The first stop of my Pao Pisco Pilgrimage was La Mar Cebicheria, the highly acclaimed Peruvian restaurant introduced to the Embarcadero by celebrity chef, Gaston Acurio. La Mar reminds me a bit of a large, noisy Vegas restaurant, only it has better food, tastier cocktails and an element of class. Vibrant blue-colored aesthetics flow throughout the white-walled space that can reach loud volumes quickly. Apparently the patrons of La Mar did not receive the memo about the current economic crisis; every time I’ve been the restaurant has been filled to capacity. A couple Thursdays ago the story was no different. My friend Marianna and I arrived to a packed house shortly after 8:30PM, famished after a tough vinyasa flow class and thirsty for a pair of pisco cocktails.
I’ve eaten at La Mar a handful of times and can say with certainty that the ceviche is some of the best I’ve tasted outside of Peru. I’m a classical ceviche fan, preferring the robust flavors of leche de tigre (lime juice and spicy pepper), red onion, cured fish, shellfish and a side of sweet yam to the more unconventional preparations. Nevertheless, I was impressed with La Mar’s incorporation of Chinese and Japanese influences, offering ceviche chifa and ceviche nikei as other possibilities on the menu. If you’re like me and enjoy a variety of samplings at each meal, try the ceviche tasting to start – you will not be disappointed.
The anticuchos de pulpo (octopus skewers) are also a must. The octopus is grilled to perfection, leaving the meat juicy and succulent. It is served over a bed of Peruvian style mashed potatoes and drizzled with a tangy green chimichurri sauce and spicy ahi. My other menu favorites include the cau cau de mariscos – a spicy seafood risotto with fresh clams and scallops – and the only beef dish on the menu: lomo saltado. Saltado is the Peruvian version of a stir fry, and La Mar’s dish pairs tender pieces of beef tenderloin with tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, and French fries.
While I could easily dedicate this entry to an exhaustive detail of La Mar’s culinary creations…that is not the primary purpose of this post. So let’s take a quick vuelta and get back to the topic at hand: Pisco. Each of La Mar’s eleven signature cocktails has Pisco as its primary foundation. The Peruvian brandy is served with a multitude of unique ingredients like orange flower water, ginger syrup and agave nectar. There are Peruvian versions of several traditional cocktails including the Bloody Lorcho (similar to a Bloody Mary only served with Pisco and fresh octopus) and the Cholopolitan (like a Cosmopolitan but with Pisco and Passion Fruit).
My two cocktails for the evening included the Pisco Punch and the Chicha Tu Ma! The two beverages had distinct flavor profiles that were equally tasty and satisfying. I had to try the Pisco Punch given its San Francisco roots (if you remember from my post http://sftaoofpao.com/2010/02/23/pao-pisco-pilgrimage-inca-trail-cocktail-recipe/ Pisco Punch was created right here in San Francisco by Duncan Nicol in a bar by the TransAmerica building). The punch is served in a large wine glass with slices of lemon, orange and lime. This citrus blend complements the smooth, natural flavor of pisco quebranta, masking its alcohol content which can be equally good and dangerous. The cocktail is light and refreshing with a foamy, frothy top layer that leaves you wanting more of its pleasant hints of bitterness.
Our second cocktail was the Chicha Tu Ma! (Yes, La Mar adds punctuation to the name and I feel pretty exclamatory just thinking about the cocktail). It is a mixture of pisco quebranta, chicha morada, triple sec and passion fruit. Chances are you might not recognize the ingredient “chicha morada.” Chicha exists in many forms in Latin America. The first time I had it was at a rodeo in Santiago, Chile on National Day. As we watched the local Chileans do the National dance, and Chilean cowboys (vaqueros) ride bulls, we were happy to throw back pitcher after pitcher of this fermented alcoholic beverage that boasted an essence of apples and grapes. Peru’s “chicha morada” is also sweet, but not fermented. It is derived from purple maize (corn) and serves as a natural antioxidant that is believed to help lower blood pressure. La Mar’s Chicha Tu Ma! is served up in a martini glass. The passion fruit and chicha morada provide the drink with a deep purple hue, and a thin garnish of orange peel adds a colorful contrast. The cocktail is considerably sweeter than the Pisco Punch, and has a syrupy quality that coats your tongue. I would happily Pao Sip either of these two cocktails again but I must say my curiosity will probably lead me on to a different Pisco pilgrimage on my next visit to La Mar. Looking at the menu I think Passion Andina (pisco, mint, passion fruit and lime) will be my next stop.