La Mar by Gaston Acurio occupies a beautiful location on the waterfront in Miami. It’s a setting that is almost a match for the beauty of the food.
Much has been written about the growing international importance of Peruvian cuisine. La Mar shows how good it can be.
It’s a modern restaurant where Acurio starts with classic dishes and flavor combinations and builds on them. He’s influenced by contemporary cooking in Europe -- especially Spain -- and by Japanese style: clean flavors and uncluttered plates.
Or you could just start with the pisco sours and savor the experience rather than spend too much time analyzing the food. You might face a wait for one and then find several show up together, like buses. For me, one of the pleasures of the restaurant was sitting in the sunshine, under a clear sky, looking across the blue water with a cold drink in hand.
There’s a range of enjoyable cocktails -- including a guava sour -- before you need even think about the food, when the pleasure ratchets up a few notches.
Over five visits, I kept returning to Cebiche Sampler ($29). This features three variants on Peru’s finest culinary export of raw fish marinated in citrus juices. There’s the Clasico (fluke), the Criollo (calamari, scallops, yellow tail snapper) and the Nikei (tuna).
Acurio is a giant in Latin American cooking, with restaurants around the world, including two others in the U.S.: La Mar Cebicheria in San Francisco and Tanta in Chicago. At home in Lima, his flagship Astrid & Gaston topped the inaugural Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards last year. (There has even been speculation that he might run for president of Peru, though he has ruled this out.)
When I ate at Astrid & Gaston during the Mistura gastronomic fair last year, diners were issued with a passport for their culinary journey. Chef Sanjay Dwivedi, whose London restaurant Coya serves fine Peruvian food, was there after spending time studying in Acurio’s kitchens. A branch of Coya is scheduled to open near La Mar in Miami later this year.
Heading the kitchen at La Mar, in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, is Executive Chef Diego Oka, who has worked alongside Acurio for more than a decade. Among the finest dishes is Chaufa Aeropuerto ($25), a savory mix of Chinese sausage, roasted pork, pan-fried rice and shrimp omelette. Another winner was a special of red snapper roasted with tamarind sauce.
The Asian influences also show up in dishes such as Lomo Saltado ($31): stir-fried Angus beef, red onions, tomatoes, soy sauce, cilantro, papas fritas and rice. Or you can go for anticucho meat skewers, which here include wagyu beef ($15).
The wine list is good, too, with a broad selection from the U.S. and South America. The service is friendly and generally efficient. But not perfect.
My visits were all within days of the official March 19 opening and there were hitches, including waits as long as 20 minutes for a pisco sour. My solution was to order them in batches, which worked fine until several arrived at once. This was a pleasure blitz of sharp citrus. I drank them before they could warm up, so the evening was a blur.
While the outdoor terrace is a delight, the dining room is a difficult space and runs deep into the building. The designers’ attempts to make it more interesting -- with an open kitchen, a bar and a ceviche counter -- can’t really save it.
Outdoors in the evening, the tables are candlelit, which is romantic and means you can enjoy the view. It also means you can’t see the food. This can be a big let-down, particularly for a visually exciting dish of a mini-boat loaded with four types of mashed potatoes. There’s something about their texture that is unpleasant if you don’t know what you are eating.
The pisco sours did nothing to sharpen my vision.
So what if La Mar had a few teething problems? The cooking is first class, the ingredients are fine and if you can grab an outdoors seat, the location is world class.
La Mar by Gaston Acurio, Mandarin Oriental, 500 Brickell Key Drive, Miami, Florida 33131, U.S. Information: http://bit.ly/1igOpW3 or +1-305-913-8358
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)