Best South American restaurants in the UK
- Friday 17 January 2014
Anyone who likes the distinctive foods of South America has to feel that an invasion has taken place; a mixed but definite blessing, overdue and most welcome. Peruvian, Argentinian, Brazilian and Brazilian/Japanese-style fusion are all on parade: the raw and the cooked, proud and profane, a reminder that salsas are sauces as well as dances.
The invasion is also well lubricated, especially by rum mojitos and Chilean and Peruvian pisco sours, a deluge of alcohol and lime juice and, inevitably, a wild mélange of tropical flavourings that turn what used to be a good, pure drink into an array of more profitable cocktails, whose best food match is spicy bar snacks and street food.
For the best part of the various cuisines, though, there is also local, or at least neighbourly, wine from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru, often on the same list. Given the relative timidity of supermarkets and most wine shops, these restaurants are the best portals to this often surprising part of the New World.
In colonial times, Peru was rich and regal from silver mines. Its ecosystem of mountains, broad plains and a long coastline on the Pacific provided an ample, varied diet, a gastronomic treasure trove. It gave us, for example, the potato, several varieties of corn and chilli peppers, the technique of ceviche, and pisco, a splendid type of brandy. Spanish conquistadores planted vineyards in the 16th century, which thrived for more than 300 years, before declining from phylloxera.
Its culinary tradition persists. Lima, a new entry in Fitzrovia from celebrated young chef Virgilio Martinez, is stellar, sophisticated proof, the most impressive new restaurant in London in years. The room is handsome, casual but comfortable; the food strikingly attractive and boldly colorful. A plate of sliced raw scallops on a bed of yellow pepper sauce and dusted with umami salt and cassava powder was rivalled by red-brown octopus (braised, then grilled), on a ridge of grains of white quinoa and ground corn, spiked with red shiso and surrounded by blobs of Peruvian olive purée (pictured right). The flavours were well defined and ravishing. Suckling pig, essentially slabs of roasted belly pork crowned with crushed cashews, was the best pig I’ve had all year, and a ‘hot ceviche’ of red mullet, slightly cooked by a lime-pepper sauce poured over a fillet, was brilliant; as with the cool ceviche, its acidity was nicely balanced. The wine list is international, the South American selections first-rate, especially Carelli 34 Torrontes from Argentina, an array of Chileans, and Viñedo de los Vientos, a chocolatecherry sweet Tannat from Uruguay, a lovely dessert in itself. (limalondon.com)
A half-step behind is Ceviche in London’s Soho, quite informal and slightly raucous, with more traditional cooking. The anticuchos are terrific (marinated meat on skewers, notably octopus-andchorizo, sliced beef heart, chicken or salmon), perfect with salads and side dishes. The decent South American wine list has a dozen by the glass, including good Torrontes, Riesling, Muscat and Malbec. Chef-owner Martin Morales has also published a cookbook, Ceviche. (cevicheuk.com) Also worth a look is Tierra Peru in Islington, North London, a smart-casual place with a short but well-chosen wine list, including a Peruvian Pinot Blanc. (www.tierraperu.co.uk) Coya, reviewed in our July issue, calls itself Peruvian, but is more of a fascinating South American mash-up, with a good wine list. Coya's salmon anticuchos pictured left. (coyarestaurant.com)
Proudly carnivorous Argentina is somewhat crestfallen these days, having lost its leading position in per capita beef consumption. ‘We live, atthis moment, immersed in shame,’ declared a Buenos Aires news magazine, only half in jest. Part of the reason for the decline is, incredibly, the rise of vegetarianism, delicately defined by the beef producers’ association as ‘a cooking fad incorporating other products’.
The UK is enthusiastically taking up some of the slack, with Argentinian-style grills firing up all round the country. The pioneer, role model and still the best is Gaucho (steaks pictured below), with a wine shop and more than a dozen restaurants in London, Leeds, Manchester and Dubai. It’s a slick operation – there’s none ofthe slackness most chains fall into, and intensive staff training includes wine service. ‘It’s the biggest Argentinian wine list outside of South America,’says Phil Crozier, director of wines, ‘and a third ofthe 200 selections are exclusive to us. We delve deeply. Even if it’s a niche, it needs to be communicated properly.’
In an open kitchen, the chef presides over a long,open-flame grill, expertly juggling cuts of Argentinian Angus rump, sirloin, fillet and rib-eyesteaks, or sometimes an occasional lobster or chimichurri chicken for the faint-hearted. I like to begin with a contrast, such as palm-heart and tomato salad, salmon and squid ceviche, charred tuna carpaccio, or humita de choclo, grilled prawns topped with a sweet corn purée, before tackling the world’s best beef. The wine list has 18 winev arieties and types, including red, white, rosé and sparkling, with a good selection by the glass, so there’s plenty to choose from easily. (gauchorestaurants.co.uk)
There are also Argentinian-style steakhouses all round London and many other cities – wine lists vary widely. Garufin, in London, has a pair of Enomatics offering tastes of a very good range in six sizes. Garufin's Ernesto Paiva, Gustavo Vazquez and Alberto Abbate pictured left. (garufin.co.uk)
When my quiet neighbourhood acquires any type of restaurant that isn’t Indian or a pizza joint, it’s a sure sign that there is a trend beginning to heat up. This year we got our first Brazilian churrascaria, serving barbecued meat from rotisseries, known as rodizios. Sadly, it isn’t very good; happily, there are many more to choose from in London and beyond.
The model is simple: an elaborate salad bar usually includes hot appetisers and rice dishes. Load up your plate, take a seat, and a server takes your drink order and gives you a disc that’s green on one side, red on the other; as long as the green side is up, a man will come to your table with meat on skewers and carve slices off them. When you’re full, flip the card to the red side, and they stop.
On our rambles to various outlets, we found the sausages, pork, lamb and chicken (juicy thighs) better than the beef. The best of the bunch, for the variety and freshness of the salad bar, quality of meat and decent wine list, is Rodizio Rico (pictured right), with locations in London and Birmingham (rodiziorico.com). Otherwise, quality varies widely.
There is a Brazilian wine industry, and it peeks out from the margins of some wine lists in this category. Fazenda, in Leeds (pictured left), has a wide-ranging menu, a good wine list and a seriously ambitious wine programme. (fazenda.co.uk)
In 1899, the government of Japan began sponsoring the migration of thousands of people to South America as farm workers. Unable to buy land, many moved on to cities to better their lot, and their cultural contributions included gastronomy.
The best example here is Sushinho, with two London outlets – King’s Road and Liverpool Street. Some of the sushi incorporates tropical fruit (pictured right), the ceviche is light and fresh, and the hot food includes offbeat dumplings and full plates – dine in that order, and it’s a delight. The wine list is upmarket and international, but the red section ranges widely enough to be a good showcase. (sushinho.com)
Sushisamba (pictured left) opened in the Heron Tower in the City of London last year to great fanfare, but the sky-high prices and thin selection of South American wine choices marginalise it (www.sushisamba.com). If Sabor, in Islington, which is closed for renovation as I write, returns in anything like past form, it will be the best fusion all-rounder. (sabor.co.uk)
Winemaker friends have sent me menus that prove sophisticated gastronomy is thriving in Chile, but so far it hasn’t a place at this crowded table. In the glass, of course, it’s everywhere – now we just need some enterprising chefs to join what’s turned out to be an exhilarating party.