With restaurants and franchises across North, South and Central America as well as Europe, the empire of Peruvian wonder-chef Gaston Acurio already stretches further than the mighty Inca civilization ever did. In fact, his reputation is so widespread that more foreigners would probably recognise his name than that of Peru’s current president.
Closer to home, however is Chicha, one of Acurio’s two Cusco outposts which gives visitors to the capital of Andean tourism a chance to sample traditional Peruvian cuisine, with a touch of Acurio flair at a fraction of the cost of the famed tasting menus on offer at his signature Astrid & Gaston restaurants.
Located within easy walking distance of Cusco’s landmark Plaza de Armas, Chicha occupies the lofty second floor of a centuries -old whitewashed house, with blue-painted balconies, overlooking the picturesque fountains of the arcaded Plaza de Regocijos.
Classy and spacious interior at Chicha Restaurant in Cusco
The atmosphere and décor are relaxed rather than stuffy. Aubergine-painted walls, polished wooden floors and beamed, vaulted ceilings create a welcome feeling of space, and tables are far enough apart for diners to enjoy an intimate experience even when the restaurant is busy. Chairs are comfortable, tables are a good size and the toilets are discreetly concealed from most of the diners by a partition which also acts as a convenient barrier to the entrance, keeping the temperature inside pleasantly warm.
A New Twist on Classic Peruvian
There’s a clue to what you can expect to find on your plate in the name: Chicha is a traditional drink, made typically from different varieties of corn that has been an integral accompaniment to all kinds of Peruvian cuisine for more than 2,000 years. The food at Chicha – the restaurant – is based largely on age-old recipes made with native ingredients from around this large and diverse country.
A “healthy” serving of traditional chicharron – deep fried belly pork, with fries
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Chicha’s menu, available in both English and Spanish, is organised according to the provenance of the food – from the water, the land, the country, the world or Cusco. It includes such Peruvian must-haves as causa – mashed native potatoes topped with trout, avocado, quail’s egg and hot red pepper; ceviche; adobo – a rich meat stew; and, of course, guinea pig.
If you are not feeling adventurous you could play it “safe” with ravioli or pizza – although the pizza topping does include alpaca amongst its ingredients. Based on my own experiences, provided you have a fairly cosmopolitan palate then you are unlikely to be disappointed, in the food at least: the grilled octopus with pickled radish and micro herbs was fresh, tasty and tender. The pork chicharron with native potato fries, “giant corn” and fresh herby huacatay sauce was a huge, well-cooked portion that would satisfy even the healthiest of appetites.
Tender & Tasty: Chicha’s grilled octopus
Attention to Detail
But a great dining experience is about more than just the quality of the food on your plate, and it was the little details at Chicha that just took the lustre off what could have been a memorable meal. Waiting for fifteen minutes between being seated and being attended to by one of the smartly uniformed staff is a bit of a stretch. Bringing the wrong wine -indeed the wrong colour – is a bit sloppy. The English menu is only a partial translation and many of the really local ingredients remain in the original Spanish. Even a fluent Spanish speaker who is not familiar with the intricacies of Peruvian cuisine would struggle to know what half the ingredients are.
I was disappointed that the wine list is not available online whilst the food menu is, and was consequently slightly taken aback by the price of wine when we arrived. The reasonable price of the food is certainly a big draw, but perhaps publicising the price of the wines might put some people off. Most confusingly of all, there are no clues to the size of each dish on the menu, so choosing the right one for your starter and main course can be a challenge.
The Bottom Line
Starter/mains are priced from 27 Soles (about £6 or US$10) to 66 Soles (about £14.50 or US$24) and desserts are all priced at 23 Soles (about £5 or US$8.25). Athough I’ve never had room for a dessert, chocolate souffle with Andean mint ice cream and ginger ice cream with vanilla sauce and fruit salad would be top of my list.
Wine is not cheap anywhere in Cusco, and Chicha is no exception. However, for a reasonable 79 Soles (about £17 or US$30) you can enjoy a surprisingly good bottle of Peruvian Merlot or Chenin blanc from Tabernero and there is a good range of wines from South America, Spain and Portugal at various price points, right up to a Chilean Carmenere for around £100 or US$160. The one exception to the apparent Hispanic wines only rule is Moet & Chandon which will set you back around £150 or US$250 for a bottle. Wines by the glass cost from 20 Soles (about £4.25 or US$7.50) and cocktails include Pisco sours for 21 Soles (£4.50 or US$7.50) and the wittily named Cholopolitan for 23 Soles (about £5 or US$8.25).
Chicha’s reasonably priced menu, pleasant ambiance and excellent food make it a popular choice for visitors to Cusco and an accessible way to experience the magic of the famed Gaston Acurio brand. But if you expect impeccable and uncomplicated service you may be disappointed, and once you add a few drinks the size of your bill may come as a bit of a surprise. In short, well-cooked, honest, rustic food in posh packaging.