You may not have heard of Gastón Acurio, but in his homeland the celebrity chef is a mix of George Clooney and Emeril Lagasse. His popularity is enough to draw cameras and handshakes everywhere he goes. The 41-year-old chef has 29 restaurants worldwide, over 20 books and several TV shows with his name. He is doing for Peruvian food what Paul Bocuse did for French cuisine–evolving it in the kitchen and changing its role to the rest of the world. But curiously, it all happened by chance.
Son of a prominent Peruvian politician, Gastón was sent to Madrid to attend law school. It was a few hours drive from the capital, in the small town of San Sebastian, that one dinner changed his life forever. A meal that pushed Gastón to embrace his lifelong passion, drop out of law school and enroll at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. A meal cooked by Juan Mari Arzak; a Spanish chef that, like Bocuse, redefined his homeland cuisine and gave it worldwide appeal.
La Mar is Acurio’s first step in turning Peruvian food into an international sensation. Fifteen years after opening his first restaurant, the chef has taken his new franchise to Brazil, Chile, Mexico and US. San Francisco was selected as his first North American address and New York, Dallas and Las Vegas are in the planning stage. Assuming all goes well, Gastón is destined to put Peruvian gastronomy in Uncle Sam’s map.
Located at Pier 1 ½, just a few steps from the Ferry Building, La Mar has one of the most enviable spaces in San Francisco. Flooded with natural light, the ample dining room is complemented by a lively bar, a lounge and a coveted patio with views of the bay.
The interior design is simple, combining earthy colors with a bright beach-like palette of cyan, orange and green. The colorful theme is repeated on menus and paper placemats printed with La Mar’s logo–a design choice normally associated with large restaurant chains, something that I believe cheapens its image. The atmosphere is informal and welcoming albeit with a slight touristic flair.
Almost as big as the dining room is the open kitchen equipped to serve about 200 diners.
The good-looking wait staff is attentive and well trained. In my two visits, curiously the female servers seemed more enthusiastic than their male counterparts.
La Mar’s menu offers an appetizing selection of revisited Peruvian classics prepared with great technique and fresh, seasonal ingredients. Ceviches are a must. There are 6 types (priced around $17 or $10 for a smaller portion during lunchtime). A ceviche tasting ($28) gives diners the option to try 4 of them. Other specialties include about 30 appetizer-sized dishes ($9 to $16) and main courses ($17 to $29). Sharing is highly recommended, mostly so you can try multiple things.
Crispy potato, sweet potato and plantain chips served with 3 dipping sauces color coded by heat level. Green for mild, yellow for medium and red for spicy. Each one made with a different Peruvian chili pepper, spices, queso fresco, milk, olive oil and thickened with ground crackers.
Some signature ingredients in Acurio’s Peruvian cuisine make an appearance in several of his dishes. These 3 sauces are among them.
You can’t leave La Mar without trying a ceviche (called on the menu as cebiches). They are unlike most ceviches in San Francisco in which the acidity of the lime completely overpowers all other flavors. Gastón’s are made with leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), a light marinate of lime juice and chili peppers. The liquid from the ceviche is so flavorful that the restaurant offers a tasting of 5 leches de tigre shots–said but not guaranteed to have aphrodisiac properties.
Cebiche clásico. California Halibut and red onions in habanero pepper leche de tigre with Peruvian corn and yam. Simple and delicious.
Cebiche chipotle. Scallops, calamari, shrimp, red onion, cilantro, habanero, in a chipotle leche de tigre with Peruvian corn and yam. Beware, as the red color suggests, this one is flavorful but very spicy.
Empanadas de lomo saltado. Stuffed with beef tenderloin, red onions and tomato. The classic Latin American pastry turnover is filled with chopped grass fed beef and baked until crispy. A tasty appetizer.
Anticuchos de pulpo. Grilled octopus skewers, herbed mashed potato with chimichurri sauce and ají panca. La Mar offers a variety of anticuchos–barbecued skewers similar to kebabs. The octopus is tender and smoky but the herbed mashed potatoes is a bit on the dry side.
Anticuchos de lomo. Grilled marinated skirt steak served with shaved red onions and Peruvian corn. Flavorful and tender, the meat is simply exceptional.
Arroz Norteño. North Peruvian seafood combination with mussels, shrimp, octopus, clams, and fried rice with cilantro and Huancaína sauce. The majority of La Mar’s menu is made of appetizer-size dishes perfect for sharing. A few main courses are available like this Peruvian version of a Paella in which cilantro is used instead of saffron to give the rice a rich color and flavor.
Picarones. Traditional warm pumpkin and sweet potato fritters with spiced Chancaca honey. Desserts at La Mar are generously portioned. Denser than the traditional American doughnut, the Picarones have a pronounced pumpkin flavor and can be easily shared by 2 or 3 diners.
Suspiro limeño. Classic dulce de leche mousse with port wine meringue. This dessert is more like a runny pudding than a mousse but, consistency aside, it’s tasty and sweet.
Beyond its impressive looks, La Mar is the best Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco. Gastón Acurio’s food brings a contemporary flair to classic dishes. His cuisine is at the same time authentic and highly approachable. Go to La Mar if you love Peruvian fare and if you don’t think you do. The accidental chef may change how you see his hometown cuisine after all.
La Mar is at Pier 1 ½