Deservedly noted as one of the world’s top 50 dining establishments several years running
I had a culinary “road to Damascus” moment in San Isidro, Lima, Peru at the flagship restaurant of Astrid y Gaston. Set in an old casona in one of the nicest residential areas of Lima, the scale of the restaurant dwarfs other intimate establishments, but because of its design remaining true to its origins as a house, it is light, airy, and even at full tilt does not appear crowded.
When you can dine in a temple of high gastronomy and have a tasting menu, do. There is no better way to discover the range and inspiration of the chef. I had a 15-course tasting menu and opted for the “wine pairing” which went with it—a glass of something specifically chosen to marry with each dish. When I think of why I ever go to restaurants, it is to go and have food that I would never prepare myself—either because it is of a technical virtuousity that I cannot contemplate, requires techniques or ingredients that are beyond my range for a variety of reasons, or because it is a style of regional or national cooking that is outside of my comfort zone. All of these reasons put me in the right frame of mind to really enjoy great cooking.
As you might expect, not every dish was a home run, and even those that were, often made you think as much as taste. Indeed, this was not food as we might normally conceive it. It is high art, and although I don’t truck much with this idea that cooking is an art form, to eat in a place with such talented chefs in the kitchen, working at full inspiration, there really is no other word for it. It was certainly inspirational.
Along with the meal I opted for the wine pairing, which was a selected glass with each dish. Not all the selections were wine, there was a beer, two sherries, and also a spirit.
Here is the menu and my imperfect translation:
- Fall cocktail (yes, now is the beginning of Fall in Peru) and dried orange chip…served on a bed of ice.
- Airbag of maca emulsion, “pizza” of potato, and fan scallop…the airbag shattered in the mouth
- Oyster, sea lettuce foam, grilled trout eggs…a perfect oyster with the flavours of the sea
- Roasted and pickled purple onion, chicha de mar (a kind of sauce), chestnut…the onion was like the essence of onion, but the pieces were cut into the shape of flower petals…
- Duck cured in kombu seaweed, sea urchin roe…this was a fascinating flavour combination and one which I will play with in the future…but here I found the duck tartare not quite chopped enough and the dish had an unctuousness to it that I didn’t quite enjoy—the roe, however, added an incredible kick of earthy-umami to the meat. It was, however, served with a farm-house ale, which paired beautifully with this dish.
- Hamachi, pig cheeks, and tomato heart…what an interesting combination, served with a crispy Austrian white wine.
- Concha pala—square scallop, chicken broth flan and scallop coral emulsion…this was excellent, and the chicken broth flan was a play on the idea, coming to the table still liquid, but gelling as the dish was placed on ice
- Grilled leeks, Thai-inspired Romesco sauce, straciatella chiflera (Italian cheese with Peruvian chiflera, a local herb…[an interesting side note of spiritual relevance to me is that the word “chiflera” in Spanish also means a woman who sells spiritual or esoteric items—a kind of witch])—the leeks were miniature, perfectly flavoured, meltingly tender without any stringiness and the classic Romesco was more piquant than usual–divine
- Wild shrimp, grilled tomato, lettuce vinaigrette, green olive gelatine
- Tamal of sweet choclo corn and goat puree…this was my favourite dish. The tenderness of the corn tamal and its natural sweetness was off the charts.
- Pig’s head, percebes (goose neck barnacles, aka “the most expensive seafood in the world”) and dried potato
- Quail stuffed with char siu rice…I liked it so much I asked my waiter to leave the cutting board he carved my quail on so that I could suck the meat from the tender little bones
- Fall sorbet…this was a gelato of melon with port wine reduction, a macaron of red wine and cecina, Peruvian salt dried pork. This was a play on the Italian prosciutto melone dish.
- Sweet potato in a caramel shell and a pipette of Glenfiddich whiskey…this was a fascinating idea, the shell made to look like the skin of a roasted potato which you tap to crack open, and inside was the fluffy, airy potato foam…it was a fascinating and light and dry texture with a natural sweetness that carried the flavour of pure potato
- Trilogy of chocolate mousse with their accompaniments—olive oil, citrus peel, and pisco
- A box of chocolates flavoured with saffron, olive oil, muña which is a Peruvian herb like mint but much drier and more aromatic, and aji Amarillo, a popular variety of Peruvian hot pepper.
The dishes were all rather bite sized, so it was not so filling as it sounds, but the sommelier became quite friendly and so I could feel it in my knees when I did finally get up. As a former sommelier it was insanely refreshing to go through 15 courses of wine, sherry, beer, and aguardiente and to have never heard of any of them—that is how well curated and unusual the wine list is. He is at the top of his game.
As I was contemplating the first course, this blonde woman came up to my table and started talking to me. She was blabbing away, saying I had been on her flight, that I had sat near her, that I was in the customs line before her, that she stood right behind me in the passport line, that she had then taken a different lane and was frustrated at how quickly I got through and how she was delayed, and that she was stressed, and I said, “it wasn’t me,” and she said, “oh yes it was, one doesn’t see such a tall man wearing a skirt like that every day. I had to look at you. I noticed your style, and what a strange coincidence that you are here.”
And she was talking to me as if I should know her, and I hadn’t a clue, and I was thinking, ‘I want to take a bite of my first course,’ and wondering if it would be rude, and why was this woman talking to me so much?
And I was about to ask and then she introduced herself, “I am Astrid,” and of course I should have known, as everyone else in the restaurant clearly did, and she is culinary royalty, with restaurants all over the world, and here she was gushing at my table, sidling into her life story, a German woman in Peru, married to a Peruvian, Gaston, her husband. And she was fawning over me as we bonded over our respective food journeys, and where inspiration comes from, how dishes are created.
And all the people in the room were wondering, why is she spending so much time talking to that guy in a dress? And I realised that had I not been wearing a skirt as I flew from Argentina to Peru, she might have never noticed me, and what a strange thing life is, and how circumstances are what they are, and how one door closes and others open. It was really quite beautiful.
And I tucked into one of the most unusual and inspirational culinary journeys of my life, and she came to visit with me again and again…it was almost like being in her home. And a very patrician man who was entertaining at a large table came over and introduced himself. He was very elegantly dressed and was curious about my connection to Astrid—which of course had been born that evening but was curious about this culinary thread…and as it happened, his business activities have him in the country where I have my culinary activities, and he was interested in bringing clients. It was all slightly surreal.
And in truth, I had been worried about being “dressed” and going out by myself in Lima, and knowing how macho the culture can be, and yet, here I was, and everything was natural—and I think the energy we put out is the energy that comes back to us. And the more I come into my female self—as in, find balance, the more positively people are relating to me. Men and women.
I know I haven’t written much about the food. If you find yourself heading to Lima and would like to have an extraordinary gastronomic experience, book (well in advance) the tasting menu at Astrid y Gaston. It is exceptional.
Astrid y Gaston
Av. Paz Soldan 290, San Isidro 15073, Lima, Peru
Tel: +51 1 4422777
Reservations required, and well in advance.