August 15, 2013
Gaston Acurio gets around. The man whose Gaston y Astrid restaurant in Lima, Peru, is 14th on Restaurant Magazine's current The World's 50 Best Restaurants list has 32 other restaurants worldwide, has published 20 books, has been part of a documentary film with the legendary Ferran Adria and has numerous television appearances to his credit.
Last month, Acurio received a lifetime achievement award in conjunction with the upcoming Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants awards, which will be announced Sept. 4. Part chef, part author, part prophet, Acurio has spent most of his career preaching the gospel of Peruvian cuisine throughout the world.
And now he brings his message of hope, seafood and citrus to Chicago, in the form of Tanta, which opened Monday in River North.
Tanta means "bread" in the Incan language, but in the sense of provided nourishment and food rather than literal bread, Acurio says. In that sense, Tanta (118 W. Grand Ave., 312-222-9700) will not be on the haute-cuisine level of Gaston y Astrid. Acurio envisions a casual, lively spot with 126 seats where people are as comfortable simply ordering a pisco sour and cebiche (Peruvian ceviche) at the bar as they might be sitting down to a two-hour meal. Indeed, small plates ($9-$16) dominate the one-page menu, augmented by a half-dozen or so entrees ($17-$36). It's a restaurant designed for grazing, sharing, experimenting.
Anyone who has visited La Mar, Acurio's concept in San Francisco and New York, will have an inkling as to what's in store at Tanta, but Acurio says the two concepts are noticeably different.
"There is the same spirit," he says. "But La Mar's concept is based on cebiches and mostly seafood. Tanta includes all of Peru's food cultures, especially the street food of Peru."
Peruvian is sometimes thought to be fusion cuisine because of its myriad multicultural influences. Those influences — Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, African and ancient Incan — melded over hundreds of years; if Peruvian is a melting pot, and it is, it's a slow cooker. And Acurio thinks these unique flavor melds will play well in Chicago.
"I've been coming to Chicago a lot for the last year," Acurio says, "and I've discovered that Chicagoans love food; they're always looking for new, good things. I was at Girl & the Goat, where they use the whole head of a pig, and was amazed how people were loving these different ingredients and complex recipes. We feel if we show our original culture and original flavors with the best ingredients, I hope people will like it."
And if a first-timer were to order just one dish, which should it be?
"For your first time, I think the best dish would be the cebiche tasting (three cebiches, $25)," Acurio says. "The classico (fish), mixto (squid, octopus, more) and nikkei (tuna, avocado, tamarind) — those will open the door to the Peruvian soul."
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