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They're ready to satisfy another Peruvian taste

July 28, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Juan Morillo and Javier Neciosup are known in Los Angeles music circles for managing and presenting top Afro-Peruvian artists such as soulful singer Eva Ayllón and the folk ensemble Perú Negro. They deserve credit for working to promote one of Latin America's most exciting and original styles of music that nevertheless remains underappreciated outside of Peru.

This infectiously rhythmic and melodic genre is known as música criolla, or creole music, a hybrid of Spanish, African and indigenous influences. In culinary circles, a similar pedigree accounts for the term comida criolla, with the added ingredient of Chinese cooking that infuses modern Peruvian cuisine.

So perhaps it's not that much of a stretch that the businessmen, along with a third partner, Henrik Strater, would want to combine their dual passions for Peruvian music with their love for Peruvian cuisine, one of the most delectable and increasingly respectable forms of culinary fusion in the world today.

The partners have opened a new Tarzana restaurant named Lima, which specializes in nouveau Peruvian food and also features some of the tasty música criolla that seems to always accompany home cooking in Peru.

"The only thing Peruvians can agree on is food," jokes Neciosup, sitting next to his partner during a food-tasting event at the restaurant this week. "I can fight with him all day, but if I invite him to a ceviche and a pisco sour, we're good to go."

Located in the west San Fernando Valley in what used to be a Persian cabaret, the restaurant officially opens Wednesday after weeks spent refining the menu and testing the recipes on a diverse mix of invited guests.

Though the décor still needs some work, the public can get a sneak preview of the place tonight for a special occasion: Lima will be open to celebrate Peruvian independence day, marking the country's 1821 declaration of independence from Spain. If you happen to encounter one of the estimated 70,000 Peruvians living in the Southland today, don't forget to greet them with a cheery "¡Feliz 28!"(pronounced feh-leece vain-tee-yo-cho), which means "Happy 28th."

Tonight's entertainment features Chim Pun Callao, a local Peruvian group led by Gino Gamboa, described by Morillo as "the top cajón maker in the United States." The quintessential Peruvian percussion instrument, the cajón is a box, or crate, originally used by slaves that gives música criolla its unique sound and cadence.

Reviews are yet to come for the food at Lima, but you can count on the quality of the music. A week ago, I caught a thrilling concert here by Ayllón, who's featured on David Byrne's introductory sampler of Afro-Peruvian music, "The Soul of Black Peru." Her exclusive performance was better than anything I heard during a recent assignment in which I spent a week searching for the best music in the Peruvian capital. Other name acts will be occasionally featured at the restaurant, which also has DJs on Friday nights spinning "what's danceable and hot from South America," including something new to me, Argentinean cumbia.

For authenticity in the kitchen, the partners have imported their chef from Peru. He is Javier Chan, former owner of El Rocoto, a Gardena restaurant now run by his brother.

Chan is formally trained at Peru's Le Cordon Bleu, but cooking is a tradition in his family, which has owned chifas, the Peruvian word for Chinese restaurants.

What the restaurant can't import is the freshness of unique ingredients available in Peru, such as papa amarilla, one of the country's 3,000 varieties of potato.

I'm no food critic, but the traditional dishes I tried at Lima -- lomo saltado, aji de gallina, papa a la huancaina -- tasted refined and flavorful.

In their research, Morillo and Neciosup tallied 48 Peruvian restaurants in Los Angeles County. But they say most are mom-and-pop operations that do primarily a lunch trade with traditional dishes and the stock pollo a las brasas, or flame-broiled chicken. Lima, whose logo plays on the Spanish word for lime, is intended to fill a need for a higher-end eatery, with a more sophisticated menu and evening ambience.

Morillo, 39, was born in Lima, holds two masters degrees (in education from UCLA and in history from Claremont Graduate University) and teaches social studies at Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley. Neciosup, who holds a business degree from the University of Maryland, was born in Puerto Rico and is the son of veteran Latin jazz percussionist Alex Acuña (who appears Aug. 21 with his Afro-Peruvian ensemble Tolu as part of the Wine & Jazz Concert Series at the Hollywood & Highland Center).

The partners have hired a bilingual staff, which includes some of Morillo's former students, now in college. Their goal is to broaden the customer base beyond the Peruvians who normally patronize Peruvian restaurants.

Morillo takes a sip from his partner's cocktail creation, a chicha martini made with pisco, the tequila of Peru, and chicha morada, a drink made from purple corn.

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