This new Peruvian pop-up serves food that looks unreal, and tastes just as good

This new Peruvian pop-up serves food that looks unreal, and tastes just as good

Instagram can make a chef's food look better than it actually tastes. That's not a problem at Elias Salazar's Limon Modern Peruvian Kitchen

Chef Elias Salazar has a heavy thumb that leans on Instagram’s colour-saturation filters until his food looks like it’s been turned up to 11. Peruvian purple potatoes, when cooked, are not the colour of grape bubblegum. No egg yolk or Cuzco corn is as yellow as a child’s drawing of the sun.

But the chef’s glow-in-the-dark-band-poster of a feed captured my attention, and my eyeballs began asking my brain if they should be dazzled by something wonderfully unfamiliar, or skeptical of something fraudulent. So I went to taste Salazar’s eye-catching food for myself. The chef is running a three-month residency, Limon Modern Peruvian Kitchen, at Rush Lane, a cozy Queen West cocktail bar decorated in the millennial-bro style, with random vinyl albums on the wall and a soundtrack of Nas, Salt-N-Pepa and Craig Mack.

More importantly, I was thrilled to discover that in real life—in cute, flower-patterned bowls—Salazar’s flavours deliver on the intensity of his photos.

The papa a la huancaina, purple potatoes smothered in a spicy, cheesy sauce, makes off with the starch-and-fat-comfort-food trope the way a professional getaway driver handles a midsize Kia Zipcar. The huancaina sauce captures the attention of both the eyes and mouth thanks to aji amarillo, the brightly coloured pepper central to Peruvian cooking. On its own, the pepper is five to 10 times spicier than a jalapeno. But soaked in hot water, deseeded and blended with cotija cheese and evaporated milk, the pepper’s flavour, not its heat, is the dominant trait, balancing a topnote from the dish’s salty, bitter garnish of botija olives.

“It’s the most used pepper,” Salazar says of the aji amarillo. “I think it goes into every single dish, raw or cooked. Aji amarillo is essential to us.”

It shows up on Salazar’s menu—served Tuesday-Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight—again and again. It’s in the citrus marinade that softens the sweet Argentine red shrimp in the street-style ceviche carretillero, topped with deep-fried squid. It’s in the pan con chicharon sandwich, a kaiser bun packed with pork shoulder and belly, cooked sous vide in a pepper-spiked pork broth, with sweet potatoes, onions, lettuce and more huancaina sauce.

The only place aji amarillo doesn’t show up is in the Japanese-style tiradito de pulpo, for which Salazar lightly boils octopus tentacles and slices them thinly, like sashimi. The combination is topped with an emulsification of olives and oil, with mild togarashi in place of south American chilies.

The Asian influence might sound out of place, but it’s a big part of food in Peru.

“Peruvian cuisine is not just ceviche. There’s so much more to it,” says Salazar, listing the styles of cooking he’s proficient in: Nikkei (Japanese/Peruvian), Criollo (Creole cuisine), raw (ceviches, tiraditos), Italo-Peruvian, Chifa (Chinese/Peruvian) and some Amazonian.

“I arrived to Toronto in 1996,” says Salazar, who grew up in Peru and has cooked all around the world, most recently doing catering and special events here. “What amazed me about Toronto is all the cultures that you find in this city. But not Peruvian. Peruvian cuisine was unheard of.”

Today, we have El Fogon, the Boulevard Café, La Cocina de Doña Luz and New Sky, which offers a semi-secret Chifa menu. But the much-touted Peruvian food trend of the last five years, prognosticated by everyone from the BBC to the Wall Street Journal, from NPR to the Globe and Mail, has yet to fully animate Toronto’s dining scene.

The residency at Rush Lane is Salazar’s chance to introduce the city to his take on the cuisine, but it’s also very much a bid to attract investors. The long-term pop-up strategy worked for Dave Mottershall, who used a similar platform (out of a much-less welcoming bar in the east end) to connect with diners and other chefs, ultimately raising enough money through Kickstarter to launch Loka on Queen West.

I’ve met enough chefs, and the dentists and lawyers who they partner with as “silent” investors, to know that Salazar will likely have a pool of suitors by the end of his three-month runway. He’s a serious talent, bringing a burst of flavour to Toronto. Let’s hope he picks the right partner.

Limon Modern Peruvian Kitchen at Rush Lane, 563 Queen St. W. 416-551–7540.