Peru Fusion Day Two

2009.Mar.17 Tuesday · 20 comments

in Popular Posts, Restaurants

“The true portrait of a man is a fusion of what he thinks he is, what others think he is, what he really is and what he tries to be.”

– Dore Schary, producer

Buenos Aires – I was originally going to do a compare and contrast between my last spot reviewed, PozoSanto, and the one I’m covering today, the also newly opened Buenos Aires branch of a Lima restaurant, Astrid & Gastón, Lafinur 3222, Palermo chico, 4802-2991. But after trying both, it seemed unfair for a couple of reasons. First, I think both deserve an indepth review. Second, I hadn’t realized that PozoSanto was a fusion with Mediterranean cuisine, whereas A&G is a fusion with more Asian elements. However, visiting both restaurants did give me an insight into this new wave of Peruvian fusion restaurants opening up in BA (there are more to be covered…) – and one point in particular, which I’ll get to shortly, that highlights why I was, as someone e-mailed, “awfully lenient” with my criticisms of PozoSanto’s food when I clearly thought it was underspiced and not true to the flavors of Peru. [Newer review, April 2013] [Closed at beginning of July 2013]

Astrid & Gaston cocktails

But we’ll get to that…. Henry and I were invited to attend one of the opening couple of week dinners, partially for press connections and partially as restaurateurs. So, know upfront that this meal was on the house – still, I think I can be pretty objective about it – it helps that we enjoyed the evening immensely. We started off in the bar area just to the left as you enter – quite pretty, if perhaps a little over the top in decoration – and a strange, though intriguing ceiling with various religious and Incan paintings and drawings inset. The cocktails all have names that are takeoffs on classic cocktails of Europe and the U.S. for the most part – but using pisco as the base and working either the word pisco or the name of one of the piscos into the name of the drink – it gets a little convoluted, but the descriptions are there and the cocktails are served quickly, with flair, and are really quite good.

Astrid & Gaston dining rooms

Okay, after seeing the beautiful, if ornate, bar and entrance area, we were expecting something similar in the rest of the restaurant – a natural assumption, we thought. The restaurant is laid out on two floors, it’s an old house, and rather than tear down all the walls, they’ve simply opened archways between the old rooms and set each room up as a small dining area with about 4 tables. I’m given to understand that the owners back in Lima gave the local management free rein in the world of interior design. This, was the one negative of the whole experience – the rooms, as you can see, are done up in olive green and some sort of vermillion pink-red – Let’s just say I prefer nibbling on my cocktail olives to sitting inside them. Hideous doesn’t begin to describe it – it’s near headache producing by the time you’ve sat there for any length of time. Even the staff were making fun of it when we asked…. Beyond that, service was impeccable.

Astrid & Gaston degustacion de causas

Right off the bat we get into the matter I said I wanted to touch on. Lack of spice. Truly and completely. And skipping to the end of the meal, the chef, who came down from Lima to work here after many years working for the restaurant group, admitted that he’d been given instructions by local management to eliminate the spiciness from all the dishes and simply offer hot sauce on the side in order to cater to the Argentine palate. He offered that he’s hoping to gradually up the level of spice to one where it won’t be too much for locals but won’t be too bland for others. I’m sorry, but this whole “Argentines won’t eat spices” stuff has gotten out of hand – it is true that many, even perhaps most porteños are not accustomed to spicy food – but it’s rare that I find someone who truly doesn’t like it unless you go overboard. And most diners coming to a place like this are probably more sophisticated eaters. This, by the way, is the reason I gave PozoSantos some slack – I’m betting that some sort of the same conversation is going on there, though I didn’t have the benefit of getting to talk to the chef.

So, here is a tasting of four mini-causas, my favorite appetizer of lemon and chili spiked mashed potatoes with various seafood toppings – and completely devoid of the chili part of the spiking – even the trio of sauces brought on the side as “hot sauces” were simply chopped peppers of different sorts that had been carefully seeded and stripped of all the interior veining, leaving the least spicy part of the peppers as all that was served. Beyond that, the causas were full of herbs, nicely seasoned with salt, and clearly fresh – just no zip.

Astrid & Gaston trio of fritas

Likewise the dipping sauces that came with the trio of fritas – two each of potato, yuca, and corn – the sauces meant to be huancaina, ocopa, and rocoto – all of which are chili based and all of which had virtually none, leaving them as not much more than cheese and cream based sauces – the ocopa didn’t even have huacatay, the Amazon Black Mint in it, which is an integral part of the sauce. Hand’s down the most disappointing plate of the evening.

Astrid & Gaston ceviche clasico

The ceviche clasico was served sashimi style – not Henry’s favorite, though I tend to like that. The fish is basically heaped with the onions and (normally) the peppers, atop the lemon and salt broth, and it’s left to the diner to dip, or mix, or soak the fish to cure it in the citrus juice. Since Henry likes his fish well-cured, which means at least 10-15 minutes submerged in the juice, he basically sat and stared at it while the citric acid did its work. Still, can’t really fault them, they are trying for a Japanese fusion element – it’s just not to his tastes. Once cured, the fish was great, though again, devoid of the traditional rocoto peppers.

Astrid & Gaston rocotos rellenos

Luckily, we had some rocotos rellenos to munch on while we waited. Here, at least, the promise of spice, after all, the rocotos are right there in front of you. Of course, if you’ve trimmed out every speck of vein and blanched them repeatedly until they’re barely holding together… you also remove all the heat. The meat mixture inside was quite sweet, lacking anything to balance it.

Astrid & Gaston lenguadito

I didn’t mention our waiter, other than that service was basically impeccable. He’s a local to here, and not overly familiar with Peruvian food, nor, given that this was the first few days of being open, the food of A&G as it is offered up in other locations. However, the group very smartly sent down a half-dozen staff members from the Lima main restaurant, one of who was assisting him – and she knew the food inside and out and was able to make some recommendations. She did recommend that we try, for our main courses, one traditional dish and one “Gaston” style dish to see some of his creativity. This is the latter, lenguadito – two simple broiled fillets of lenguado in a soy, mirin, and green onion broth. Not, actually, all that uncommon in modern Japanese and/or fusion cooking, but, well made.

Astrid & Gaston arroz con pato

Arroz con Pato, duck with rice, flavored with herbs, is one of Henry’s favorites. He loved the rice in the dish, it was well flavored as it should be. He wasn’t as thrilled with the duck, which was more or less a confit – not the traditional Peruvian roast duck. I, however, am a big confit fan, so traditional or not, I was happy with it.

Astrid & Gaston picarones

Picarones, sweet potato doughnuts, or really more like a beignet, are a favorite, and these didn’t disappoint. They were crunch on the outside, sweet and soft on the inside, and served up with a simple flavored syrup. Really pretty much perfect.

Astrid & Gaston maki de maracuya y membrillo

We also decided to try one of Astrid’s famed modern creations, and unquestionably the winning dish of the evening. A fake sushi roll with the wrapping being very thinly sliced and poached quince, around a filling of passionfruit mousse, and served with an almond cream. Beautiful presentation and amazing flavor.

So, in summation – here’s the thing – if the chef gets his way, even partially, and/or A or G themselves step in from Lima and overrule local management, this place could easily be the stellar modern Peruvian experience that they offer up back home. It’s pricey as hell – appetizers on the menu were around 30-40 pesos apiece, main courses anywhere from high 60s to the 90s. Wine list, well selected, with a focus on organic, biodynamic wines from around the world, and I don’t think there was anything on the list less than 90 pesos. If, however, local management sticks to this “no spice” rule, this place will likely not make it, as it would be hard to offer it up as a real alternative to quite a few other spots that while not as elegant and chic, have better food at more reasonable prices.

And hey, if you haven’t settled on your approach to how the dishes are going to be presented, it might not have been the best time to invite all the press in town….


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Marc March 17, 2009 at 20:10

Why can’t these restaurants offer some sort of amuse-bouche of authentically spiced traditional fare as a litmus test? Sure the heat increases exponentially with some dishes if you eat them too fast but why not seek out some initial input first? Not one person–born and raised in Argentina–who has dined with me in my home has turned down the offer of trying a drop or toothpick smear of hot sauce. Yes many of them reached for the nearest glass of liquid immediately after but at least they made an effort. So many people are willing to experiment but if you don’t give them the chance then there will be no progress.

Canvas Prints March 17, 2009 at 22:32

It seems you were able to try a lot. I definitely enjoyed reading your critiques. Thanks for sharing this!

Art behne March 18, 2009 at 00:09


dan March 18, 2009 at 09:02

Art, there are hundreds of recipes for hot sauces that include rocoto peppers. The simplest thing is to simply puree them with a little vinegar or lime juice, some salt, and maybe a little cilantro. But then there are things like the Bolivian national hot sauce, Salsa Llajwa, which I’ve given the recipe for here and Ají de Huacatay which I’ve also given you in reply to the last time you asked this. If you do a basic google search for “rocoto hot sauce recipe” you’ll come up with over 2,000 hits, so it’s not like these recipes are hidden away.

Marc March 18, 2009 at 10:25

Just seeing if this goes through. 😉

Conor March 18, 2009 at 15:39

It’s amusing that considering the increasingly sophisticated culinary scene in Buenos Aires poor spicy foods are still not given the light of day or the time to prove themselves. It’s fascinating how one aspect of food is feared and neglected as much as spicy food is in Argentina.

Tom Roth March 22, 2009 at 20:03

Great review. I think I’ll stay away until I hear that the flavor is there.

I do think there is a huge difference between spice—meaning hot— and spice—meaning flavors and would appreciate more separation of these 2 meanings in your reviews.

Trish March 27, 2009 at 09:25

….. getting off the spiciness monorail. What a wonderful restaurant!! We had a great dinner there last night, full bouquet of flavors, great balance of fresh ingredients, sophisticated textures in innovative combinations and all in the Lima tradition of Astrid & Gaston and La Mar. Well worth the +10% pricing above the pathetic Saltshaker dinners (food only). Wine list was also very impressive with excellent local and international selection and expert, but light guidance by the sommelier. When the restaurant is full the decor actually works quite well against the black mock-turtlenecks of the designerati of Bs. As. Anybody looking for broader and more intelligent perspective of food/service/ambiance impressions might want to look at (local food lovers rating) with a little help from it makes for quite enjoyable reading.

dan March 27, 2009 at 15:05

Sounds like they’re following up on what the chef said he was out to do – which is bring the spiciness back up towards the level of the original A&G in Lima. That’s what we were hoping. As to decor – to each his or her own – we didn’t like the colors, and neither did our waiters, but hey, that was just four of us involved in the conversation.

I can’t say I appreciate the snide remark comparing it to my own place, I’ll let it stand – it says more about Ms. Messar than us I think (fits in with her previous comments on my blog). You couldn’t remotely order a 5 course tasting menu at A&G for her claimed 121 pesos, 10% above our price for food, cocktail, mineral water, coffee and service combined – I believe their chef’s tasting menu starts at 150 pesos, food only, and goes up for any special requests. Our wine pairing with five wines costs half of the cheapest bottle on A&G’s wine list – and we’re using many of the same wines they have on their list. Of course, we also think that the communal table experience is a big part of what we offer, as opposed to a traditional restaurant setting – not that everyone appreciates it, obviously, but we’re happy to have those around who do. Then again, she’s never actually been here to sample what we offer.

As to her plug for Guia Oleo – absolutely – I recommend them highly. My blog is a personal commentary and not intended as anything other than a subjective viewpoint on my part. Oleo is akin to Zagat’s in the U.S. – a chance for diners to rate and comment. There’s also Restaurants Argentina ( which is the viewpoints of a small group of professional reviewers and El Cuerpo de Cristo ( for other local diners’ viewpoints – all in Spanish.

Frances March 28, 2009 at 05:28

Astrid&Gaston here in Chile always tops the polls for best restaurant and the new La Mar is very popular. They did the same thing with lowering the heat/spice level for the same reason; a perception that Chileans wouldn’t like spicy food. Perhaps they are right as neither restaurant lacks customers. Perhaps the same thing will happen in BA. But for those of us who have eaten many meals in Perú (27 years worth in my case), it is a reflection in a mirror of the genuine article. It is great food, but I wouldn’t go there if hungering after some Peruvian home cooking. It is difficult to step outside one’s personal experience. Having said that, it is very well prepared food presented beautifully.
I’m with Henry on the ceviche.

dan March 28, 2009 at 10:05

I phrased my comment on the ceviche badly – I also agree with Henry on how I like my ceviche, I just also happen to like sashimi, so it doesn’t bother me as it does him when it’s served in this style.

Frances March 28, 2009 at 14:01

Now I want a ceviche!
Great blog, Dan. I get fed it by feedblitz. It is always a joy to read.

Trish April 1, 2009 at 15:26

Would you like to add my birthdate or home phone to my last name?

dan April 2, 2009 at 13:05

Tongue-in-cheek, sure – I could add your phones, your email addresses, even link your online profile if you like, I have them all…

Look, this is my blog, and Casa SaltShaker is my restaurant. Both are a product of an immense amount of labor on my part, and I love doing them. If you had a point to make that you wanted to make to me alone, you could have sent me yet another of your vitriolic e-mails, or if you felt like making public comments, you could have done so on another forum. However, you have chosen, more than once, to post sarcastic, snarky, and at times nasty enough to necessitate deletion, comments on the public space on my blog – that choice has lost you, as far as I’m concerned, any right to anonymity (not that posting something online has any rights of that sort to begin with) – especially when this one is based on some assumption about me and my cooking that, not having been here and us never having met, you have no first hand way to judge, yet you are apparently determined to let people know you don’t like it or me. You seem to be one of those sorts of people who believes that online interaction excuses you from being civil – hopefully for your company’s sake, you don’t take that approach with your corporate clients.

For all you know, our food, ambiance, and service are better than Astrid & Gastón’s, and cheaper – not that I’m laying claim to it (and really, it’s a completely different sort of dining experience), but the truth is, you simply don’t have any personal experience to base it on. And hey, as long as you’ve brought it up, Casa SaltShaker has higher ratings for food and experience on both GuiaOleo and on TripAdvisor than A&G does, at least at the moment.

As to the review, and your comments, as I said in my response, I’m glad that the chef is getting to “up the spice” so to speak and that the food is coming together, or, perhaps, we just have different tastes. That doesn’t invalidate the quality of the experience on the night we were there, which is the only basis I have to judge it on until my next visit. And the fact that you decided to throw in some cost/comparison figures that were blatant nonsense, and attempt to steer readers to another website as your personal recommendation over mine, well, you have your response. If you don’t like what I write, go read a different website, nothing obligates you to hang around here.

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