The World’s Top Restaurant Right Now Is in South America

Venezuelans have long put down roots in Lima, one of the world’s great gastronomic destinations, influencing the cuisine at restaurants like Mérito.

<p>Ben Pipe</p>

Ben Pipe

While much of Peru’s cuisine tends to coalesce around geography and ancestral traditions, Lima is something of an outlier. The food scene reimagines how to reflect the natural surroundings and history, incorporating the knife techniques Japanese-Peruvian cooks used to transform ceviche in the 1970s or local ingredients, like yacón, a semitropical tuber. Camu camu, a very tart Amazonian berry from the highlands and jungles, arrived with migrants fleeing violence in the 1980s and ’90s and can be seen throughout the city today, from the skewered beef hearts cooked on sidewalk grills to inimitable fine-dining destinations. Lima’s raw imagination and constant transformation are what continue to make the city one of the world’s great gastronomic destinations. More than a million Venezuelans have fled to Lima over the past decade, putting Harina P.A.N. on grocery shelves and opening areperas across the city. What lasting influence will come of this remains to be seen, but let’s hope it’s something like Mérito.

Venezuelan chef Juan Luis Martínez arrived in the city to cook at Central in 2014. There, he worked with potatoes and high-altitude pseudograins such as quinoa and amaranth that flowed to the restaurant from the Amazon and Andes, allowing him to see the overlaps in the great landscapes that connect Peru and Venezuela. In 2018, after developing close relationships with producers around Peru, he opened Mérito in a narrow, two-level space a couple of streets away. Eschewing the pretentiousness of fine dining, yet not quite a bistro either, it quickly gained a cult following.

Alongside his Peruvian architect partner, Michelle Sikic, Martínez is quietly transforming long neglected yet architecturally rich storefronts into accessible hot spots where the influences are wide-ranging. Aside from Mérito, the duo has opened a bakery called Demo and Clon, a sort of “Mérito lite,” with a playful menu where the ceviche has guasacaca (a spiced avocado sauce), and arepas are stuffed with fish battered in a tempura made with loche, a northern Peruvian squash. Each space vibes with the eclectic roots of the bohemian Barranco neighborhood, emphasizing features like original adobe walls and hand-painted tiles.

Trying to pigeonhole what Martínez is doing with Mérito doesn’t quite work. Calling it fusion seems limiting. The restaurant is personal if anything. Some dishes on the menu feel more Venezuelan, like glazed pork belly served with arepas, but they are hardly hidebound by nostalgia. Then out comes a dish that’s 100% Peruvian: raw razor clams from Pacific waters and cushuro, spheres of blue-green algae from mountain lakes. But what to make of a dish of Andean tubers like the waxy oca or parsnip-like arracacha, spun into noodles or laminated into wide sheets, that takes a dish rooted in both countries yet has nothing to do with either? That’s just Martínez, spinning his own thread within Lima’s culinary tapestry.

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