Past Pollo: How One Chef Is Redefining NYC’s Peruvian Cuisine
New Yorkers familiar with Peruvian cuisine have generally done business with ceviche-slingers and rotisserie joints, but Llama Inn is something else. Newly opened in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, Llama Inn presents the more modern and complicated work of a first-generation Peruvian-American.
Take the lomo saltado, which comes on a cast-iron sizzle platter—a heap of hard-seared beef laced with petals of red onion and tomato, crowned with fries, and already huge enough to feed three people. Erik Ramirez draws from this city’s fetish for large format, and from the dish’s Chinese-Peruvian roots, adding sheer chive pancakes and plenty of fixings—pickled chilies, pieces of cold avocado, a squeeze bottle of rocoto-spiked crema—so you can pile everything up to make your own tacos.
It’s delicious, no matter how you build it, but it would be nothing without the fries: The fries are fat and soft and exquisite when you crush them into the dark gravy, sticky with a rich veal stock, that’s waiting for you at the bottom of the pan. This is lomo saltado, and it isn’t, all at once.
Ramirez, who is 35 and grew up in New Jersey, has put a lot of thought into that space between observing traditions and revising them; between pleasing diners who already know lomo saltado (and will recognize his kitchen’s modifications) and drawing in a new crowd to whom these words will mean nothing. As a result, the menu is carefully rendered in English, and refers to the dish only as “beef tenderloin stir-fry.”
Everyone who belongs to two cultures has had to be their own interpreter. It's not always easy or fun, but Ramirez sure makes it look that way at Llama Inn, illuminating the vast pleasures of Peruvian cuisine with dexterity and style, using techniques he picked up in fine dining kitchens, both here and in Peru, to amplify and reconfigure familiar flavors. Though a dish of mussels and clams sounded much better than it tasted, which was mostly of salt and mint, even the simplest preparation of grilled beef heart (the restaurant does not serve llama meat) shines.
One of my favorites was the duck sausage and rice, which came shining with duck fat and a confetti of textures—crumbles of meat, crackling skin, teeny cold smudges of liver mousse. Though the menu didn’t refer to the dish explicitly, it contained all the joys of that great Peruvian comfort arroz con pato—the beer-marinated meat, the rice kissed with cumin—blown out to its delicious extremes.
Leche de tigre is the thin, sharp, milky liquid you get after soaking raw fish in seasoned citrus. Fish juice sounds horrifying, I know, which may be the real reason that when I ask, the waiter acts like the ingredients in leche de tigre are in a classified file above my pay grade, revealing nothing. But the dregs are delicious, and key to Peru’s great tradition of tiradito. If you’re skeptical, try Ramirez’s compelling version, made with sweet, firm sea bream from Japan.
He covers the fish in a rich, creamsicle-colored elixir, buzzing with ginger, scattered with pieces of soft, ripe persimmon, and he serves it just as he should, which is very quickly, before the acidity can turn the protein stiff and opaque. Unlike ceviche, where the seafood can be piled in big, hulking pieces, the fish is in thin, even slices, closer to sashimi. (This is no coincidence: The practice is one of many shaped by Peru’s Japanese immigrants, who first arrived in the 19th century.)
Ramirez used to be a sous chef at the swanky Eleven Madison Park, which suggests a certain level of formality and fussiness. And it’s true that the sea bream, freckled all over with poppy seeds, is delicately pretty, and that just a few bites will cost you $16. But the restaurant, set in a glass box almost underneath the BQE in Williamsburg, is not swanky or precious; nor will it seem overpriced when you’re swooning over the beautifully seasoned quinoa jeweled with caramelized banana and bacon.
Though the service is inconsistent, and on one occasion a dish I ordered never came out, the staff is warm and welcoming. When a friend lost his wedding ring at the table, everyone helped him look for it; one server even lifted the table straight up without spilling anyone’s cocktails, so he could sweep a flashlight underneath.
Peru’s full range of ingredients isn’t available in New York, but Ramirez does get cherimoya to make a sorbet, a rainbow of fresh and frozen chilies, and Peruvian olive oil for finishing several dishes. He buys in the Andean fruit lúcuma, too. Off the tree, it's round and green, hiding a dense, starchy fruit that’s a luxe, McLaren shade of orange. This fades when it’s processed, but in a frothy dessert of chocolate and coffee creams, you can see and taste a ghost of it—a pale, sweet, tangy butterscotch.
The dining room is noisy, full of twentysomethings in vintage fleece-lined denim and super chunky knit scarves. No one takes off their beanies and felt brims for dinner, probably because you can always feel a chill coming in through the massive windows. For warmth, you could sit at the seats in front of the open kitchen and feel the heat of the stoves on your face. Or you could order a gingery La Chunga cocktail the second you sit down. There’s enough white rum in there to really warm your belly and the gentle sweetness comes from chicha morada, a bruise-colored Peruvian drink made from purple corn. As with so many of the Peruvian ingredients you’ll find bolstering the flavors at Llama Inn, Ramirez ships the purple corn to Brooklyn, then deftly extracts as much flavor and color from it as he can.
Llama Inn is at 50 Withers Street, Brooklyn (Williamsburg); +1 (718) 387-3434 or llamainnnyc.com.
Rating: Two Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: Quinoa with banana and avocado ($14); Sea bream tiradito ($16); Duck sausage rice ($16); Beef tenderloin stir-fry (serves two, and more than two if you’re ordering other dishes as well; $48); Beef heart anticucho ($4 each)
What to Drink: Cocktails are $12 (even the house punch on tap, which you wish was a little bit less). The wine list focuses on South America, with plenty of reasonably priced bottles well under $60, including a particularly lovely Cauquenina blend from Clos des Fous in Chile ($66).
Soundtrack: David Bowie; Queen