People often ask what’s my favorite food. It’s a very tough question given my proclivity to so many vastly different disciplines and flavors. I guess I’m always expected to gush over iconic Italian, flawless French or amazing Asian, but that’s only half the story. The other half has to be Peruvian. Few people realize how delicious, unique (and yet familiar) Peruvian cooking is. Having adopted tastes and flavors that are decidedly Creole, Spanish, West African, Chinese and Japanese, many of their dishes include garlic, ginger, soy, lime juice, a rainbow of colored chilies and heaps of rice. This little mountain nation has also produced some of the finest toques ever, like Vergilio Martinez – recently named “best chef on the planet” – not to mention getting the health-obsessed hooked on Quinoa, their staple grain.
Adding his American twist and a modern “Neuva Latina” take on classic Peruvian cooking, Eleven Madison alum Erik Ramirez’s Llama Inn adds to Brooklyn’s bounty of river-crossing-worthy restaurants in a big way. Despite its curious location sandwiched between the B.Q.E. overpass and Withers street, the striking three-sided glass box sports tables, counter tops, a roof-top lounge to go with the young, hip and decidedly Williamsburg-esque crowd. It’s also easy to get caught up in the electric energy of the kitchen and wait staff, who fall somewhere between a gracious host, a good friend and a lion tamer.
The menu is broken up into plate sizes from bar bites to (large) family portions. Some of which are expected, like a Whole Branzino Patarashca in banana leaves or a Quinoa salad, while others were a bit more surprising like Whole grilled Lobster or Steamed Clams. The same goes for the robust list of Pisco’s and Peruvian Sherries.
From our control-tower perch at the “chef’s counter”, it became instantly evident which dishes were the most popular. After watching several dozen Beef Tenderloin stir fry’s (that’s American for Loma Saltado’s) being assembled, and several hundred Anticuchos (Peruvian for kebabs) being fired up, I could quite easily replace any of the line chefs without missing a beat. The Chicken thigh kebabs were doused in a wonderfully flavorful fermented soybean and then spiked with a squiggle of wasabi-green chile, while the Pork Belly char siu was punctuated with pickled chilis and a nub or two of spicy mayo. (Next time I have to try the single head-on Shrimp rubbed in adobo and lime – yet another crowd pleaser.)
I lapped up the Sea Bream Tiradito like a thirsty kitten. It arrives dotted with persimmons to offset the tartness, and a cluster of walnuts for extra crunch. Simple, bracing and utterly refreshing. And once the fish was gone, I almost bent the spoon on the remaining mouthfuls of sauce.But candles and cacti had to be relocated elsewhere to make room for the platter and trappings that accompanied the Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry. I’ve made and ordered many a Loma Saltado in my time, but this mound of joy before me was the epitome of loveliness. Large chunks of medium-rare marbled steak adrift in a deep, dark, rich, salty, vinegary Oyster sauce with seared onions and tomatoes, topped with a thatch of crispy fries. Our incredibly attentive waitress instructed us to eat it taco style on a wafer-thin scallion pancake, with a pinch of pickled peppers, some simple quac’ for color and a dollop of aioli for spice, and you are cleared for takeoff. With both hands engaged, guiding my first messy bite of an avalanche of flavors, I could practically see the Andes before me. And when all I had left was a swampy mess of sauce, a bowl of rice appeared from heaven to soak up every…last…scrumptious…drop! (Here I am just thinking about it, and I’m salivating at the keyboard.)
Not that I had any room or space or reason to quibble at this point, but I was a bit surprised not to see a few other traditional dishes that were on Chef Ramirez’s original menu, such as Skewered Beef Hearts and Braised Goat neck. It must be that sobering boundary somewhere between authentic and ambitious, or just how far Williamsburg palettes will dare to reach into the darkness of the unfamiliar, versus gravitating back to what they recognize. So instead of wolfing down a trio of Picarones (the donut’s Peruvian cousin), I settled on a slightly more American slice of Graham Cracker based Lime Pie with a freshly piped and torched snake of meringue which took the express lane straight to my happy place.http://www.llamainnnyc.com/