It seems a brilliant match for Gastón Acurio, the prolific restaurateur and chef from Peru, to open his La Mar in Miami at the Mandarin Oriental. And, judging from the crowds that pack the place for lunch and dinner, that match has sparked a fire.
Still, something about this luxury hotel restaurant with overpriced rustic cooking just doesn’t really work — yet.
As pretty as the modern, woodsy space is, the ceilings are so low that it feels cavelike, and the design does not help with the preposterous din. The quartet of hostesses should pass out earplugs as well as flashlights. To avoid all that, choose a seat beyond the glass doors overlooking Biscayne Bay and the downtown skyline.
The menu, with more than 60 regular items plus specials, can be overwhelming. Dishes range from gloriously executed ceviches to homey potatoes drenched in spicy huancaína sauce as well as lots of grilled anticuchos and rice dishes served in gorgeous pottery.
Meals start with a cone of long, crispy yucca planks that are hot when they hit the table. Addictive for dunking into the spicy ají sauce.
We ordered a ceviche trio; the bracingly sour yet spicy leche de tigre-bathed fresh fluke clasico being the best of the bunch. However, the three shallow bowls each held only a few rough-cut pieces of fish, making for a fork duel.
The causa sampler is overkill unless you are on a potato and mayonnaise diet. Cangrejo (crab) and tuna were delicious but our favorite was the octopus: plump tentacles grilled until tender and as golden as an end-of-the summer lifeguard. Four of us, however, had enough after only a spoonful of each.
The mammoth portion of cold potatoes huancaína is a disappointment. The sauce tasted grainy and oddly floury, though a nice hit of spice was redeeming.
My Peruvian friends would flip if they saw the $31 price tag for lomo saltado or $45 for whole fried fish, though both are done well enough.
Sizes are impossible to parse. Some dishes are tiny, like an anemic salad, while others are big enough for a volleyball team to share. Servers could offer better guidance, between their spurts of pleasant chatter followed by long disappearing acts.
A breakout dish is chaufa aeropuerto, a stir-fry of crispy rice and Chinese sausage, heavy with sweet soy sauce and fried egg, all mixed tableside. Our crew vied for the nicely charred bits and salty hunks of meat.
Sliders made with shredded pork, red onions and chiles didn’t do it for me; neither did a dish of squid-ink pasta prepared paella-style with scallops, calamari and striped bass. The flavors were muddled, the pasta dense and the seafood chewy.
Desserts are delicious and soulful, from the most basic picarones — sweet potato and pumpkin ringlets fried and drenched in cachaça syrup — to inventive takes on ancient ingredients. My favorite was toasted puffs of quinoa over a shallow basin of chocolate mousse with orbs of guanabana ice cream in a delicate casing.
Peruvian cuisine can be as subtle and sophisticated as the finest French fare. La Mar seems unsure whether it wants to be a roadside cevicheria or Per Se.
Some editing of the menu and a little sound dampening would make for a much better experience. Until then, La Mar offers plenty of lovely flavors to explore — perhaps a bit too many.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense. Follow @MiamiHeraldFood on Twitter.