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Peruvian chef departs Manhattan, but there's always Chicago and Miami

La Mar
A serving of tacu tacu (sea bass in a green sauce) at the La Mar Cebicheria Peruana in Santiago, Chile. Peruvian superchef  Gastón Acurio has expanded his culinary empire across Latin America, but a foray to New York has proved much less successful. (Oakland Ross photo.)


First, the good news:

Peruvian uber-chef Gastón Acurio will soon be opening his fourth restaurant in the United States as part of an ongoing campaign to transform his country’s cuisine – think chili peppers, raw fish, and lots more – into something it has never been, a major factor in international gastronomy.

The new opening is set for this coming December, when a branch of La Mar Cebichería Peruana will welcome diners to its new location in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Miami’s Brickell Key.

Now, more good news:

Last month, Acurio opened a third U.S. restaurant, this one a bistro-style eatery called Tanta that now attracts Windy City diners to its location at 118 W. Grand Ave in Chicago.

These two nosheries join a San Francisco restaurant that Acurio opened to great acclaim in 2009, when he was already well on his way to building a global empire of Peruvian flair, style, and food.

In all, Acurio, 45, now operates 37 restaurants in 16 cities, including Madrid. What’s more, his flagship establishment – a Lima restaurant called Astrid y Gaston – is ranked Number 14 on San Pelligrino’s 2013 list of the planet’s 50 best places to order a meal.

A profile of the man in this newspaper a couple of years ago referred to him as "the most famous chef you've never heard of."

In Peru, where they know him well, a lot of people are convinced that Gastón Acurio should be president.

Now the bad news: Gastón Who?

That’s what they’re asking in New York.

In September 2011, Acurio took the ultimate North American plunge by bringing an outlet of his La Mar chain of seafood restaurants to the Empire City, locating it in the Flatiron district across the street from Madison Square Park.

Now, just two years later, the equipment, furnishings, and fixtures are being auctioned off, and Acurio has learned the hard way that New York is a very tough town, especially for people who cook for a living.

The Gotham experiment started badly and pretty much stayed that way.

In March 2012, six months after the grand opening, The New York Times weighed in with what would eventually amount to a death sentence.

“Any restaurant can get the hiccups,” wrote Times food critic Pete Wells of his experience at La Mar. “This one was having a full-blown seizure.”

The paper towels overflowed the wastebaskets in the bathroom, he complained. The coat-check staff had absconded for the night. “Plates sat around so long before being cleared that they looked like archaeological sites.” When it finally showed up, Wells’s cocktail was served “in a goblet as sticky as a jelly jar.” And so on. And so forth.

The Times critic awarded the restaurant his first-ever zero-star rating, although it should be noted that Wells did like the ceviche and the tiradito (a kind of seafood carpaccio).

Well, you can recover from a lot of things in this slough of despond called Life, but it’s a very tough challenge to regroup following a direct hit by a New York Times critic in a somewhat grumpy mood.

So farewell, Big Apple – and on to Chicago and Miami.

No word yet on a Toronto opening.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.



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