A continent of delights

With the World Cup in Brazil later this year, South America should be figuring large on people's travel radars. Then there's that list of Latin America's top 50 restaurants, which put countries like Peru on the world gourmet stage. There are now more reasons to hightail it over to the region that's halfway across the world.

PERU

The place to visit: Machu Picchu

Part of 15th century Machu Picchu's allure is how the Incas had removed the trails leading to the city when the Spanish conquistadors invaded Cuzco, giving rise to the speculation that it was a sacred site for the Incas. Machu Picchu was officially rediscovered four centuries later, in 1911, but the indigenous Quechua tribes were already living and farming there, among the ruins. In 1981, Peru declared the 325.92 square kilometres surrounding Machu Picchu as a "Historical Sanctuary". Machu Picchu was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1983.

The dining scene: Peru has one of the best local cuisines and also gourmet dining, and it strikes a comfortable balance between the two. You can dine well anywhere from north to south of the country, from the Amazon to Cuzco, There's a great offering of fine dining restaurants, while local rustic Peruvian fare is easy to take to as well.

The gourmet revolution in South America began about a decade ago, led by restaurateurs such as the famed Gaston Acurio and his wife Astrid in Peru, whose eponymous restaurant was named the best restaurant in the newly minted Latin America's best 50 restaurant list in 2013.

Gourmands will want to park themselves in Miraflores, which has the highest concentration of fine dining restaurants in Peru and, truly, dining there is an outstanding experience which is also easy on the wallet.

Central
Santa Isabel 376 Miraflores Lima, Peru
centralrestaurante.com.pe

Central is like South America's answer to Noma and El Bulli, especially with the way its star chef Virgilio Martinez embraces local ingredients and makes them into food art.

The degustation menu is the highlight, and during our visit in the last quarter of 2013, it was woven around quite a compelling "altitudinal" story - of food dictated by the altitudes in Peru, where the Andes mountains and Incan history shape the land. The menu had ingredients starting at 10 metres below the sea, up to 4,300 metres - where the diversity of microclimates are celebrated on a plate.

Nine courses were presented like ikebana art. Local ingredients such as native corn, roots and nuts were totally transformed from their original form, so it was a completely new textural journey. "Seaweed calamari" was a colourful, diced-up mixture of squid and flowers placed on a nori sheet atop a coral rock; while native corn was transformed into a chewy cube. The Amazon river was invoked with the presentation of river fish (arapaima) on a pale green ceramic plate, with the plate's rough texture juxtaposed against the smooth strands of a pasta strung out from heart of palm and stained with the colour of a cactus flower (airampo). "Snapshot of the sea" was one of the most fanciful with scallops cut into cubes, and covered with chia seeds, while dollops of jus and patterned vegetable tips completed the "decor". The lamb was tender and flavourfully braised, again, plated like a work of art. The dining here is a little more about the form with perfectly executed and the fantastical food art.

The raffishly unshaven chef Martinez drops by the tables to interact with guests, and handles media interviews on-site like a pro. The degustation menu is priced at S$190 while a la carte dishes average S$30.

Chez Wong
Enrique Leon Garcia 114
San Isidro
4706217 (lunch only)

There are a couple of reasons for a visit to Chef Javier Wong's home restaurant even though he's located in an unfashionable part of town. Firstly, it's this second-generation-Asian-in-Lima's reputation as the ceviche king of Peru, and then it's for the mini performance that he puts on when slicing up giant flounders and firing the wok. Wong, with his signature beret, dark glasses, and cigarette dangling from his lips, looks like he could be a Nazi chef, but is very camera-friendly.

The walls of his home restaurant are filled with certificates, photographs and articles on the walls praising the chef and supporting his celebrity status. There isn't a menu but everyone gets a ceviche and then a hot dish - which will be served unless you indicate you only want the ceviche. Chef Wong's ceviche is no mystery at all, but he creates theatre out of it, so even though the meal is more expensive for what it's worth, you chalk it up as a most unusual dining experience.

As for the ceviche itself, his version is really quite intense - like a big band of Peruvian lemons (the magic ingredient) and onions playing a tart riot in your mouth. Chef Wong's method is to marinate the raw fish in lemon juice for mere minutes rather than hours, and he keeps it pure, straightforward and unadulterated with only a few ingredients.

Our lunch came up to an extravagant S$100 per person, for the ceviche, two hot dishes, and a bottle of white wine.

Astrid & Gaston
Moreyra House, San Isidro
Astridygaston.com/en

The best restaurant not just in Peru but in the whole of Latin America has but a discreet plaque on its door. A gathering crowd outside the restaurant just before it opens at 1pm is a give-away though, as you enter into a tranquil plush space.

We were ushered to our table in a room where the walls were lined with wine cabinets, and making our dining choices was easy enough - we picked whatever looked the most exotic. Chef Diego Munoz and his team really delivered as every dish we had was beautifully conceived and executed. Despite dishes like Peking duck-style guinea pig (cuy), one didn't feel that the dining experience was an experimental venture but one where you enjoyed the food rather than the concept.

The Peking Duck cuy featured skin that had the aerated, light and crispy texture, which is quite a feat, as we found out later when we had traditional roast cuy at another restaurant, and can attest to the otherwise chewy toughness of the skin. The crispy pork we tried was like suckling pig, contrasted nicely with wood-charred apple mash. Then we tried Peru's famous river fish, the arapaima, served panfried on saffron-infused creamed barley. Again, done beautifully. For dessert, we had a colourful box of delights served to us, with the restaurant's take on the traditional alfojar biscuit, which is like shortbread layered with dulce leche, a caramelised milk jam popular throughout South America.

The flagship restaurant was started by Peruvian Gaston Acurio with his German wife, Astrid Gutsche, in 1994, and this year, it moved to a grand bungalow in San Isidro. There are sister restaurants in Bogota, Quito, Caracas, Buenos Aires and Santiago to as far afield as San Francisco and New York.

Madam Tusan's
Santa Cruz 859, Miraflores
www.madamtusan.pe

Those whose taste buds need to be recalibrated with an Asian meal while on holiday will be thankful for Madam Tusan's. It's part of the Astrid & Gaston group, and the chef, Felix Loo, is a Peruvian-born Chinese who picked up his cooking skills in Guangzhou. We tried a large spread of dim sum and, though the portions were bigger than the usual Asian ones, rendering them less dainty, the tastes were good and certainly excellent for South America. The chee cheong fun had lean char siew mixed with crunchy water chestnut and biting into the wonton filling unleashed a host of savoury flavours. The calabazitas were like mini cannon balls - a sweetened, chewy, deep fried mochi ball with a savoury filling.

It was Chef Loo's "Chinese" ceviche that hit the sweet spot, however - being a smooth, well-balanced blend of sesame oil, soy sauce, spring onion and fresh ginger tossed yusheng. Totally like how this would be made in Asia. While Javier Wong's Peruvian ceviche can be wincingly aggressive, this was balanced and nuanced.

You can also find a wide range of Cantonese-style dishes at Madam Tusan's. Our other favourite, besides the ceviche, was the excellent quinoa, done fried rice style. Chef Loo is infectiously passionate about showcasing his take on the Peruvian Chinese "chifa" cuisine and his creations are definitely among the finest you'll find in that part of the world.

Cuzco

Everyone heading to Machu Picchu goes through Cuzco, the former Inca capital located 3,400 metres above sea level; so it's also a place to acclimatise. The charming town with steep cobbled streets is the start-off point for Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, 80 kms away, and other Inca ruins. It's not just a town to acclimatise to the higher altitude, but also works as a good weekend getaway. With the cool weather and the lights from the houses in the surrounding mountains, Cuzco has a Christmas feel all year-round.

There are tons of tour companies in Cuzco offering everything from day tours, one- to four-day hikes of the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. If you are hiking this, you have to book ahead of time because only 500 hikers get permits to hike the trails a day. Otherwise, it is also possible to take a bus up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Caliente which is a two-hour bus or train ride from Cuzco.

The dry season from June to August is the peak tourist season. You definitely don't want to hike the trails during the rainy season. If you want to avoid the crowds, you could plan to go around the fringe months of May or September

The dining scene: For a small town, Cuzco has quite a large selection of fine-dining outlets. Most people spend only a couple of days here, but even after four days, there were outlets that we wish we had gone to if we had more time.

Cicciolina
Triunfo 393, second floor
www.cicciolinacuzco.com

Cicciolina is frequently raved about as one of the best restaurants in Cuzco and it lives up to its reputation. It's located in one of the older courtyard buildings in the part of town that still has a couple of Inca walls.

Diners enter the bar area with its exuberantly rustic decor, while the fine dining area features minimalist decor. It's there that we tried alpaca steaks (S$20), and found the meat very similar to duck breast in texture, but tender and rich.

The squid ink tagliolini was steeped in marine flavour - an excellent choice. The grilled octopus was a tasty starter, against the blander causa - a classic Peruvian snack which is essentially mashed potato mixed with different ingredients and fried. Dishes range from S$10-25.

Limo
Portal de Carnes 236
Plaza de Armas
www.cuscorestaurants.com

Limo is just a tad chi-chi for Cuzco, we thought, when we entered the minimalist restaurant housed in a traditional building. The food is good but formulaic. The quality is high, and it serves innovative Japanese with a Peruvian twist and vice versa, which we felt lacked soul.

Otherwise. the sushi rolls are believably Japanese - quite an unusual dish to have when you're some 4,000 metres above sea level and nowhere near the sea. We also tried the alpaca kebabs (so-so) and a fried noodle dish (forgettable).

Limo is part of six highly-rated and well-received restaurants in Cuzco owned by the Cusco Restaurant group - a good testimony to the high quality of F&B in Peru in general.

Pachapapa
Plazoleta San Blas 120
Cusco, Peru
www.cuscorestaurants.com

We decided to hold off on one of Peru's most classic dishes until our last night in Cusco, as a celebration. Although we had the haute version in Lima, we wanted to have a sense of what traditional roast cuy (guinea pig) would be like. Pachapapa came recommended by a local shopkeeper and it also brought us to one of the hilliest, and bohemian, parts of the city. Gasping away on our uphill trek there, we were glad to walk into a lovely traditional style restaurant with a courtyard and a big clay oven outside.

Decked out in rustic Peruvian textile and colours but with restrained style, the restaurant had a mom-and-pop feel (it's part of the Cusco Restaurant group) and tucked into the wood-fired guinea pig and hearty wok-fried spaghetti with vegetables. The meat of the guinea pig is quite fine and smooth, only there's not a lot of it. The wood-charred skin was very inviting, but actually tough and chewy. In the historic church in Cusco hangs a famous painting of Jesus at the Last Supper - but instead of bread and wine, it shows a roast cuy instead. So how could it not be our last supper for us as well, for our final night in Cusco?

ARGENTINA

The place to visit: Mendoza

If you're looking for an easy holiday filled with good food and wine, Argentina's wine region is a great place to visit over a weekend. It's easily accessible from Chile and Brazil by plane.

You can spend days visiting the wineries, especially when most of Argentina's wines don't get exported.

The dining scene: as Argentina's wine capital, Mendoza also has a dining scene which is diverse and sophisticated enough to match its quality Malbecs, Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons.

There is no shortage of restaurants where the average meal is executed expertly, and the restaurants at top wineries are also on par with their counterparts in France, Australia and the United States.

There are at least 1,000 wineries in Mendoza, each producing at least two to three wine labels (like the Salantein winery). Those who want to sample Argentinian wines should do it in the country, where good wine averages S$10 a bottle.

Maria Antonieta
Belgrano 1069, Mendoza
mariaantonietaresto.com.ar

Maria Antonieta was a restaurant where we dined at twice because it was simply so good, was value for money and within walking distance of our hotel. The menu was creative, and the decor contemporary classic French, like a smart bistro.

Despite the Francophone persona the restaurant served one of the best pastas we had in the country. The freshly made pasta sheets were thin and fine, as was evidenced through the gratinated Maltagliatto pasta (like tagliatelli) with king crab that we tried the first night. Served in a pot, the king crab was flavourful although the cheese was just a tad salty, but the pasta was beautiful.

The second pasta dish we tasted was a comforting gratinated cannelloni with chicken ragout, with two pasta sheets rolled around a tomato-ish chicken stew, and again the pasta was fine and al dente. Our grilled pulpo (octopus) featured a gigantic tentacle sitting on a bed of roasted red onions and potatos, well-seared on the surface, and juicy to the bite.

Another refreshing starter was finely shaved pear tossed with burrata cheese, roughly hand torn, although the parma ham was lacklustre. The average price for the main dishes are S$12-15.

The place to visit: Bariloche

Bariloche is Argentina's gateway to Patagonia and the city, modelled after Alpine-styled architecture, is located within the Nahuel Huapi National Park. The city emerged in the 1930s and 1940s as a top tourism centre with skiing, trekking and mountaineering facilities.

The dining scene: Given its large tourist numbers, the restaurant food here is pretty good. With all the chocolate shops around, and even restaurants serving fondue, you could almost believe yourself to be in Switzerland.

El Boliche Viejo
Ruta 40, Limite entre Rio Negro
y Neuquen
San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

All the way down south at the northern edge of Patagonia, El Boliche Viejo is one of the most charming Argentinian restaurants that is a "must-try" - for the history, atmosphere as well as the barbecued meats. The legend goes that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had used it as a hide-out (and surely grabbed a bite?) in the days of the Wild, Wild West. It's believeable that nothing much has changed since then - except a green-and-white paint job on the corrugated sheet exterior.

We ordered Patagonian lamb, of course (one portion was enough to feed three, going by Asian portions), and as we sat out in the garden, the aroma of roasting lamb wafted over us. The lamb is slow-cooked over a wood fire in a shed in the garden, and the chef carves up different parts to give them a final searing on his grill before the meat is served.

El Boliche Viejo is worth the 30-minute drive from Bariloche town, past some gorgeous Patagonian scenery, for an unpretentious, finger-licking meal -the way Argentinians have been doing for centuries.

Delicious detour

ChocoMuseo (Cuzco)
Calle Garcilaso 210, Cuzco

So you've taken the Sacred Valley tour, explored the Pre-Colombian art and Inca museums, but still have a day or two before heading out to Machu Picchu. What else is there to do at Cuzco besides shopping? Sign up for a chocolate-making class at the Chocolate Museum, then.

This dedicated chocolate gallery and shop is a great educational and retail space in Cuzco - and they have classes throughout the day for chocolate fans.

Our introductory chocolate class started with an overview of chocolates and the origin of cocoa beans - there are three principal types of the cocoa tree and that they grow within the narrow geographic range of 20 degrees north and south of the equator.

At the workshop, a local English-speaking instructor showed us how chocolate is made from scratch - as we dry-fried our cocoa beans in a clay pot until they popped, then cracked open the shells to get to the beans, and pounded them with a pestle until we could get the finest grind.

From there, it's mixed with butter and sugar (plus other things) and refined. The last step in the process is tempering, and this gives the chocolate its glossy sheen and its snap upon breaking, as this process changes the molecular structure of cocoa butter.

The class ended with us pouring our own milk or bitter chocolate into moulds and mixing them with different spices and flavourings. We returned two hours later to collect our hardened chocolates.

There's something about the cool weather and being nestled among high mountains which calls for chocolate, and cocoa being such a big crop in South America - it just makes sense to get your hands on them while there.

Off the beaten track

The Salt Flats, Bolivia

At some 10,000 sq km, these are the largest salt flats in the world and also the largest store of lithium. Unfortunately, mobile phones can't be charged by sticking them into the salt flats but you can take funny perspective shots with them because the Salt Flats are so flat and white. Take a three-day jeep journey (make sure your driver-cum-guide is English-speaking) and you'll cover the Eduardo Abaroa National Park, which has some stunning desert landscapes such as a giant cactus and coral island, naturally coloured lagoons, the "Dali" desert with its surrealistic volcanic rocks and formations, geysers, and wildlife-like pink flamingos. Part of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed here.

Travel tip: A stay in a salt hotel is a treat. The accommodation on the jeep trail can be intimidatingly basic, but there is a luxe version with the Tayka hotel network.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Thanks to its exports, stable politics and vibrant economic growth, Chile is perhaps one of the better-known countries to Singaporeans and Asians. On the ground, though, we keep hearing disparaging remarks from Peruvians, Bolivians and Argentinians - partly due to the border skirmishes they've had and Chile's land gain as a result; but then it could also be the case that Chile is the more prosperous and "productive" country in South America. Sound familiar?

This desert town is the centre of hippie-chic in Chile, if not South America. The adobe architecture of the desert has been preserved and they house restaurants, or tour agencies, and artisanal jewellery shops, besides those selling souvenirs and groceries. This is where you base yourself for day activities in the driest desert in the world, and tour agencies offer luxe tours of Bolivia's national park and Salt Flats.

Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

Patagonia is shared between Chile and Argentina, but the Chilean side is known for the Torres del Paine mountain range and national park. Patagonia is romantically known as the unexplored territory and the truly last American frontier - offering one of the most stunning views of mountains, glaciers, glacial lakes, and rivers in the southernmost area of South America. There are lots of luxury hotels situated in the park and around it, and most offer complete board and expedition packages. For the actively-inclined, the minimum four-day "W" Circuit is one of the most renowned hikes one can do around the Paine mountain range.

Travel tip: The availability of refugios located along the "W" Circuit is one of the key reasons to take this minimum four-day trek. It's a very challenging trek on well-marked trails but made cushier with the comfortable refugio stays. These are privately-run lodges which offer either bunk beds or private cabins along the trail, and warm, home-cooked food in well-designed settings.

Highlights are the challenging climbs up the French Valley and the Las Torres base for the mountain and glacier views - a mountain range which is separate from the Andes range, and known for relatively young mountains.

uihoon@sph.com.sg


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