Peru, the Remix

Of all the benefits Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro imagined might result from his midsixteenth-century destruction of Peru's great Inca empire, a culinary revolution producing what many chefs consider the most sophisticated cuisine of any South/Central American nation probably was not foremost in the sword-swinger's mind. Yet the cross-cultural criollo race, and eponymous cooking style resulting from this forced blending of European and indigenous ingredients, did start an innovative culinary approach that continues almost five centuries later, enriched by further immigration waves: African slaves imported later in the 1500s to work the conquerors' sugar and cotton plantations, Chinese to work the guano/nitrate fertilizer and metal mines, Italians later in the Nineteenth Century, and some 100,000 Japanese in the Twentieth Century's first half (resulting in Nobu Matsuhisa ... 'nuff said).

Of course every New World nation is a result of some sort of native/EurAsian immigrant combination, and a lifetime of dinner discussions could be spent trying to figure out why each nation's cuisine seems to incorporate or isolate these influences differently -- why the mine camp cuisine of California Gold Rush Chinese immigrants used so much more cornstarch thickener than the dishes of Peru's similarly Cantonese guano/nitrate miners; why Chinese/American food remained isolated from mainstream U.S. cuisine until recent "fusion" years, while Chinese influences showed up in Peruvian classics like soy-spiced lomo saltado ages ago; why Chinese influences fused so readily into Peruvian dishes, for that matter, while Japanese cuisine remained its own genre in Peru till Nobu.

But maybe the most puzzling question was this: Why was none of Peru's most complex upscale food represented up here in Latin America's primo capital city? Since late 2001, though, there's been Francesco. The northern outpost of El Francesco, regarded for two decades now as one of Lima's top seafood spots, Francesco is higher priced than the average Miami luncheonette-look Peruvian eatery. But the unpretentious elegance of the wood-paneled warm setting is well worth it.



325 Alcazar Ave, Coral Gables, FL

Open Tuesday through Friday noon to 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 to 10:00 p.m.; Saturday 1:00 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday 1:00 to 9:00 p.m. Call 305-446-1600.

Not surprisingly in a country whose waters feature over 700 fish and 400 shellfish species, ceviches are a specialty, and failing to order at least one of Francesco's magnificent marinade raw-fish dishes would be possibly the biggest dining faux pas a Miamian could make. As usual at most Peruvian eateries in town there's a choice of fish, seafood, a mixto of both, or shrimp-only, but Francesco also offers a mushroom version.

Additionally one can choose either ceviche or tiradito (minimalist ceviches, sans onions), and, best, among four different sauces: traditional style, citrus-marinated seafood accompanied by genuine chewy Peruvian choclo on the cob; a mild sauce of aji amarillo, Peru's most common, classic yellow chili; a slightly spicier rocoto sauce, made from a large bell-type chili with a complex sweet/hot kick; and Francesco sauce, a creamy white vinaigrette. Since all sauces are fabulous, it's most fun to taste-test with the menu's three-sauce sampler, or, better yet, talk your accommodating server into putting together a four-sauce sampler for the table.

Another superior starter, tuna carpaccio, tasted enticingly different from the usual Italian models. The yellowfin tuna slices, thin but not as tissue paper/stick-to-da-plate thin as most carpaccios, had a marinated border, giving them a little of the cooked look of tuna tataki and a little of the citrus taste of ceviche. And instead of an olive oil drizzle, the fish came with a more complicated concoction that looked and tasted like a cross between a light French beurre blanc and an Asian soy-based sauce.

As a person of Irish ancestry I well know the importance of the potato to certain national cuisines, but only in Peru is the potato virtually its own Basic Food Group; many of the roughly 4000 potato varieties ID'd by scientists are, in fact, found only in Peru, such as the papa amarilla used in Francesco's causa de camarones. Causas, popular as luncheon and party dishes, are crudely Napoleon-like structures of oil-bound crushed potatoes layered with various fillings, often canned tuna or chicken salad, and garnished with something like sliced vinaigrette-marinated onions. Francesco's causa had a more high-end filling of avocado and shrimp, and the garnish was a rich red pepper aioli-type sauce. The causa's elegance was marred, sadly, by proportions far too starch-heavy; finding a piece of shrimp or veg was a hunt. Also, while the causa's smashed potato substance was good, I frankly didn't find papa amarilla dramatically unique. Layers of different types of potato might provide a more interesting basis for comparison.

Among entrées, lomo saltado was just as savory and considerably more sophisticated than any other version I've had of this Peruvian classic stir-fry of sliced beef tenderloin, onions, and tomatoes, due to an unusually graceful EurAsian enrichment with red wine as well as soy sauce. Camarones a la pimenta (featuring tender, precision-sautéed, scrumptiously sweet freshwater shrimp) also benefited from cross-cultural influences -- a subtly creamy French poivre sauce and a full-flavored Florentine rice accompaniment.

Just as not all of Europe's old political influences have had a positive effect on Peru's culture, however -- there's a deep socio-economic divide between those of white European and indigenous Indian descents, and colonial snobbery persists -- not all of Europe's old culinary influences have had a positive effect on Peru's fancy-schmancier food. Unfortunately two entrées we tried at Francesco demonstrated persistent petrified "continental" pretensions: Salmone canelloni, described as "gratin with a special tomato and fine herbs sauce," and red snapper with shrimp, described as "gratin with a delicious bell pepper béchamel," both came gratin with heavy melted cheese glop. I'd mention also that all fish were dramatically overcooked, but the less said about a couple of losers in a winning meal, the easier to remember all the uniquely intriguing stuff.

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