Monday, 16 July 2012
After a faintly underwhelming evening a couple of months ago at Ceviche, the first of the new-wave Peruvian fusion restaurants to open in London, you can forgive me for not being wildly enthusiastic about trying somewhere else ten minutes walk away that, on the face of it at least, appeared to be doing something remarkably similar. Obviously everywhere should be judged on its own merits, but having arrogantly assumed I'd "done" sea-bass ceviche and Pisco sours and not finding many reasons to believe that Lima wouldn't just be more of the same, I rolled up to Rathbone Place with expectations if not low then certainly 'realistic'.
But by the time I'd finished a Pisco Sour (perhaps slightly better than the Ceviche version, although that was very good too) I began to get the feeling that there was something altogether more accomplished about the way Lima was going about things, compared to their rivals. The basement bar at Lima perhaps doesn't have the same shabby Soho atmosphere, but the staff are engaging and the drinks are prepared smartly, and with skill. Upstairs, the dining room is brightly lit by a large skylight (at least it is in early summer) and a large open kitchen makes a entertaining centerpiece while you wait for your dinner to arrive.
Most importantly, while the food at Ceviche veered from 'disappointing' to 'fine', everything we ate at Lima was astonishingly good. Ordering two varieties of ceviche to start (the menu is only vaguely divided into 'starters' and 'mains' but is fairly easy to figure out), an artichoke version came dressed with "amazon tree tomato" (I think more normally known as tamarillo) sauce, sharp and brightly coloured and a perfect counterfoil to the sweet artichokes. Even more impressive though was a sea-bass ceviche which in contrast to the clumsily oversour version in Soho was gently marinated and allowed the soft flavour of the fish to be the main event, texture provided by some rings of red onion. I could have done without the ugly smear of sweet potato purée around the side of the bowl, but I guess they had their reasons.
Mains were similarly high in wow-factor. Four large chunks of halibut, showing a gentle crust from the grill but still tender and moist, were paired with a sort of smooth peanutty sauce, the contents of which I couldn't even begin to hazard a guess at but take your pick from "huacatay herb, Andean grain, aji mirasol" from the menu. Star of the evening though was a plate of the best suckling pig I can remember being given in London, accompanied by "potato 4000 metres" which tasted less like potato and more like a kind of squash with an incredibly concentrated sweet/savoury flavour. Thanks to a mix of some interesting textures such as sliced white pear and chunks of grilled nuts, this was the kind of thing that makes sense of all the hype about Peruvian fusion food - it really was that good.
It's a sign of a great restaurant that as soon as you've paid up and left you wish you could go back and try everything else you didn't get to shovel down the first time. And I do desperately want to try the "Asparagus Peru" and the "Eco Dried Potato" and the "bay scallops tiraditos". But here's the problem with that - I'll have to get saving. Our bill, with a bottle of the cheapest wine, a beer and a very pleasant pot of "Andean Kiwicha" (sort of a crunchy yoghurty thing topped with the unappetising-sounding "purple corn jelly" but was actually nowhere near as weird as it sounds) came to £100 for two, and was the only slight dampener on what had otherwise been a faultless evening. Perhaps I've been spoiled by no-reservations places like Polpo and Burger & Lobster which can offer top-notch food for less by turning tables ten times of an evening, and I admit it was nice rocking up and saying "table for 2 for Pople, 6:30" instead of "how long's the wait?", but £50 is still a lot of money for 2 1/2 courses and a few drinks.
Also, I wonder how many people will raise their eyebrows at a menu that appears to import much of its contents from a country 6,000 miles away? With every recession-era pointing trend towards local sourcing and recycled napkins, it's very strange to be sat in a restaurant that boasts of just how many food miles (and vertical metres) your dinner has travelled, and asks you to pay a premium for it. Can this be a sustainable arrangement? Should it be?
Despite the nagging environmenal questions though, and the cost, there's still a lot to love about Lima. The food, as I say, is extraordinary not just because London has seen little like it before, but because it is thoughtfully constructed, expertly cooked and tastes incredible. Service was spot on (the Maitre d' has come from Heston Blumenthal's Dinner) and we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I wish it had been a bit cheaper, but then you can't have everything. So save your pennies, take public transport to offset your carbon emissions, and go and see for yourself.