A few years ago I flew to Peru to film two episodes for my PBS/Create TV series Real Food. The food scene in Lima really impressed me—some of you may recall an earlier “Best of the Best” column where I wrote about Central Restaurante. Since then, Central has climbed way up the board in Pellegrino’s rankings for the best 50 restaurants in the world, winning the number one slot in the 2017 “Chefs Choice” category and fifth best overall in the world rankings.
While I was in Lima I also ate a lot of great ceviche. Peru is justly famous for ceviche—some claim it all started there with the influx of Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and South Asian immigrants and their cultures, which quickly meshed with the culture of native Peruvians. Peru boasts some of the world’s best fishing grounds right off the coast in the form of the Humboldt current, home to the largest biomass of fish anywhere on planet earth. Everywhere I’ve traveled where commercial fisheries are part of the culture, fisherman have eaten raw or almost raw fish for centuries.
In Lima they take raw fish and seafood to another level. It’s no surprise that celebrity sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa spent his formative years down here experimenting. The restaurant that impressed me the most was a lunch-only spot called El Mercado in Lima’s historic Milaflores district just steps from the beach. The chef/owner Rafael Osterling hails from a wealthy family, was educated overseas, speaks English with a British accent, and was trained for a diplomatic career in the ambassadorial service. However, in his late twenties he got other ideas.
Osterling opened El Mercado in 2010, and the restaurant has remained super popular ever since with locals and lucky tourists that can book a table. The environment is very comfortable, casual and welcoming, with most of the restaurant, including parts of the kitchen, set in the open air as Lima gets very little rain annually. There’s a large wood-fire grill and an open kitchen where a half dozen chefs toss the best local seafood in large stainless mixing bowls containing variations of Osterling’s ceviche/tiradito creations.
The morning I met Osterling, he showed up tan and fit, fresh off an early a.m. surf session on a break nearby. The chef explained to me that years ago ceviche was made in the morning, allowed to marinate for four to five hours, and served chilled in a completely “overcooked” fashion. These days raw fish is sliced thin (for tiradito) or cubed (for ceviche) to order, tossed briefly in citrus juice (usually lime or lemon) mixed with the addition of hot peppers in some form, cilantro and a few other herbs. The acid from the marinade partly “cooks” the fish.
You can also order grilled fish, octopus, squid, bass and scallops—the latter grilled in their shells. I also highly recommend El Mercado’s fried calamari tossed in ceviche “tiger’s milk,” a plate of tossed, sliced raw scallops with a tempura of local silverside fish combined with sliced avocado, tobiko and the ubiquitous tiger’s milk marinade or the thin-sliced raw lemon sole tossed in tiger’s milk and plated with sliced red onion, sprigs of fresh cilantro, chopped iceberg lettuce, diced cooked sweet potato and kernels of yellow corn. The best beverage accompaniments for ceviche are pisco sours, beer or chilled white wine.
For anyone visiting Lima, El Mercado is a must-visit spot. I’m still dreaming of my lunch there a few years back followed by a short walk to the beach promenade to watch the surfers and wish I had packed my board.
New York City–based chef and media personality Michael Colameco is the author of 'Mike Colameco’s Food Lover’s Guide to NYC' and hosts 'Colameco’s Food Show' on PBS and the nationally syndicated radio program 'Weekend Food.'