Workmen toil with buzz saws downstairs at 11 Madison Avenue, while chefs fine-tune sauces in the kitchen and haggle over plate rims with suppliers.
Peruvian restaurateur Gaston Acurio passes through with the easy-going assurance he’s developed while creating seven restaurant franchises that he’s exported to 11 countries.
Acurio, 43, is betting $5.5 million on a space where Danny Meyer’s Tabla struggled for profitability. It’s a gamble in part because the 180-seat La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, scheduled to open Sept. 20, will feature a cuisine that has yet to take hold in New York. The first U.S. La Mar had its debut on San Francisco’s Embarcadero three years ago.
“Cebiche is our flagship dish and this is how we want to bring Peruvian food to New York,” Acurio said during a visit to the site.
Peruvian cebiche (also spelled ceviche and seviche) is typically a cold dish of raw fish, hot aji limo peppers, lime juice, red onions and a touch of cilantro. La Mar’s most expensive main dish will be a cooked cebiche made with grilled lobster, accompanied by an Andean potato side.
“The potatoes are a recipe from Victoriano’s family,” Acurio says, referring to La Mar chef Victoriano Lopez, who’s a head shorter than his boss. Lopez, 40, dons chef’s whites with red-and-white Peruvian flags on the collars, while Acurio, his dark wavy hair worn longer, wears an untucked white dress shirt over jeans and black boots.
Among early jobs, Lopez sold street food from a pushcart before landing in the original Astrid & Gaston, Acurio’s first high-end room, 17 years ago. He’s worked in each of Acurio’s restaurants and overseen every opening abroad, he said.
“I’m Gaston’s right-hand man,” Lopez said. “This time I’m going to stick around. They’ve moved me here to run things.”
Spanish chef Ferran Adria, who closed El Bulli in July to found a culinary foundation, is in Peru this month to spend several weeks working on a documentary that will look at the role pride in Peruvian cuisine has played in the country’s rebirth, Acurio said.
Adria is also taking part in the third-annual Mistura, an exposition that runs through Sept. 18 in the Peruvian capital that Acurio dreamed up to spotlight a national cuisine that fuses foods from the country’s Andean, Amazon and coastal regions with techniques brought by emigrants from Africa, China, Europe and Japan. (Sushi master Nobu Matsuhisa spent formative years in a Lima restaurant during his 20s.)
Besides the restaurants and Mistura, Acurio has written many books, hosts television shows and established Fundacion Pachacutec, a culinary institute that runs a school for underprivileged students on a dusty hilltop slum outside Lima.
He’s bringing La Mar to the states as he shrinks the scope of Astrid & Gaston to just one flagship.
Appetizers at La Mar New York will run $9 to $18, entrees $24 to $32, Acurio said. Drinks will be made with a rotating supply of pisco, Peru’s clear, un-oaked grape brandy, in a bid to promote smaller producers.
Peruvian food relies on a handful of basic ingredients including four hot peppers -- aji panca, aji amarillo, aji limo, and rocoto -- and an Andean black mint called huacatay. Foods served at La Mar New York will be organic and harvested locally, Acurio said, adding that the local flounder known as fluke adapts especially well to cebiche.
“Thirty years ago people were reluctant to eat sushi and today even babies eat wasabi,” Acurio said. “We want Peruvian cuisine to follow the same path.”
La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, 11 Madison Ave., New York. Information: http://bit.ly/Sq2l9.
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