What happens when you take a traditional cuisine, steeped in thousands of years of history, and apply a fine-dining sensibility to it? Chef John Marquez’s new Concord restaurant, Lima, is the place to find out.
Lima is Marquez’s second restaurant in Contra Costa County. He opened Artisan Bistro in Lafayette in 2009. Both are family affairs: his mother, Elizabeth, is a manager and father, Guillermo, or Bill, as he’s known, is the accountant. They decided to open their second restaurant after eight successful years at the award-winning bistro that, among other things, has a three-course fois gras dinner.
It’s not the first time Marquez has cooked Peruvian food in the Bay Area; he also worked with noted Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio at La Mar in San Francisco. But it does mark a homecoming of sorts for the chef, who honed his chops at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Daniel Patterson’s Coi.
Marquez spent the first five years of his life in Peru.
Although being a chef wasn’t something he thought about as a young boy, some of Marquez’s earliest memories are of visiting markets in Lima.
“I remember going to the market with my grandmother,” he said. “It was about a half mile from her house. I remember walking with her, and the smells and the colors.”
Marquez moved to Toronto as a child, and then to Antioch, where he helped his grandparents acclimate to the U.S. When he was young, he said, he enjoyed spending time in the kitchen, but his tasks were more like “mixing things in a pot” than cooking. And his taste veered toward scrambled eggs and ketchup.
But then Marquez took a catering class in high school. “I fell in love with cooking right then,” he said.
Peruvian food is characterized by its bright flavors and its “eclectic mix of many cultures,” said Marquez. While foods indigenous to the country, such as potatoes, are omnipresent in its cuisine, Italian, Chinese, African, Japanese and Spanish immigrants to the country have all left their imprints on the cuisine. For example, one of Peru’s best-known dishes, lomo saltado (steak wok-fried with tomatoes and soy sauce) comes from the immigrant Chinese population. And Peruvian cuisine also features myriad chile peppers (ají) that indigenous to the region yet familiar to non-Peruvian palates.
The menu at Lima is no different; in addition to lomo saltado, it includes a tripe dish with origins in Africa, a spaghetti with pesto, and a ceviche akin to Japanese sashimi.
“The different cultures mixed with the native ingredients of Peru is what makes [our food] unique,” said Marquez.
Nosh attended a soft opening a few weeks ago. The restaurant is on the casual side, with red-beamed ceilings and green and yellow walls. While Lima had not yet secured its alcohol permit, we liked the sound of the cocktails on the menu.
We began with what Marquez said is perhaps one of the most classic Peruvian dishes on the menu, the anticuchos de corazón ($12), beef heart skewers with origins in Incan cuisine.
The hearts are marinated in a sauce made of red ají peppers, vinegar, cumin, garlic, salt and oil. While the texture of the hearts was quite chewy, we appreciated the seasoning and level of heat.
Raw fish plays a major part of the appetizer section of Lima’s menu, appearing in six different preparations, ranging from $16 to $18. Some are classic ceviches — pieces of raw seafood “cooked” in citrus juices — while others are tiraditos, crudo-style dishes with large pieces of fish dressed with emulsified sauces.
Also on the appetizer side of the menu is a deconstructed variation of causa, another classic Peruvian dish in which chile-spiced mashed potatoes are layered with avocado, chicken or tuna, and black olives. Called causa limeña ($10), Marquez’s version includes small potato cakes topped with a bit of chicken salad and cilantro garnish. Diced avocado, cherry tomatoes, and dollops of Huancaìna sauce were artfully strewn around the plate — all around, it is a more playful version of the dish.
From the entree side of the menu, we tried the seco de cordero ($25), lamb shank braised in an array of Peruvian peppers and spices and served with beans and garlic-studded white rice.
Dishes to try next time include ají de gallina ($17), chicken stewed in ají amarillo sauce (a yellow pepper paste) with walnuts, olives and hard-boiled eggs, or aroz con mariscos ($22), a Peruvian version of mixed seafood paella.
For dessert we tried the picarones, traditional Peruvian donuts made from squash and sweet potato, drizzled with molasses syrup ($9).
Lima is expected to get its alcohol license in mid-December, and in a few months will be open for brunch.
While Marquez noted that he and his family weren’t the first to open a Peruvian restaurant in Concord or its environs, he thinks Peruvian food is having its moment.
“Its flavors are unique,” he said. “I remember when Thai food became really popular in the mid-eighties; people weren’t used to how you could get so many flavors in one bite. The same can happen with Peruvian food.”