Taking your seat at LIMA doesn’t feel much like sitting down in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Indeed, LIMA has always done things differently, not least with the launch of a new, more accessible, sharing menu in April this year – a move that is very much out of the ordinary for a venue bestowed with a Michelin star. Launched by world-renowned Peruvian chef, Virgilio Martinez and his partners, Gabriel & José-Luis Gonzalez, in 2012, they won their star in 2013. ‘We opened in 2012 as a fun and casual restaurant showcasing a new style of cuisine to the UK,’ explains co-founder Gabriel Gonzalez. Although this relaxed style of dining has been an ongoing hit with Londoners, they decided to revamp their menu earlier this year in the face of the growing trend for more casual eating out experiences. ‘The fact is that the restaurant economy is changing and we need to make sure we’re constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of our customers,’ Gonzalez says. ‘Our menu development reflects this as well as going back to our roots.’
LIMA is based in a narrow lane just off the main thoroughfare of Oxford Street. Surrounded by cocktail bars and casual burger joints, its relaxed attitude fits in just so. The restaurant is airy and light, with simple wooden tables and vibrant Peruvian artworks on the walls, as well as al fresco tables ideal for lounging in the sun. Service is friendly and informal, run by knowledgeable young waiters with lyrical South American inflections. It couldn’t be less stuffy if it tried.
At the helm day-to-day is Robert Ortiz, a Peruvian chef and Virgilio’s longtime friend and co-creator of the new menu – the reason why we’re here. The changing demands of London’s food scene has seen LIMA redirect its focus to smaller dishes intended for sharing among groups of friends – so far, so zeitgeisty. With 14 small plates and 12 large to choose from, as well as five ‘snacks’, you’ll be spoilt for choice – and perhaps a little sceptical, wondering whether all these morsels might be equally well crafted.
But, we find we’re in a safe pair of hands with Ortiz, with every dish we try coming out confident, fully formed and demonstrative of an impeccable knowledge of the intricacies of Peruvian cuisine. The seam bream ceviche (a dish of raw fish marinated in ‘tiger’s milk’, an acidic mixture of lime juice, sliced onion and chillies) that we started with was tender, flavoursome and melt-in-the-mouth, the only downside being that the little bowl it came in wasn’t nearly big enough for two to share satisfactorily. The duck escabeche (marinated in vinegar and algarrobina (a syrup from the Black Carob tree) was succulent and equally moreish, and was given a certain kick with rocoto chillies. The only slight question marks hung over the quinoa and burrata salad, which was creamy and perfectly tasty, but unmemorable, and the artichoke tamal, which turned out to be a doughy baked dish doused in double cream: odd.
We were back on track with the large plates, however: the beef pachamanca offered up melt-in-the-mouth slices of meat, which played-off nicely with the earthiness of the accompanying yellow potato purée and Andean root vegetables. The dish’s cooking process was a complete novelty, too. Pachamanca involves baking beef using hot stones, in a traditional Peruvian technique that dates back to the Incas. The suckling pig was also a tour-de-force; juicy meat combined with lashings of cracking, served on a bed of sofrito made fragrant with pineapple syrup and rosemary.
Finally, what better way to end a South American meal than with an exploration of their biggest export? Chocolate has been part and parcel of Peruvian cuisine for time immemorial, so we knew that the avocado mousse, with 75 per cent chocolate, and the chirimoya parfait with Amazonian chocolate and blue potato crisps, would almost certainly be a hit. Admittedly, the avocado mousse was a little strange on its own, but paired with the dark chocolate ganache it took on an impressive new body and intensity. The accompanying chirimoya parfait was a whole new taste experience. Mark Twain called chirimoya ‘the most delicious fruit known to men,’ and its mild, sweet flavour lent itself well to the Amazonian chocolate mousse. The addition of blue potato crisps was again a flavour experience, and their starchiness was a smart choice to offset the creaminess of the parfait and the intense chocolate hit of the mousse.
If shaking-up the Michelin-starred experience was LIMA’s goal, then it’s more than achieved this ambition. Relaxed, friendly and informal, this is somewhere to come to on a weekday with friends, or for a casual family dinner at the weekends. The menu, in Ortiz’s hands and under Martinez’s direction, is intelligently crafted, full of innovative flavours and well-executed, arcane cooking techniques to delight an inquisitive mind. Above all, the food, as well as the setting, is the opposite of pretentious – not something that you can often say about a Michelin-starred restaurant.