With so many fantastic choices, it can be difficult to narrow the field down when people ask me for restaurant recommendations for a nice dinner in Cusco. There are, however, three stand-outs from recent memory that I have eaten at when visitors were in town; and the budget was expanded to accommodate this relative luxury.
At the top of my list – and apparently most Cusco visitors’ lists according to rave reviews- is Ciccolina’s; a restaurant serving an expansive novo-Andina menu that is amazing from start to finish. There are actually two sections to this styled-out restaurant on the balcony level of a colonial-era building tucked inside a courtyard off Cuesta San Blas: a hip bar area for more casual dining and the tapas (small plates) menu, and the more ‘formal without fuss’ dining room serving entrees that pare Peru’s finest ingredients and culinary techniques with flavors from across the globe. The attention to detail in the menu descriptions gives a good idea of the love that is going to each dish prepared and served here. During my visit I had the local trout prepared with a lemongrass, ginger, and wasabi cream sauce served with rice and a bed of steamed spinach. I topped it off with what was possibly the most incredible dessert I’ve ever had: layers of crisp phylo dough pastry layered with fresh sliced mango and a ginger sauce and topped with basil ice cream. Yes, basil ice cream…it will live on in my dreams for many years to come. Another defining facet of the Ciccolina’s dining experience is the vigilant service. During my meal my wine and water glasses were constantly refreshed, the food arrived quickly, and we were frequently checked on during the meal to see if there was anything else we desired. This may seem common place, but there is a notable cultural difference here in terms of what is expected of restaurant service – i.e. in many restaurants your server will take your order, eventually bring your food, and will bring the check when asked. I felt downright pampered during my visit here. Entrees run between 30-50 soles in general.
Coming in a close second is Piskuo, right in the heart of Cuzco on the Plaza de Armas above Gato’s Market. The uber-hip modern décor and a gorgeous bar area are relaxing and inviting as soon as you arrive. That bar also offers an amazing variety of specialty cocktails, including the Peruvian classic, the Pisco Sour, shaken with coca leaves. The result is a less sweet and citrusy drink with a mild green earthy taste. The entrees menu is another example of the culinary traditions and global flavors that have blended so nicely in the former capital of the Inca Empire. On my visit I had thin slices of pork loin glazed with a mandarin honey demi-glace, served over a surprisingly delicious fava bean puree, with mixed greens. The blending of flavors was perfect. The service here is also attentive and responsive, and there are tables available on a balcony overlooking the Plaza illuminated at night. Entrees here also run in the 25-50 soles range.
For a taste of true traditional Peruvian Andean fare I would recommend Pacha Papa off the San Blas Plaza. The simple but elegant restaurant has a beautiful courtyard for eating outside when the weather is nice (a pretty good bet anytime between mid-April to mid-November), and a small but inviting inside dining room. The heart of the restaurant is the massive dome-shaped clay oven where the traditional dishes cooked in earthenware pots are set to simmer over a wood fire. The rich taste of the fresh ingredients slow-cooked in this style to create a kind of stew is amazing. I had a beef tenderloin cooked with fresh herbs ladled out of the pot by the server over a bed of rice, served with a side of steamed fresh vegetables. Combined with a few generous pours of a rich Argentinian Malbec, I was full and happy by the time we left. The service here is also fantastic, ready to pour another glass of wine or respond to any request with cat-like reflexes.
Again, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these choices. Peruvian cuisine is definitely one of the best examples of cultural fusion done right, and these places make the most of the abundance of fresh local ingredients and diverse flavors in their dishes.