August 13, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

Raymi, High on Pisco


Corvina ceviche with sweet potato, top: wild bass tiradito in citrus tigre de leche

Corvina ceviche with sweet potato, top: wild bass tiradito in citrus tigre de leche.


          I’m early for my 7:15 dinner date. Outside Raymi a blackboard offers happy hour from 5 to 7. From the ardent welcome at the greeter’s podium, you’d think they’d recognized Meryl Streep.  I watch them trolling for customers in this soaring space where Nuela used to be — almost empty on an August Wednesday.


          “Still time for an early bird cocktail?” I ask


          “Of course,” says one, “You arrived at 6:59.”


I meant to order the classic Pisco Sour straight up, but got this fabulous freeze instead.


          It’s a pisco world here with a wall of piscos at the bar and on the menu, classics like the Pisco Sour, more than a dozen house-made pisco infusions, and riffs on cocktail familiars starring that white brandy made from Muscat grapes instead of the usual gin or vodka.


          I’ll have the classic pisco sour, frozen. “I’ll have it dry,” I say, meaning easy on the sugar syrup. Just say “dry,” Guilermo Ferreymos, the maker of Pisco 100, had coached me one night at dinner in Lima. I remember the thrilling foam-softened alcohol chill. Tonight’s frozen classico is marvelous too, and intoxicating.


Gift of the house: Grilled octopus and calamari on smashed potato in a clamshell.


          The waitress is friendly also as she brings my bar menu order: The causa of the day, a small plate of salmon, tuna and avocado, with just a slight kick from the aji Amarillo chile, piled on an island of mashed potato. That’s the causa part, an obsession in a land with 3800 varieties of potato.


We go wild over this toss of crisp calamari and pork belly with Peruvian tarter sauce.


          My friends arrive after seven but get happy hour drinks on my ticket too. A manager and my waitress carry them for us into the adjoining dining room. At 7:45 we are sharing the corvina classico ceviche with chunks of sweet potato, habanero and cilantro as well as a tiradito (“Peruvian Sashimi,” the menu notes) of wild striped bass with the ubiquitous sweet potato cubes and toasted corn in a sunny yellow pool of ginger-and lime-inflected marinade called “tiger’s milk.”


Lush buttery baked American corn pudding with mushroom ragout and watercress.


          “It’s really good,” says my companion in surprise. He came to the opening here and was not impressed. But now the three of us are flipping out over the crunch and umami of the crispy calamari and pork belly tossed with chicharrones.  I dip in cautiously, swooping back for more before it disappears, only to be distracted by the marvelous Peruvian corn cake.  It’s a lush baked pudding of our own sweet American corn with mushroom ragout under a hedge of watercress. “I didn’t expect it to be this good,” my friend marvels again.


          I came with no expectations either, having lost track of co-owner Richard Sandoval after he opened Maya, long before he went off on the jet stream with global ambition planting cantinas in Las Vegas, Denver,  Acapulco, Puerto Valleta, Dubai. Jaime Pesaque, Sandoval’s partner here, opened his top-rated Mayta in Lima after my time there in 2009. Both have been seen in the kitchen. Now I’m excited too, by the refinement of the starters and, at a table behind us, Pedro Almodóvar.


Sweet scallops caramelized in lime butter are a thrilling change of rhythm.


          A Sandoval executive who recognizes me from earlier gigs is courting us too, and various suits work the floor, even bussing plates, and in our case, delivering octopus and calamari grilled in a clam shell on smashed potatoes with red chili paste and a tangle of marinated red onion and radish criolla to cut through the richness. The sweetness of scallops, caramelized in lime butter, is a dazzling change of rhythm. In each case, three make a portion unless you order an extra.


Scallop tiradito in citrus tigre de leche with Cape gooseberries and candied ginger.


          If you’re addicted to chili fire, the subtle purr of citrus leche de tigre marinating the ceviches here may disappoint you. Even the habanero is calibrated not to knock your socks off. Chef de cuisine Erik Ramirez plans to acknowledge the heat seekers. “You can always ask for it extra hot,” he suggests.  But we’re working on a hot sauce right now,” he says.


Our waiters are cheerleaders for the menu. This man lived in Peru for a year.


          I never realized how demanding Nuela’s great swaths of orange-red fabric wrapping the room were — shades of Cristo. Now, the design is pleasant, laid back, mostly unremarkable — Peruvian textiles on chair backs, black-and-white tile at the ceviche bar. Bare black tables collecting condensation from out-size drinks. Rustic wood shutters dividing the bar from diners (though noise bounces off the glass front anyway). I’m especially grateful for  navy blue napkins rather than lint-scattering dish towels. 


I like the idea of green grape slices in the romaine salad, but prefer crisper leaves.


          Small rectangular tasting plates for sharing quickly mingle sauces and need to be replaced. I’d like some serving spoons too. Reminded to bring salad severs, bus boys race off gallantly, but why not just make it a habit? I like the whimsy of sliced green grapes, almonds and black mint vinaigrette in the baby romaine salad. But I wish the lettuce were crisp and white.


Rare duck and a scallop or two make arroz con pato an entrée the table can share.


          Rare slices of duck breast and scallops meet in the arroz con pato — evoking memories of George Mendes’ cosmic version at Aldea, where it’s more about the crunch of rice than this one. My companion admires the softer texture of the carnaroli rice. The $28 bowl is almost too much for us to share after all we’ve tasted. He has it packed to take home “for breakfast.”


The Raymi mixes pisco with chili, mango, passion fruit, lime and pisco sour foam.


          I’m back the next day to taste more. The bar has a lively Thursday vibe, mostly women and the dining room is full too. The house namesake cocktail with mango and passion fruit is not quite overwrought, but close. I drank it to the last melting ice cube.


          “Do you serve bread?” I ask our waitress.


          “No, we don’t, but let me bring you some corn nuts,” she says. These aristocratic little kernels of corn, smaller than the big cancha chulpe I’ve tasted elsewhere, are caramelized and slightly inflated from their butter bath in house. Alas. I can’t stop eating them.


The refined lomo stir fry has great chunks of juicy beef and fried potatoes.


          Luscious scallops with Cape gooseberries have that same tang and yellow leche de tigre look, plus a crunch of candied ginger. It doesn’t seem fair to deny tonight’s companion a wallow in that calamari-pork-belly celebration and the remarkable fusion corn cake.  Perfectly fine corn empanadas with stringy mozzarella do not compare. But my plan is to focus on dishes I’ve not tasted, entrees and stir fries — $22 to $32. She forgives me.


          Peruvians love Chinese food. In fact, one prominent food writer in Lima told me Chinese stir-fried rice with pork was a dish invented for Peruvians.  She almost wept when I told her it was a staple of every Chinese restaurant in every American suburb. Granted, the beef in tonight’s lomo stir fry is cut in large juicy caramelized chunks with tomato and crisp fries but it seems clunky next to the elegant starters. 


Bacon-wrapped pork loin sits on Andean style potatoes and roasted peanuts.


          And it is too salty, as is the bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with Andean style potatoes and peanuts. The cod is moored like an island, meekly bland though in a creamy chowder with clams, mussels, peas and carrots with a stroke of chili heat.


Lucuma fruit ice cream “sundae” on chocolate terrine with banana and almonds.


          For a final taste of Peru, you might want the lucuma “ice cream sundae” made from Peru’s favorite fruit, mild and custardy. It rides in on a chocolate terrine with banana, almonds and creme fraiche. Or share the three little honey ice cream cones with chocolate at the bottom. Grounds for mayhem if you happen to be four.  But better than the warmed, too chewy, donut crisps stuck in chancaca honey.


Chef Erik Ramirez, American-born of Peruvian parents, wipes his brow near the end of a hectic night.


          This is by far the best Peruvian food I’ve tasted in New York. I’ll be back, ordering from the top half of the menu. It’s less expensive that way too. And I’ll be curious to witness what effect Raymi’s devotion Pisco has on this town’s cocktail craze. Meanwhile the local board just approved outdoor seating on a patio.


43 West 24th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 929 1200. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 pm. Saturday and Sunday to 11 pm. Lunch service is scheduled to begin soon, Monday through Friday 11 to 2:30.


Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.


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