropical Peruvian fruit lucuma atop a crocant cookie crust. We preferred another, more common dessert from Peru called babarois, which in France is known as oeufs à la neige ("snow eggs") and in America is named floating islands: a puffy cloud of egg whites and sugar whipped to soft meringue consistency, poached in a bath of sweetened milk, and set upon a vanilla custard sauce made from that milk. When prepared properly (as is the case here), this is an ethereal dessert, so airy it seems unbound by gravity. Yet the real appeal of Salmon Salmon rests in its decidedly down-to-earth cooking.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein