"Peru: It's like Epcot for the gastronome." You're welcome, Peru Tourism Bureau. Actually, given the increasing number of visitors to the Land of the Incas, the country likely doesn't need my help with a populist tourist board slogan. Hell, Peru is already thrice-stamped on my own passport, and with good reason. After my first visit back in 2005, its cuisine, raked and seeded with the flavors of the globe, stuck to me like fried cuy does to one's ribs. Every time I step into a Peruvian restaurant this side of the Isthmus of Panama, I desperately seek out alpaca-stuffed rocoto relleno of the sort I inhaled while sojourning in Arequipa.
"Ohh, I love rocoto relleno," cooed our Arequipeño server as we gave Gaviota Seafood & Fine Peruvian Cuisine's menu a once-over. "But we don't have that here."
No, but Gaviota (Spanish for "seagull") does serve another favorite of mine – skewers of grilled beef hearts ($14). The mighty fine anticuchos are reddened in a marinade of mild aji panca (Peruvian red pepper) and served with chimichurri, roasted potatoes and fattened kernels of choclo, or Peruvian corn. Corn, an essential crop in the Andes since the pre-Colombian era, figures heavily in many of Gaviota's dishes, and we feasted on complimentary bowls of the toasted Andean chulpe corn called cancha between courses and between sips of bracing pisco sours ($10). The puckery aperitif is an ideal potable to pair with the leche de tigre ($10). Yes, "tiger milk" – the base of any ceviche worth its salt (and pepper, onion, lime juice and chilies) – has that crunchy chulpe wading in a champagne saucer, along with bits of grouper for as texturally rich a starter you'll find on the menu.
But if ceviche is Peru's national dish, then lomo saltado ($16) comes a close second. Here, the beef flambéed in pisco and soy sauce is so tender, it takes on an almost pillowy quality. Dipping the beef into a piquant rocoto pepper and herbaceous huacatay (Peruvian black mint) sauce makes it all the better. The rice has the right amount of stick, and the french fries were bonnes. The price, however, seemed a bit excessive considering one can enjoy a similarly structured dish at Memories of Peru near the Florida Mall for almost half the price. I suppose Gaviota takes the "Fine" in its moniker seriously – servers wear bowties in this understated, yet classy, restaurant (no thumping soundtrack and clubby atmo here), and customers are given a red-carpet welcome and treated accordingly. So, fair warning: Menu prices reflect South Eola Drive, not South Orange Blossom Trail.
In fact, we felt quite content ordering an $18 plate of arroz con pato. The rice, dotted with peas and carrots, is tinged green from being cooked in a cilantro puree and black beer, and a wonderfully tender duck leg axe-kicks upward from the hillock of rice as if paying homage to the dish's Chinese roots. Just as good is another $18 rice dish, this one teeming with supremely tender squid rings, fresh shrimp and mussels, then crowned with a lone mussel atop arroz tinged yellow by aji amarillo.
A thick creamy number called "Suspiro de Limeña ($7), or "The Sigh of Lima," is so named because it's sweet and light like a woman's sigh. Yes, a poet named this dessert of dulce de leche topped with meringue, and the rules of gastronomic diction were followed with a tres leches of lúcuma fruit ($7) as well. No doubt Gaviota's team of Peruvian cooks are well-versed, but in this revolving-door Thornton Park locale, it'll be up to them to write their own ending.