There are many interpretations of the Latin American cured fish dish ceviche, but a traditional Peruvian take can be hard to find.
One new place to find it is Cuzco Peruvian Cuisine, a Freret Street restaurant that revels in simple and authentic Peruvian dishes. Here, ceviche doesn't come sidling tortilla chips or house-made crackers. There is nary an avocado or radish slice in sight, and the binding liquid doesn't carry the acidic jolt of pure lime juice, but rather the velvety touch of leche de tigre.
This elixir (which is good enough to drink straight from the bowl) carries the soft touch of Peru's indigenous power pepper, aji amarillo, a bright yellow chile that imparts faint heat and marigold sheen to everything it touches.
In the ceviche, it flavors the citrusy curing liquid, which lulls plump mussels, shrimp and squid into gentle submission. The dish is framed by the traditional accoutrement: fat slices of sweet potato, soft corn kernels, canchita (crispy corn nuts) and a shower of thinly sliced red onions, which adds crunch and sharp bite that contrasts with the sweetness and soft textures on the plate.
The amarillo pepper also appears in salsa huancaina, a creamy sauce with subtle heat that garnishes plates and pools around crispy, golden-fried yuca spears and also is in the aji de gallina, shredded chicken served with rice. The bright yellow color and heat from the peppers are subdued by a decadent cream sauce made rich with ground walnuts. Garnished with little besides a hard-boiled egg and a few black olives, the dish feels almost bucolic in its simplicity, but this is comfort food at its best.
Causa, a terrine of yellow potatoes mashed with lemon juice, olive oil and — you guessed it — aji amarillo, arrives topped with a trio of creamy shrimp, an olive-based seafood medley and a buttery shredded chicken mix — each one savory, rich and distinct.
Arroz con mariscos is a mirror image of Spanish paella, brimming with squid, jumbo Gulf shrimp and bay scallops, nestled in a towering mound of golden rice studded with mirepoix. It's as good an example as any that the kitchen pays as much attention to presentation as it does to flavor.
Lomo saltado, the country's answer to steak and potatoes, features thick wedges of soft and juicy beef tenderloin, crescents of red onions and tomatoes. The hearty dish is coupled with thick, hand-cut fries, which arrive swimming in brown, vinegar-tinged gravy, something that renders them soft, and almost pudding-like, reminiscent of poutine.
For dessert, a simple crema volteada — similar to flan — has a dark skin on top with the slightest bitterness, which helps offset the rich and creamy filling.
There's no liquor served, but guests may bring their own. The purple corn drink chicha morada bursts with cinnamon and clove, similar to mulled wine.
In its previous life, the dining room was home to a clothing boutique, and when it gets busy, the space feels cramped. The space is decorated with Peruvian textiles and hand-cut white butcher paper on the walls and windows. Servers foster a familiar and jovial ambience. It's a fitting touch to the business run by a group of Peruvian friends who wanted to cook the food they grew up with in a place that felt a little bit like home.