A melody drifted across the dining room like a smoke ring: “Tall and tan and young and lovely. …”
The singer, sitting at the end of the bar, had Astrud Gilberto’s sultry contralto and calm, unrushed phrasing. There was a guitarist, too, tracing bossa nova rhythms that the bartenders fell into each time they raised their shakers. Overhead, a dark canopy of glossy tropical leaves swayed from the ceiling. For an hour or so, Artesano acted so much like a lounge on the Ipanema beachside that it would have been churlish to point out that almost everything on its menu comes from Peru’s west coast, about 3,000 miles from Rio de Janeiro.
And why argue? It’s not every day that Peruvian food as intelligently assembled as Artesano’s washes up on Chambers Street in TriBeCa. Since October, the restaurant has been serving finely tuned and sometimes elaborate dishes like the Artesano ceviche. Rapidly marinated sea bass, soft wheels of poached octopus and golden rings of fried squid — decorated here and there with smooth buttons of puréed sweet potatoes — are built into a low ridge that looks like a footbridge. The bridge crosses a small orange lake of tiger’s milk, a brew of vegetables, herbs and the juices given off by raw seafood. This particular tiger’s milk contains fresh ginger and red rocoto peppers, which help it attain a pulsing level of spice that is almost musical.
The author of this and other, equally elaborate compositions is Rodrigo Fernandini, a native of Chiclayo, a Peruvian city just inland from the coast and more than 400 miles north of Lima. Mr. Fernandini spent several years in Silicon Valley practicing modern California cuisine, but apparently his thoughts strayed back to Peru. He opened a cevicheria in San José, Calif., and ran it for a short time before he was interrupted by the pandemic. Today he has another Peruvian restaurant in St. Petersburg, Fla., called Allyu, and he has Artesano.
Mr. Fernandini cooks neither the home-style cuisine you get at Pio Pio, nor the bold, forward-thinking wine-bar cuisine that Erik Ramirez has honed at Llama San, in Greenwich Village. Mr. Fernandini’s style is closer to the colorful, dynamic plates that Oscar Lorenzzi knocks out at Contento, in Harlem, but it is more formal and precise. He outfits the food of Peru with the kind of dressy, layered refinements that tend to go along with hand-thrown crockery, the option of an extended tasting menu, and a private dining room tucked out of sight somewhere. (Artesano has all three.)
Tiger’s milk blended with mayonnaise coats the Nikkei tuna tartare.Credit…Clay Williams for The New York Times
Even anticuchos, which in their purest form are chunks of muscle and organs grilled on sticks following an Andean tradition that predates Columbus, line up in intricate tableaus under Mr. Fernandini’s baton. The filet mignon anticucho is de-skewered and arranged, with spoonfuls of roughly chopped chimichurri, over cherry-size roasted potatoes and what seems to be a creamy emulsification of the dish’s traditional garlic-and-oil marinade. Then slivered scallions and edible flowers are carefully applied to the beef. A rough sauce of rocoto peppers, both hot and sweet, is served on the side.
Described that way it sounds hopelessly baroque. It is essentially steak with sauces and potatoes, though, and together with a pisco sour or two, it would make an ideal small dinner some hot August night.
So would the ají de gallina, shredded chicken over which a fluffy yellow sauce rests like a mustard-colored quilt. Some foods are just spicy enough. Others are just bland enough. Very few are both, and a well-made ají de gallina is one of them. Artesano’s ají de gallina is made so well that I didn’t second-guess Mr. Fernandini’s decision to scatter dried black olives over the sauce.
They’re saltier and more intense than the olives most ají de gallina cooks use, and I feared they would get in the way of the yeasty smoothness of the sauce. They didn’t. Given that Mr. Fernandini decorates his plates like somebody who got a glue gun and a box of rhinestones for Christmas, the surprising thing is that most of his garnishes make the rest of the dish better. The dots of ponzu gel lined up alongside the Japanese-influenced Nikkei tuna tartare really do taste like they belong, even if the real thrill of the dish is the way acevichado sauce — tiger’s milk blended with mayonnaise — soaks into the bed of sushi rice below the tuna.
One exception: the pale potato chunks that take the place of French fries in the lomo saltado. Taking the place of French fries is a tough assignment, and these spuds aren’t quite up to it.
All the other desserts are upstaged by the one called Moray. This should come as no surprise, because it is the only one that looks like an ancient Incan ruin, the sunken circular terraces near Cusco in the Sacred Valley. The concentric rings of the Moray structures have been etched into a delicate cheese mousse, which has to be easier than carving them into a mountain. The fluffy cheese disc is lightly sweet and very calming when you eat it with a spoonful of corn ice cream. The two tiny grilled ears of baby corn are adorable, but they are best regarded as ornament.
The wines are generally fresh and bright and eager to show themselves ready for anything the kitchen throws at them. The house cocktails are all a bit effortful, and there’s little need for innovation given how many classics Peruvian drinks are also on the list. Many are made with pisco, which is such an agile mixer that it can come as a surprise to drink one on its own — Artesano pours about half a dozen by the glass — and find out that it is exactly how you want the meal to end.
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