New Peru

Olaya from on high
Olaya from on high
Although he is responsible for some of Buenos Aires’ top Peruvian restaurants opening up over the past decade — think Osaka and Sipan —it seemed that chef José Castro Mendivil’s luck had finally run out with Mullu.

Some six months after opening the Nikkei fusion spot in Microcentro, Castro Mendivil decided to bail out last May and left his business partners to continue affairs. In an email to local food critics and journalists, he said that he would no longer have anything to do with this, his third enterprise, which just months earlier he had hoped would roll out in Argentina, if not Latin America.

And then there was silence, as Castro Mendivil considered his options. He headed back to his native Peru, went to Brazil to check out the food scene in São Paulo… and finally ended up in his original stomping ground, Palermo Hollywood.

Olaya is the latest product in his repertoire, which has seen various offshoots of both Osaka and Sipan open up around Buenos Aires and in Punta del Este. But it seems that this one’s for keeps.

It never ceases to amaze me as to how much restaurant space there seemingly is in Palermo Hollywood, and it still doesn’t seem close to saturation point. Olaya, named after José Silverio Olaya — a personal hero of Mendivil Castro who was a martyr in the Peruvian battle for independence —has slotted right in as the hood’s latest high-end offering since opening a few months ago.

Spread out across a floor and a half with a back patio to boot, vast floor -to-ceiling windows offer an internal glimpse to the bar, the open kitchen, a bright and beautiful mural by Milo Lockett complete with three-eyed Simpsons-esque octopus, Pisco bottles cleverly lined up to act as wallpaper — and if you look close enough, the fish on ice.

Ph: Felipe Zabala
Ph: Felipe Zabala
As is often the way with these upmarket places, there’s a beautiful if dry lady concierge on the door but once you’re in, there’s an array of spots from which to hoof up a ceviche and more; almost as many spaces as there are menu options in fact, allowing for a different experience every time: upstairs, at the ceviche bar, on the patio and even at a traditional table. It’s a lot brighter and breezier that the overly romantic Mullu: perhaps it’s been zipped up by the limes — instrumental to Peruvian cuisine — on the logo and Castro Mendivil’s forearm…

Castro Mendivil’s menus are often physically enormous (the Mullu list was disguised as a plastic tabloid newspaper) and Olaya’s doesn’t disappoint. It’s also lengthy, with hot and cold piqueos, starters, sushi, mains, ceviches and desserts all featuring – there must be about 40 dishes all in all. Where to start? How about by bringing a friend and ensure you share — as the menu says, nothing here is personal.

Sitting at a standalone high table essentially on display in the main window and close to the front door that whips a cool breeze about my person every time it’s pushed open, the spicy octopus duo and the Nigiri trio sound stunning, but I go straight for the hot starters to select three conchitas accompanied by a coca leaf pisco. This trio of scallops shells have been scooped out then restuffed with all kinds of deliciousness, octopus, prawns and of course scallops. Doused yet not drowning in a spicy salsa a bit like a vamped-up korma that’s in fact a yellow pepper bechamel, it’s all over rather too quickly and there was an urge to wipe those now-empty shells clean with a finger. I give thanks for not having to share.

Onto the next round, and annoyingly there is no change of cutlery. It remains one of my bug bears, and especially in high-end places, that waiting staff are touching up my fork and while I’m not OCD by any means, I do sense a campaign for 2014 coming on…

Come 10pm, practically on the dot, the music ramps up to some electronica and the volume pumps up too. Suddenly the place is really busy with groups and couples, a good showing for a new restaurant on a Wednesday night.

Ceviche Nikko
Ceviche Nikko
It’s time to move on for another hottie and the Chanchito Tamalero, a deconstructed tamal oozing with wok-fried porky strips and that faithful Peruvian ingredient, corn, that also seems to have some Cantonese style going on, thanks to the spices.

With such an ample menu, it’s impossible to try everything but I did give two of the ceviches a go, in mini, loser-dining-on-their-own size. Chorillano is a classic version pepped up with rocoto while Nay Lamp is a darker affair fused with fish of the day, prawns and octopus atop a bed of squid-ink tainted potato causa.

You can also dip into prawn empanadas, tiraditos, rolls, sashimi, rice and pasta dishes, steak and of course desserts, all creations that come with the flair and flavour for which the chef has made his name.

Warning. This is not a bargain place. As with Castro Mendivil’s other restaurants, there’s a price to be paid and starters kick off at 120 pesos with ceviche Nay Lamp coming in at a whopping 240 pesos.

Yes, the dishes are to share; yes, dishes are freshly prepared; yes, a highly regarded Peruvian chef who trained in London is running a tight ship in a very cool space but we’re not talking much less than 800 pesos for two at a conservative price if you want to have a good time.

Upscale, up the ante, up the credit on your card.

Humboldt 1550, Palermo Hollywood
Tel: 4843-1751

Buenos Aires Herald, March 23, 2014
Ph: Courtesy of Olaya

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