Here’s the annoying thing about this golden age of instantaneous communication and reality TV: Even when you are thousands of miles from home and being led by a knowledgeable local guide to a less-than-promising-looking eight-table restaurant in the chef’s slightly rundown house that is only open for lunch and that you would never find on your own in a million years, it turns out Anthony Bourdain has been there ahead of you.
Seriously, Anthony. Couldn’t you have left at least one stone unturned? And did you have to let them take your photo to hang on the wall? Couldn’t you have let us intrepid travelers treasure the illusion that we were discovering Chez Wong for ourselves?
Because eating there feels like you have discovered a hidden gem, even if it turns out it didn’t really need discovering.
Having done extraordinarily little homework before the Peru trip, I had no idea what to expect when our itinerary said we were going to Chez Wong for ceviche. Certainly, the hybrid French/Chinese name didn’t offer any clues. If I had looked on Yelp or Travel Advisor, I might have noticed all the rave reviews and folks proclaiming it the best ceviche restaurant in Lima (which might possibly make it the best ceviche restaurant in the world, given Peru’s status in the raw fish world).
But as it was, when we trooped into the house and took our places at the glass-topped table set with paper Chez Wong placemats in the restaurant’s only room, I wasn’t expecting much.
It certainly didn’t look very promising. There was hardly anything to it. At the end, facing the room, was a single work counter. Behind that was a tiny room with another counter, a few storage racks, a small stove off to the side and a few assistants milling around. Javier Wong, the 70-something Chinese-Peruvian chef sporting a white beret to match his chef’s jacket, was busy at the front counter chopping some vegetables. When we were all seated, he got to work on the fish.
It was quite a show.
He started with an enormous whole flounder, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. When he held it up, it came nearly to his knees.
I imagine it must have given the fisherman quite a fight, but it was no match for the chef. Working on that small counter at the end of the room, he had it filleted so quickly I barely had time to photograph it. In another few seconds, it was reduced to bite-size pieces, which he swept into a large bowl.
As assistants efficiently swapped out cutting boards, chef spent another few seconds slicing red onions, which followed the fish into the bowl. Pepper and a scary amount of salt were tossed in next, followed by lime juice. I think that pieces of cooked octopus must have been marinating in the lime juice, because somehow that ended up in the bowl too. It happened so fast, it was hard to tell.
Moments later, platters of the freshly made ceviche were on every table, and we were diving in.
It was amazing that something that simple could taste so good. We kept eating until we were stuffed.
Which might have been a mistake, as it was only the first course.
While we were exclaiming over the ceviche, the chef pulled out another enormous flounder and worked his magic, reducing it to bite-size pieces. But the fish wasn’t for more ceviche. Instead, it was headed toward a blazing hot wok perched on the burner in the kitchen.
In another minute, platters of an indescribably delicious stir-fry were on our table and we were pigging out again.
There was a third course after that, but our table declined it out of fear of exploding. I couldn’t have eaten another bite, but I truly regret my lack of capacity. The folks at the other tables in the room seemed to be relishing it – another stir-fry that looked sweet-and-sour and had fruit in it, that I think was intended as dessert.
It was a truly special meal. As much as I would like to try to keep the secret, I can’t help blabbing about it and urging any of you planning to be in Lima to secure one of the sought-after reservations.
But I also urge you to do it soon, if you want the full experience.
Wong will be closing the restaurant in his home in a few months. Now that he is world famous, he has decided to cash in and open a larger, legit restaurant in another location.
I’m sure the ceviche will be just as good, but I can’t imagine that the atmosphere will be the same. I doubt he will be able to replicate the slightly seedy charm of his repurposed living room in the new place. Though I’m pretty certain of one element of the décor.
That grinning photo of Anthony Bourdain will be there, hung prominently on the wall.
Gloating that he got there first.
When I first encountered ceviche, I was told that the fish, though raw, was actually “cooked” by the acid in the lime juice. That may be true of ceviche in Mexico and other places, but not in Peru, where the impeccably fresh fish is definitely still raw. The lime juice is introduced just moments before serving, and doesn’t have time to do more than bathe it in flavor.
There are probably as many types of ceviche in Peru as there are cooks making it. The genius of Chef Wong’s version is its stripped-down, absolute simplicity, which can probably only be achieved with the local variety of lime (less acidic but unavailable here) and of course the just-caught fish. I know any attempt to replicate it in my kitchen with California ingredients would result in a pale imitation, so I haven’t tried. Instead, I’m offering a more forgiving version based on one we made in a cooking class later in the trip.
1 lb. very fresh sole or flounder fillets
Salt and pepper
1 celery stalk, finely sliced on the bias
1/2 tsp. finely grated fresh ginger
2 large garlic cloves, finely minced
1/2 red onion, finely sliced
Juice of 10-12 key limes
2 sprigs cilantro, roughly chopped
Romaine lettuce leaves
Red onion, sliced
Cooked sweet potato, peeled and sliced
Firm ripe avocado, sliced
Corn nuts (optional)
*The pepper used in Peru is aji amarillo, a somewhat hot, yellow-orange pepper that is nearly impossible to find in this country. Jalapeños are not equivalent, but may be the best substitute available.
Cut the chili pepper in half and rub the inside of a large bowl with the cut side of one of the halves, then discard it. Finely slice the other half (removing the seeds) to use as a garnish.
Cut the fish fillets on the bias into 1/2-inch slices, then into small cubes. Add them to the bowl. Add salt (be generous) and pepper, and toss. Then add the red onion, celery, grated ginger, garlic and lime juice, and mix. Just before serving, add the cilantro to the mixture.
To serve, heap each serving of ceviche onto a lettuce leaf and garnish with a slice or two of sweet potato, a slice of avocado, some finely sliced hot pepper and the corn nuts.