A frothy sip of tart pisco sour and the electric citrus bite of striped bass awash in leche de tigre deliver a one-two punch of an introduction to Peruvian cuisine that will shock your palate and arouse your senses. The Peruvian tourism board couldn’t ask for a more intriguing duo to represent the country’s dynamic and eclectic culinary expression.
The cocktail and a dish of the classic cebiche serve as an exciting start to dinner at Yuyo, the Peruvian restaurant on Manor Road opened a little over a year ago by the long-running El Chile Group.
Few hospitality companies have been as active over the last 15 years in Austin as El Chile. The group opened its eponymous restaurant just down the street from Yuyo in 2003 and has since opened El Alma and several El Chilito locations, while also making short-lived runs at a few other concepts.
The bright and airy Yuyo, all natural wood and sky tones with minimal but effective adornment, occupies the space formerly inhabited by the group’s El Sapo burger bar. While the space is familiar to fans of El Chile Group, the Peruvian palette the restaurant pulls from represents a departure for the the group that has focused mostly on the flavors of Mexico.
Bolivian born chef Maribel Rivero, sister of El Chile Group co-founder Carlos Rivero, took inspiration from her travels in South America and stints in some lauded Lima kitchens to create a menu celebrating one of the world’s ultimate fusion cuisines. Culinary influences have arrived on Peru’s shores for hundreds of years and blended with indigenous ingredients and customs to create a cuisine that showcases flavors from Spain, China, Italy, West Africa, Japan and more.
The classic cebiche at Yuyo ($14) exhibits the hybridization tendencies of Peruvian cuisine, taking sashimi-style sliced striped bass and splashing it with a citrus bath of leche de tigre. Puffed pieces of large kernel Peruvian corn, tender sweet potato (here a variety of the South American tuber cultivated in Japan), threaded seaweed, bossy red onion and teardrops of citrusy peppers complete a sextuplet of textures with the velvety ribbons of fish. A harmonious marriage of Peru and Japan.
Most of the culinary excitement at the restaurant that can reach boisterous levels of volume when crowded came from the top of the menu. Farm cheese burst from the insides of bronzed fried yuca croquettes ($9) that tasted like nutty mozzarella sticks and arrived with a side of lightly pickled red peppers standing in for marinara. The mild and ubiquitous creamy ajj amarillo, the color of a newly washed school bus, zipped crunchy paddleboards of sweet plantain chips and delicate, wavy blue potato chips ($5). Gulf shrimp warmed slightly by a robe of rocotto pepper sauce took a back seat to the citrus celebration of the striped bass cebiche but still made for an admirable take on shrimp cocktail ($14).
International flavors wove themselves throughout the menu of small, shareable plates. China’s contributions appeared in supple bao buns folded over hoisin-glazed pork belly ($10); empanadas stuffed with stewed chicken and walnuts and zagged with aji amarillo sauce most likely derived from African influence ($12); and Japan was nodded to yet again with plump chargrilled Gulf shrimp perched on a bed of slaw glistening with ponzu ($14).
But the most revelatory of the early dishes was the one that hit closest to home: a creamy blend of Andean corn puree and Parmesan studded with seasoned beef and covered in a crunchy, baked layer. Think of it as a corn-lovers Bob Armstrong Dip by way of Peru ($15).
Hopscotch around the first half of the menu (much of which is discounted at happy hour) and match the dishes with Peruvian cocktails suggested from a welcoming and engaged staff, and you’re off to a promising start.
Things muddle as you dig deeper into a selection of entrees that showed moments of flare mixed with mundanity and monotony. A fragrant lemongrass aji sauce enlivened meaty pan-seared Gulf drum on a chard-showered dish that was as beautiful as it was tasty, and one that also featured roasted potatoes ($24). If Peruvian cuisine was creating an online dating profile, the biographical tagline might read: “Must love peppers and potatoes.”
A stubborn stretch of underseasoned skirt steak brushed unevenly with chimichurri unfurled across a pile of not-quite-crispy sweet potato fries ($25); and the Chinese-inspired sirloin tip lomo saltado stir-fry, a Peruvian staple here served on top of rice and limp purple fries, lost its flavors to a dull brown sauce interrupted by overbearing slashes of red onion ($25). I don’t expect nuance in those dishes, but I do expect more expressive flavors and tighter execution.
The sins were forgiven with another Peruvian staple, chargrilled chicken, Yuyo’s version blanketed in an electric chimichurri and zipped with a bright aji amarillo aioli that brought the purple fries to attention ($19).
How important are sweet potatoes to Peruvian cuisine? You’ll even find them in dessert. Yuyo molds them into massive rounds and deep fries the doughnuts that arrive dusted with powdered sugar, skewered and ready for dipping in a viscous syrup made with South American sugar cane ($8). Think of them as a Peruvian State Fair food.
While I’d wished the doughnuts were more pillowy, I came to better appreciate them in comparison to a 90s-looking dessert of dry dark chocolate cake that crumbled beneath an off-putting zigzag of ganache and dulche de leche cream ($10). It was the kind of finish that made me long for the start.
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