Lima’s Taste

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

You probably
want to eat Peruvian food. It’s a refined cuisine, artisanal if done right.
Yet it’s not wildly exotic. The jump from Mexican is equivalent to that
from Chinese to Malaysian or Thai. Peruvian food tells a New World story of
vegetative plenty, tropical craft, indigenous pride. There’s not a whole
lot of it to be had in New York, but it’s definitely here, and more is
coming. Remember, it wasn’t very long ago that our Thai restaurants were
few and far between.

There is
now some very decent Peruvian to be had in the East Village. Recently opened
Lima’s Taste is an unflashy place on a quiet block of E. 13th St., owned
and run by a couple. The wife is the chef, and she was trained by her grandmother.
The excitement and value she and her husband serve up in their brick-walled
little room puts that entire Ave. B strip to shame. Modest good restaurants
don’t always survive in this trend-chasing excuse for a neighborhood–if
you have an interest, please support Lima’s Taste.

We had a
little trouble with the service. Our party was arriving gradually, some from
uptown, some from Brooklyn, so we in the advance guard decided to try some ceviche
while we waited. But our waiter must have gone on break without telling the
kitchen about it. We drank our Crystal beers (undistinguished mellow Peruvian
lagers) and wondered what on Earth had happened to the guy. When he finally
came back around, though, he was super-attentive, and everything else we ordered
arrived quickly. He even guessed we didn’t want an intermission between
courses, and he was right.

Back to
the ceviche de pescado: it’s the first dish on Lima’s Taste’s
menu, and a great way to get started there. Maybe if authentic Peruvian cuisine
becomes popular in New York, upscale Latin-American restaurants will no longer
be able to fake ceviche like they do. When seafood is cold-cooked in its citrus
marinade–it takes a while–its taste is explosive compared to the instant
version. Lima’s ceviche de pescado ($9.50) contained strips of fish, large
chunks of sweet potato and a shower of red onions–no shellfish. The strong
flesh of what we guessed was cod (turned out it was flounder)seemed electrified
by their astringent bath. Sweet potatoes soaked in this cool, cloudy sauce were
even better.

Other appetizers
make their mark with smotherings of lemon-kissed red onions, cilantro, tomato
and/or corn. Mussels a la Lima ($6.50) piled all of the above into each shell,
making the plate a table-set worth of bite-sized cold mussel salads. Shrimps
wrapped in bacon ($9) also demanded a communal-dining approach. Though the meat
of the dish was exactly as advertised, the accompanying spicy green dip provoked
a brainstorm. What besides pureed peppers and maybe some mint was in this chalky,
late-biting sauce? We couldn’t figure it out, and the help couldn’t
(or maybe wouldn’t) say.

Papa rellena
is a labor-intensive, traditional Peruvian appetizer by which an entire restaurant
can be measured almost fairly, like the tortilla española in a tapas
joint. What it is, sort of, is a beef patty translated into potato. That is,
it’s a crust of deep-fried potato completely surrounding a core of meat.
Papa rellena also usually has raisins and olives in there. Lima’s Taste’s
papa rellena ($6.50) did. It was excellent.

The potato
alone rocked. Crisp and golden on the outside, then beyond the shell it was
mashed mushy, coming out inexplicably light and dry. Imagine a perfect french
fry at 700-percent scale, in a football shape. A quarter of the way in, nibbles
of sauteed beef start showing up, along with raisins, swollen yet mild. Olives
were only a vague presence, seemingly unrelated to the flavor bullies of Mediterranean
cuisine. They and the raisins provided subtle touches of fruit, helping tip
the balance of this meat-and-potato dish decidedly toward the tuber. You can
get a feel for what it’s like, eating this, to subsist largely off of roots.
Even the flavor of the beef–oniony–called attention to Earth.

specialty appetizer, causa ($7.50), brought another winning preparation of potato.
This time it’d been boiled, mashed and palmed into a half-shell, akin to
a thick noodle. The shell comes stuffed with a scoop of Peruvian chicken salad
(there’s also a vegetarian version), dressed in creamed avocado and sweet
yellow peppers instead of mayo. Seasonings of cilantro and lemon give it an
airy feel, and the rare absence of an abundance of onions make causa ideal for
diners who are afraid of that. Of course, it’s more fun to see if you can
eat as many as are served.

of roots, an interesting fact about Peru is that even though it was the seat
of Spain’s New World empire, its people managed to preserve a lot of pre-colonial
culture. It’s easy enough to save art and recipes, but in order for customs
to survive over centuries, it takes a sustained currency of heritage–a
will-to-tradition that must also be passed from generation to generation. What
comes through in the robust flavors at Lima’s Taste is that artisan’s
pride. Spanish and Asian techniques and ingredients were assimilated into Peruvian
cuisine because cooks knew they could use them without overshadowing the mighty
potato, the mighty pepper or the all-but-shamanic Peruvian mastery of them.

of seafood picante ($16) and aji de pollo ($12) gave us two examples of Lima’s
Taste’s pepper sauces. In fact, the only difference might have been the
amount of pepper heat our party selected for these two rice dishes. We got the
picante medium, and it was creamier. That was a bit of a shame, because seafood
in heavy cream sauce always reminds me of a seafood Newburg I overdosed on as
a kid once, at a buffet. The hotter pollo sauce, also cheery, bright yellow
and somewhat creamy, featured significantly more pepper flavor. The picante
managed to thrill the scallop fans in our party, thanks to specimens so delicate
they flaked. The included shrimps, mussels and squid also made for hearty eating.
The sliced breast meat in the aji de pollo, though, was a much better complement
to the spicy-sweet taste of the thinner yellow sauce, I thought. You might not
want to bother with either the seafood picante or the aji de pollo if you’d
want them milder than medium-spicy. There’s little point in pepper sauce
if you can’t taste peppers.

We found
Lima’s Taste’s escaveche chicken ($13) to be its star attraction.
It’s a browned breast filet in a vinegar-pepper sauce, with sides of yucca
and sweet onions. The pepper in the sauce is panca, a South American variety
that doesn’t show up in Mexican food. It’s often described as "fruity"
and compared to smoky chipotle, but I think those descriptions come up short.
The character it lent the escaveche sauce was more reminiscent of a red wine
reduction than any other chili. Watery and brown-red, with a full flavor almost
neutralizing a tangy vinegar backswing, the sauce tasted as fantastic with the
yucca fries and onions as with the chicken.

Our appetizers
were a tough act to follow, and still the entree course was up to snuff, so
we decided to try some dessert, even though we were full. Purple corn pudding
($5) turned out to be a bad dish to encounter with a bursting belly. The menu
description reads "Boiled blue corn (only grown in Peru), with pineapple
and prunes." What you get is a conic glass of what appears to be dark purple
jelly, but on inspection is actually much more starchy than any fruit spread.
A spoon pushed down to the bottom almost came out with the whole dessert en
masse. It was as sweet as grape jelly, too. We decided it’d be nice on
toast, for breakfast, but after dinner it was just too The Blob.

manjar ($4.50) was a chocolate cake with only a dusting of cocoa flavor, but
it was true, bitter chocolate. The sweetness came via a candy-like dulce de
leche frosting. Next time, I’ll try my luck with cinnamon flan ($4.50).

Taste has a small but diverse wine list, with one red each from Australia, Spain,
Portugal, Argentina and Chile. Most of that same territory, plus California,
is covered in the whites list, which also appears to be carefully selected.

Taste, 432 E. 13th St. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A), 228-7900.


Taste will have to work hard to thrive in the tumultuous East Village, even
though its direct competition is out in Park Slope. Coco Roco has been praised
in these pages and many others, and a recent return/ research trip found it
as deserving of its accolades as ever. The tiradito de lenguado ($9.95)–halibut
ceviche in yellow-pepper-and-lime sauce–could inspire a table celebration,
just like Lima’s Taste’s ceviche de pescado. The two restaurants are
also very similarly priced. Given the Manhattan Peruvian’s superior (real-estate-ly
speaking) location, you’d expect its popularity to be assured.

But Coco
Roco makes itself a part of its neighborhood in a way that Lima’s Taste
has not, at least not yet. Sorry a state of affairs as it is, it might be wrongheaded
to expect the local Latin-American community and other longtime locals to sit
down alongside the East Village’s or Park Slope’s relocated children
of privilege. Coco Roco is a slow-food establishment, but it does a thriving
side business–out of the front of the restaurant–in rotisserie chickens,
rice and beans, plantains, yams, yucca and papas fritas. They also grill six-dollar
steak, pork and chicken sandwiches up there. The strategy seems to have won
the restaurant a loyal clientele of people who might not have ever bothered
with Coco Roco had they not wandered by and tried some takeout.

Taste would perhaps be wise to take a similar tack and make its presence felt
on its block. As much as we food snobs like to hoard the good stuff for ourselves,
fine-crafted Peruvian is too ancient and folksy to be only funneled to the adventurous.

Coco Roco,
392 5th Ave. (betw. 6th & 7th Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-965-3376.