Servers sporting scarves and vests with the flashy pinks and purples of traditional Andean textiles laid the colossal plates with shining squares of beef heart, sprinkled healthily with cilantro, and a pile of roasted potatoes and corn onto our table. We were surrounded by colourful oil paintings depicting beaches and small villages, and hand-carved wooden fixtures hanging on the walls. It may have been a sip too many of Pisco Sour, but in that moment… I was in Peru.
I’m talking about Paracas, and I don’t mean the small port town in Peru where hundreds of sea lions bark at tourists in boats, nor the Andean society it was named after – but a small 12-table Peruvian restaurant on St Clair Avenue West. Formerly El Plebeyo on Bathurst, they’ve been introducing Torontonians to Peru’s cuisine since 1999, and the new location promises more of the dishes Peruvian fans have been craving. The country’s cuisine has been gaining popularity as it was declared a top culinary destination, and Peruvian chefs have opened restaurants topping the best in the world – so it was about time when dishes like ceviche started showing up in new and trendy Toronto restaurants.
The Paracas menu, with the hummingbird Nazca Line printed on its cover, doesn’t exclude any Peruvian favourites like papas a la huancaina ($9.50, boiled potatoes covered in a creamy, spicy sauce made with fresh white cheese – queso fresco), anticuchos ($10.95, grilled skewers of beef heart marinated in a red wine sauce), or seco de carne ($20.45, beef stew cooked in a cilantro white wine sauce with flesh so soft it melts in your mouth like butter and gets stuck in your teeth). It’s no surprise Peru hasn’t been dethroned as one of the world’s potato capitals, because the dish of the night was definitely papa rellena ($9.95), mashed potato stuffed with sautéed ground beef and raisins, shaped into a log and lightly deep fried. It was smooth and sweet, embedded with spices that stayed in your mouth for long afterward.
Once I started feeling giddy from my Pisco Sour, a drink consisting of a tequila-like alcohol and freshly squeezed lime juice, I was served my entrée of bistek a lo pobre ($20.45), translated roughly to ‘poor man’s steak’. When traversing the local eateries in Peru, anything with a lo pobre is a pretty safe bet – you’re guaranteed meat, potatoes, and fried eggs. There was nothing poor about it here – my steak was juicy, perfectly medium-rare, happily soaking up the waterfall of egg yolk seeping into a bed of rice underneath, and fries that were sweetly kissed with salt and oil.
Pepe, the always-smiling owner, oversees the plates going out and has implemented nearly every traditional Peruvian dish you can think of onto the menu. The prices are fairly steep, pretty much four times as much as actually in Peru, but the quality and time put into each dish is all there. Speaking of which, expect to spend a couple hours there as you get the real Peruvian experience – no one is in a rush for anything, so sit back and enjoy the food as it gets made fresh for you.
Whether you’re Peruvian by birth or a gringo newly returned from your 4-day trek to Machu Picchu or Ayahuasca field trip, have a bite at Paracas and all your cherished memories will resurface with every bite.