Chef-restaurateur Martin Morales' restaurant is a rainbow-hued journey to the flavours of his homeland, says Neil Gerrard
But with Casita Andina in Great Windmill Street in London's Soho, he has made the trip for the rest of us somewhat easier.
Peruvian cooking is more familiar to the capital's diners than it was when Morales, a DJ, artist and former music industry executive, opened his debut restaurant, Ceviche, in Soho, in March 2012, and then Andina in Shoreditch in 2013. Indeed, his cookbook, Ceviche Peruvian Kitchen, has been translated into 10 different languages and is sold in more than 20 countries worldwide.
With its launch on 28 July (Peruvian Independence Day) Casita Andina has been added to those restaurants' ranks. And on a London dining scene that appears to offer almost anything, it still manages to feel genuinely different and original.
Morales says that he has always tried to serve Michelin-standard food but without the fuss, and he offers sharing plates from £3 and two dishes for £10 at lunch. In the evening, bookings are full a week in advance, but the café-bar on the ground floor is open for walk-ins. However, the queues out of the doors explain how he serves 1,200 customers a week.
Panca chilli-marinated cauliflower, sweet potato, broad beans, onions, tomatoes
Such is the value, that even The Sunday Times critic AA Gill, not exactly famed for heaping praise, said: "This is an interesting and unusual menu, with plenty of dishes and combinations that are welcome additions to the city's sideboard, and the prices are amazingly generous."
One of the first things that strikes you about Casita Andina is the colour. Vibrant barely covers it. But it isn't just the dishes that show off unexpected hues; it is the decor too. "More customers are looking at the experience and that is something we don't focus on enough. I think with Casita Andina we have put an incredible effort into the service and the design as well as the food," Morales explains.
But flavour, and a love and respect for Peruvian cuisine, are at the heart of everything. In collaboration with executive chef Vitelio Reyes and operations and bars manager Miguel Arbe, Morales makes frequent research trips to Peru - four times this year. They are, Morales claims, ambassadors for their cuisine - and what a cuisine it is. Peru holds the world record for having the largest number of national dishes - 492 - and Morales sees his role as their "curator and creator". Dishes on the menu are divided into three categories: traditional; influenced by tradition; and fusion, but made with Peruvian ingredients.
Watermelon and quinoa salad
Among the traditional is chupe seco - king prawns, chupe cream, potato, amarillo, chilli, quail egg (£12). Supposedly, it was once made by the Incas with river prawns and offered to young men who were about to become warriors. "Traditionally, it was called 'chupe', which means to 'suck'. The warriors were given this chowder and they were sucking their fingers, saying, 'this is finger-licking good'," Morales says. "I don't know how true it is, but that's what I've been told." Morales' version has a sauce rather than a chowder, and is served with fried quails' eggs and spicy potatoes.
At the other end of the spectrum is a salad with chilli-pressed watermelon, lemon-almond vinaigrette, black quinoa and queso fresco (£5), which takes its inspiration from Peruvian ingredients but is a new creation. "We have quinoa from the Andes - the best - and watermelon infused with Limo chilli, which is native to Peru," he says. "It takes on the appearance of a piece of tuna; a deep, dark, semi-translucent red. People are very surprised by the intensity of the flavour."
Around 10% of what is served at Casita Andina comes from Peru, but Morales is making new discoveries all the time. "I spent some time last year in the Amazon," he says. "And I discovered 20 different fruits that I had never seen before in Lima, let alone outside Peru. Unfortunately, about 19 of them will never be able to travel outside of Peru because they bruise so easily."
Fortunately, enough has made it here that, with the expertise of Morales and his team, diners can enjoy an authentic Peruvian experience - without the 18-hour bus ride.
From the menu
- Sangrecita - Peruvian black pudding, onions, rocoto chilli, quinoa toast £5
- AjÁ de gallina - Free-range chicken, amarillo chilli, Peruvian olive, quail egg £9
- Skate fish rocoto - skate wing, rocoto lasagna, fresco cheese £12
- Causa Andina - violet potato, asparagus, sweet potato, lime dressing £6.50
- Trout tiradito - Trout, caviar, amarillo chilli tigers' milk, violet potatoes, amaranth £7
- Strawberry & avocado pot - avocado, strawberry, yacÁ³n, basil cress £5
31 Great Windmill Street, London W1D 7LP
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