“Here’s a spoon,” says your waiter upon placing the raw fish in front of you. “Don’t forget to use your spoon,” says someone else ambling by. “Did you use the spoon?” asks the host inspecting your bowl. While some restaurants push bottled water or white truffles on customers, the staff at Llama Inn seem devoted to singing the praises of silverware.
There’s a good reason for this, actually two: the cloudy elixirs pooled in the rustic, earthenware bowls in which the house ceviche and tiradito are served. These Peruvian seafood preparations are a highlight of the cuisine, not to mention of this particular new Williamsburg restaurant, and the slurpable liquid component — the sour, tangy, piquant acid in which the morsels of raw fish “cook” — is as essential and delicious as the seafood itself, some might say more.
As any fan of the premillennial Douglas Rodriguez-led Nuevo Latino craze or the proliferation of Pio Pios and Coco Rocos can attest, there’s nothing new in New York about either ceviche or Peruvian food, which has been threatening to become the next big thing for years. But there is something new about Llama Inn, which opened in November in a trapezoidal terrarium of a space with glass walls jutting out like the bow of a ship toward the seamy underbelly of the BQE.
The chef, Erik Ramirez, is a Jersey-born first-generation Peruvian-American who has cooked at Eleven Madison Park and, more to the point, Nuela, the Nuevo Latino restaurant that eventually morphed into the Pan-Peruvian Raymi, where he became executive chef.
Ramirez calls Llama Inn a New York Peruvian restaurant, but a better term might be New Brooklyn Peruvian. It exhibits the familiar characteristics and culinary signifiers of its genre: the classically trained fine-dining chef casting off glitz and glamour for cheaper rent and a shaggy hipster clientele; the stripped-down menu and unfussy décor; the shared-plates mandate; coffee and cocktail programs that are as assiduously considered as the menu; neutral-toned, rough-hewn dishware crafted upstate by a cult potter.
Most telling, though, is the food, which is Peruvian in flavor and inspiration but tweaked just enough to make it seem personal and distinctive. Ramirez is a master of contrast and prizes the crunch, which in the case of that corvina ceviche takes the form of a blanket of crisp plantain chips; underneath, sweet fried plantains balance the concentrated tang of the dish-defining leche de tigre (to the classic commixture of lime, chile, red onion, and fish stock, Ramirez adds dashi). The thinner slips of red snapper tiradito are immersed in yuzu-persimmon leche de tigre and garnished with poppy seeds and candied ginger.
Raw and roasted beets, paired as they tend to be with goat cheese, also benefit from the sweet-tart pop of gooseberries and the crunch of the roasted corn called cancha, while quinoa transforms from health-food fodder into something much more luscious with the addition of bacon, banana, and cashews. It’s like an Elvis peanut-butter-bacon-and-banana sandwich translated into a grain bowl.
Ramirez sources some of his most obscure ingredients directly from the homeland, like the papa seca, or freeze-dried potato he uses in a hashlike stew served with arctic char. But you get the sense that for him, as for many New York cooks of his generation, authenticity is not essential, or even desirable.
A duck-sausage dish nods to Peru’s popular arroz con pato, and hunks of tender goat neck are intermingled with dabs of potato purée and crowned with quinoa crisps. Both manage to be gutsy and dainty at the same time.
Of the two large-format dishes, the roast chicken is perfectly fine, but probably nothing you haven’t seen before — a well-cooked bird dwarfed by a mound of fat fried potatoes. The beef stir-fry, Ramirez’s twist on the Peruvian-Chinese classic lomo saltado, on the other hand, is pure genius. The meat is cooked in soy and vinegar, scattered with French fries, and presented with delicate chive crêpes rather than the traditional rice. The object is to approach the dish fajitas style, as you might do at your local Chili’s, wrapping up morsels of meat with onions, tomatoes, pickled chiles, and avocado; the trick is to wangle the last pancake without attracting attention.
You’ll probably want at least three people to do justice to those platters, but Llama Inn needn’t be a feast-only destination; excellent cocktails, many that plumb the hidden depths of pisco, the national grape-brandy spirit, make the bar a destination in its own right. (The Peruvian grilled-meat skewers called anticuchos are ideal bar snacks — try the fermented-soybean-slathered chicken thigh or the char siu pork.)
The desserts are equal parts exotic and comforting, especially a mousse that melds Peruvian chocolate with the tropical fruit lucuma and crisp shards of dehydrated coffee-milk foam — a finale that might be the next best thing to Cosme’s corn-husk meringue.
50 Withers St., at Meeker Ave., Williamsburg; 718-387-3434; llamainnnyc.com
Open: Nightly for dinner; weekend brunch.
Prices: $4 to $48.
Ideal Meal: Corvina ceviche, quinoa, goat neck, chocolate-lucuma dessert.
Note: Brunch highlights include mussels ceviche, a tortalike chicken-thigh sandwich, and a single-serving beef stir-fry topped with a fried egg.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the inventive food, one for the serious cocktails, and one more for the congenial atmosphere.
*This article appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.