When I first dined at La Mar Cebicheria for a festive lunch a few months ago, I came away with decidedly mixed impressions. The location is killer — an enormous white room with lofty beamed ceilings, right on the bay, with huge windows offering generous views of the water. There's a dramatic stainless-steel open kitchen and several spaces in addition to the main room: a spacious, lively bar right off the entrance; a quieter, loungelike space with sofa-and-table seating next to a long eat-in ceviche bar; and an outdoor deck that would be swell on a warm day.
We got a window table that was too sunny, so we moved to a bright blue interior booth after some delay and confusion among the servers and a couple of hostesses. There are lots of staff, and some were more accommodating than others — which was also the case on our second visit.
The long and complicated menu also proved confusing. (Even longer menus are on offer at La Mar's original restaurant in Peru and its additional location in Chile, with more locations planned for Mexico and Costa Rica.) We knew we wanted to try the marinated raw fish ceviches, of course, in a restaurant with cebicheria in its name. But appetizers and main courses were divided into separate lists headed "classical" and "modern." There was a lot to read and to ponder.
We were crazy about the ceviches. We had the ceviche tasting ($28), smallish portions of four different preparations, all bright and sparkling with citrus and heat (La Mar calls the spicy pepper-and-lime-juice marinade "leche de tigre," tiger's milk). The mixto had mahimahi, calamari, habanero pepper, cilantro, red onion, Peruvian choclo (hominylike corn), and yam; chifa comprised mahimahi, peanuts, scallion, ginger, daikon, sesame, and wonton strips; clasico featured halibut, red onion, and habanero; and the nikei was ahi tuna, red onion, Japanese cucumber, avocado, and tamarind.
We shared the causa tasting ($17), described on the menu as "traditional Peruvian whipped potato with aji Amarillo [Peruvian yellow pepper] and seafood or vegetarian toppings." The word "traditional" led me to expect something warm and homey, served in a bowl. When it arrived, I had to laugh: Four tiny upright tubes of cold mashed potato, alternating yellow and purple, were carefully topped with equally tiny spoonfuls of different complicated cold mixtures (crab with avocado, tomato, and quail egg; tuna with avocado and rocoto, a hot green pepper; chopped artichokes and asparagus), and further adorned with dribbles of sauce and miniature garnishes, like teensy hats. It was a silly, tortured dish that looked about as traditional as the Sputnik.
We also tried the aji de gallina ($18), a creamy traditional chicken stew with pecans, quail eggs, and olives, which was my favorite dish, after the ceviches; a risotto de calabaza ($14 at lunch, $19 at dinner), a bland sop to vegetarians; and the Norteño ($17 at lunch, $28 at dinner), mussels, shrimp, octopus, and clams with fried rice and huancaina, a peppery cheese sauce. It was a pleasant dish, but not compelling. For dessert, we shared picarones ($11), warm pumpkin and sweet-potato fritters served with spiced honey.
I didn't feel like rushing back. Even at lunch, the room was painfully noisy. Except for the ceviches and the chicken stew, I wasn't thrilled with the food, and the hefty bill added those annoying "suggested gratuity calculations" that started at 18 percent and ended at 25 percent. I didn't foresee a rosy future for La Mar. But, at a recent return visit for a lateish Thursday dinner, we were surprised to find it completely booked. Rather than wait an hour for a table, we took two seats at the loungey end of the ceviche bar.
The menu, we saw, had been simplified. Seven ceviches were now five; the lists of traditional and modern dishes were now lumped together. We chose to start with the only ceviche we hadn't yet tried, the ceviche crudo, advertised as shrimp, sea urchin, and scallops in a sea-urchin–flavored leche de tigre ($19). There was a single shrimp and about half an urchin, which seemed stingy indeed, perched atop a dozen sliced scallops, which became boring after a while. It was much the least successful of the ceviches. The empanadas del mar ($11), two little pies with a nice crust, had almost no discernable fish flavor.
Anticuchos del corazon ($11) were skewers generously laden with chewy, tasty sliced beef heart marinated with aji panca (red pepper paste), garnished with crunchy fried potatoes, Peruvian corn, and spicy rocoto sauce. It was enough for a meal. Luckily, my companion chose lomo saltado ($27), because it was the best dish of my two meals there. Indeed, it was the best version of lomo saltado (stir-fried beef strips, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, and soy sauce, on a bed of rice and topped with limp but luscious fried potatoes) I've ever had — largely because the tender grass-fed beef was of exceptional quality.
Service was uneven. On our second visit, the server again explained the three sauces (yellow, orange, red) we were given with potato, yam, and plantain chips at the start as "mild, medium, and hot" without identifying their ingredients. I went to check out the main room, now even more noisy than it had been at lunch and, because it was dark outside, without the calming effect of the view of the blue sea. I also saw six specials chalked on a board over the kitchen, which our server had neglected to mention.
The very odd dessert we shared, a too-dense chocolate crème caramel ($10), didn't marry well with its accompaniments of lemongrass syrup, caramelized apples, and peppery aji amarillo foam. Nor did it leave a sweet taste.
La Mar is too loud and too pricey, and its food is too uneven for me, but tell that to the noisy hordes filling the place. I might consider taking a wonderful ceviche and that divine lomo saltado to go.