Oh, what does it stand for? Thank God It’s Peruvian Fusion. But I’m not thanking any deity, it’s more of a comparison, because just this last week I’ve endured the TGI Friday’s equivalent in the Peruvian fusion world and its name is Mullu, Pasaje Ricardo Rojas 451 in Retiro. I’m not going to be popular for this, because I’ve been reading for the last couple of months as one local food blogger or commenter after another has touted this place as the best thing since, well, the arrival of KFC, Wendy’s, PF Chang’s, even Subway, with the potential for Pizza Hut and The Cheesecake Factory thrown in. Maybe I should have thought it through before going. But I didn’t.
I first tried to go there for lunch about a month ago, only to find it locked up on a day that they claimed they were open. Then Henry and I made a reservation for dinner one evening a couple of weeks ago, knowing it was a holiday, but being assured that they were open – they weren’t, that night of the infamous pouring rain, and thankfully we got a cab right out front and zoomed over to another delightful dinner at La Rosa Nautica. The chef friend whom I mentioned is leaving in my update post on Astrid & Gastón and I met up the next day at this spot, along with her husband, and settled in to see what all the fuss is about.
The place is sort of crab shack on the beach meets bar on the beach meets someone regurgitated a bunch of “casual design” ideas all over the walls, floors and tables. The room is filled with smoky incense from the same twigs that Henry uses when he has friends over for rituals relating to the Pachamama – he holds them outside in the garden so as not to infuse the house with the smoke. Our neighbors sometimes complain. The sound system is pounding out tecno-pop at an unpleasant volume.
The menu is a tabloid style newspaper with all the pages glued together except in the center where it opens to reveal one of the more confusing menus we’ve encountered. It’s divided into four parts: piqueos (nibbles), entradas (appetizers), principales (main courses), and postres (desserts). Each box contains a list of items followed by a price, respectively, $120, $150, $180, and $72. Nothing, anywhere on the menu, tells you that these are sharing plates – but given the decor, we decided to ask rather than assume stupidly high pricing. Our waiter assured us that each was a platter designed for two to three people to share, and that each was an abundant amount of food – he was quite sure 2 or maybe 3 platters would be more than sufficient for lunch. We said we were interesting in trying a variety of things and wondered if there was some way we might be able to do a tasting menu of some sort without running up a fortune and having a massive bill at the end. He said they could provide any of the piqueo or entrada plates in half portions, for half price. Sold. We picked two starters and one main course that sounded interesting and told him to pick two more starters that he thought were the best on the menu.
We shortly each received a large seashell with two cubes of potato and some sauce, easily recognizable as papas a la huancaina, confirmed by the waiter, and also that these were gifts of the house – amuse bouches – if you will. The sauce was like a watery brine and there was no evidence of the typical yellow Peruvian chili unless you count the color. Not the creamy cheese and walnut based sauce that it should have been, but hey, it’s just an amuse bouche, right?
Remember, these are half orders… so a single ají de gallina empanada shows up, split in two to make it easier for us (then why not split it in three?). Basically the same sauce, and a rather small empanada to begin with, this time with bits of overcooked chicken rather than diced potato, all served over a heap of shredded, raw cabbage. The little cup of sauce was supposed to be a sort of classic vinegar, onion and chili sauce, except it didn’t have chilies in it. Keep in mind, this was a 60 peso empanada. Waiter’s pick. Even Frances Mallmann isn’t that cheeky. Oh wait, he is.
A trio of prawns arrived – now at least for 60 pesos we’re approaching the ballpark, still pricey, but in contrast to the previous dish, it makes more sense. Breaded and deep fried prawns, the batter still uncooked underneath the surface, which means the prawns were pretty undercooked too. The sauce, something like a cheap teriyaki sauce from the supermarket shelves, way too sweet and having that slightly chemical taste of preservatives. Waiter’s pick again.
Our pick this time, the octopus carpaccio – an odd take on the traditional pulpo al olivo, octopus in black olive sauce and avocado mayonnaise – both sauces so salty they made our eyes water, the octopus not thinly sliced carpaccio, but simply sections of cooked tentacle, and the scattering of finely diced bacon just ramping up the salt level a bit more. We’re starting to sense a heavy hand with the salt shaker in the kitchen.
Waiter’s pick again… wait a second, he’s up to three plates now… the mariscos matsuei – an odd name, matsuei means scion, a child of a noble family, so not sure what that has to do with shellfish, then again, Matsuei is the name of a quite famous Lima restaurant, maybe it’s in their style. All we know is that each scallop shell contained, well, no scallops, just some sort of unidentifiable bits of fish and shellfish in a, are your ready to be surprised?, extraordinarily salty broth.
Our second appetizer pick, coming in at the half price, half sized, 75 peso crabcake which our waiter had described to us as a “hamburger sized” preparation. White Castle wouldn’t consider this hamburger sized. It was a ball of crab falling in size somewhere between a walnut and a golf ball. To their credit, the filling was all crab, no filler, unless you count… umm… salt, as a filler. We delicately split it in three pieces and grimaced our way through it. The chili sauce accompanying on the plate is nothing more than mayo with what we guess might be smoked paprika. The seasoning has become a joke now, one that we’re ready for. Thank goodness we have wine. Except that it’s a bottle of Terrazas Chardonnay Reserva that retails for about 80-85 pesos and we’re getting socked 160 pesos for it. Actually, 320 pesos for it, because at some point our waiter simply opens a second bottle and keeps pouring.
Our main course pick, the tacu tako, a play on tacu-tacu, the fried rice and bean dish of the Peruvian poor, here ladled with a few bits of “tako”, octopus, and a few prawns, all in, no, it’s not another salty sauce, it’s that same sticky sweet teriyaki-ish sauce, glopped all over it. The rice and beans are not much more than a mushy puree, they haven’t been fried up nicely into a crunchy coated sort of cake, and they’re salty as hell. Zing! Winner! We got both negatives rolled up in one. Do two negatives make a positive? Not in this case.
Because it was a “so long, see you sometime” sort of lunch, my friend wanted to try one of their desserts. The banana chocolate cheesecake was, to our incredible surprise, actually pretty damned good. Oh, it was a trifle too sweet, and other than the bananas on top you couldn’t tell it was banana – it seemed more sweet potato-y. You know, thinking about it, maybe it was just good because it wasn’t coated in sodium chloride. Sometimes contrast is everything.
So, let’s review. I hate the decor and the ambiance. Service was charming and friendly and the only saving grace, even if our waiter slipped in some upselling that added a little over 200 pesos to the bill, bringing it to a whopping $1016 before tip (they also have a 20 peso per person table service charge) – we managed to break $1000 once at La Rosa Nautica for 3, but we had 3 full appetizers, 3 full main courses, 2 desserts, a round of cocktails and a bottle of equivalent wine. The food, to decent Peruvian fusion cooking is what, well, Nac & Pop is to La Cabrera, if N&P were charging the same prices as La Cabrera. There are so many good Peruvian fusion spots in town, that serve better and more food for the same or less money that I can’t imagine any reason to ever return to this place. I’ll leave it to the folk who seem to love it – it’s all yours. Not Recommended.
[Edit: From the chef friend whom I dined with, “Thank god you made record and I completely concur.”]