Jun 12, 2009

San Francisco: La Mar Cebicheria Peruana

Dinner two nights ago in San Francisco at La Mar Cebicheria Peruana. Located on the city’s Embarcadero at Pier 1½---next to the Ferry Building---the 8000-square-foot, high-ceilinged and superbly modern restaurant is divided into three sections. At the front is a roomy bar; in the center, a long ceviche bar where diners can enjoy the sight of chefs hard at work; and a spacious dining room (opening onto a patio and the water).

In other words, this place is the perfect destination for anyone wanting to relax over a drink (Pisco cocktails are definitely the thing here), enjoy a light meal, or slip into an all-out feast of high-end, Japanese-influenced Peruvian cuisine.

The two of us were there for the latter reason. My dining partner is probably the best amateur chef I’ve ever known---one of the reasons he’s such a fabulous travel companion. Over the years we’ve experimented with food in places as diverse as a three-star Parisian restaurant and a dive in the back streets of Istanbul. (We both agree that the best meal we shared with each other, ever, was a picnic pulled together at an outdoor market in a tiny French village one day in July: the ripest white peaches, killer tomatoes, a few baguettes, a few cheeses, a selection of olives, eaten beside a stream in a sunny meadow, the sun warming the bread and slightly melting the cheese.)

Anyway, back to La Mar!

You can eat in a variety of ways here. For instance, you could make a wonderful meal by choosing to share a diversity of appetizers. Or you could go the traditional route, choosing your own appetizer and a main course. We opted for the middle course, sharing appetizers and then each choosing a main course.

As you’d expect, there were many ceviches from which to choose (we opted for the cebiche crudo: shrimp, sea urchin and scallops in sea urchin leche de tigre). If you can’t decide, you can do a tasting of four cebiches.

The Causa Tasting

I’d had causas before in Peru---they’re whipped potatoes topped with other ingredients. It’s traditional food, usually delicious and always hearty. At La Mar causas become a work of art. Rather than choose one of the five or six on the menu, we did the causa tasting; my favorite was causa limena (potatoes topped with Dungeness Crab, avocado puree, quail egg, cherry tomatoes, aji amarillo Huancaina sauce, with basil cilantro oil). Yow!

Other appetizer sections consists of tiraditos (a Peruvian version of Italy’s carpaccio), soup, anticuchos (Peruvian grilled skewers), empanadas, and a lot more.

For a main, my companion went for Cau Cau (roasted scallops in a clam and mint broth with tiny potatoes, sweet peas, and corn risotto), while I had the risotto-like regional rice dish, arroz jugoso (prawns, clams, mussels, calamari, octopus, white fish and veggies, arborio rice, Peruvian flavors). Quite delish.

I had fond memories of drinking pisco sours each night of my multi-day hiking trek through the Andes to Macchu Picchu years ago, so I did try one of the pisco cocktails. Good, but way too sweet for me. Next time I’ll stick with a dry South American wine or one of the lovely sakes on the menu.

A couple of other notes... (1) The atmosphere was high-energy, with a really good feel. (2) When you sit at the table, you're presented with a basket of just-fried potato chips and a platter of three dipping sauces; it was hard to stop devouring this little treat. (3) Next time I think I'm going to stick to the appetizer side of the menu. But, then, who knows...?

If you’re an adventurous eater, you’ve got to try this place. La Mar Cebicheria Peruana has branches in Lima, Peru; Mexico City; Santiago, Chile; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. This year the restaurant opens in New York, San Diego and Los Angeles. Keep an eye out!

For some inspiration, you might want to download the dinner menu.

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