Isolina – a beloved Barranco tavern in Lima, Peru
This April, after just over five months and six countries in South America, we returned to Peru, which would be my final stop before heading back to London. The reason for our return was that we’d booked Machu Pichu months in advance, and it was finally time to conquer the Salkantay trek! Nevertheless, we decided to include a culinary adventure in our return, and so we spent our one day in Lima at the highly acclaimed Isolina, before taking an overnight bus to Cusco and the infamous Inca ruins.
We’ve been lucky enough to dine at a few of Latin America’s Top 50 Restaurants, and after Gustu, Malabar, and Astrid y Gaston, Isolina was next on this list. It was profoundly different from the others, particularly in atmosphere, but in no way less enjoyable. Rather than crisp white tablecloths and impeccably dressed waiters, Isolina was rustic and old fashioned, with wooden beams, old style crockery, and heavy cutlery. The decorations were tasteful, and we truly felt as though we’d been transported back in time, to an almost medieval tavern. In a playful contrast, the walls were decorated in a slightly hipster fashion, with symmetrical shelves adorned with a variety of props.
Despite being a Monday afternoon, Isolina was packed, and to my surprise, most of the crowd were locals. Even with its many accolades, the tavern remains well-priced and with a pub-like atmosphere, making it appealing for a casual lunch with friends and family, and not just for ‘gringos’!
Due to overindulging at the W Hotel in Bogota the day before, we decided to stick to non-alcoholic beverages, and so we went for the traditional chicha morada – a very typical Peruvian drink made with purple corn. Our host explained that whilst most foreigners assume the purple is artificial, this is genuinely the corn’s natural colour! It’s a sweetish drink with hints of cinnamon and clove, making it taste a bit like cold mulled wine. Unfortunately, this meant it wasn’t to my taste, but for those of you who like mulled wine, it would go down a treat!
We were treated to a special tasting menu that showcased Isolina’s best offerings, and started off with the pride of Peru: fish. Our first course was, in essence, a fish finger sandwich, but it was so much more than that. With gorgeously crispy bread (a rarity on this continent), delicately fried fish that was not oily in the slightest, and exactly the right amount of salt, I couldn’t get enough of this simple snack!
Our next course was another fishy delight, the escabeche de bonito, which was unexpectedly cold, but nonetheless had a wonderful smoky flavour. We mopped up the gravy with gusto, and I was intrigued to see what would come next. And what came next was the winner of the day!
I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve had ceviche on this trip – from cheap and cheerful on the coastline in Paracas, to making it myself at Sky Kitchen, to the minimalist perfection at Astrid y Gaston, I can never get enough. Isolina went one step further to making it my favourite South American dish by adding deep fried octopus and switching up the textures. What a fantastic idea! The raw fish was crazily fresh, and the octopus was incredibly tasty with just the thinnest smattering of batter, making sure that there was not even the slightest hint of chewiness. The entire dish was out of this world.
Once the fish was done, we were then presented with a medley of meats – or rather, an ovation of offal. Isolina specialises in offal, and so we received three of their signature dishes. Now unfortunately, both of us, whilst rather adventurous with food, are a little squeamish about the insides of animals. We tried a bit of everything, but unfortunately, the textures and flavours just couldn’t win us over (especially the gelatinous pigs’ feet…). However, if you’re a fan of offal, it would have been a different experience entirely! The flavour of each dish was very different, despite them all containing the onion-aji base, and we loved the hierbabuena (a version of mint available in Peru) in one of them, and the nuttiness of the other. If only the tripe could have convinced us… It was all served with some of the best (non-Asian) rice I’ve ever eaten, with perfectly separated grains, and a wholesome texture, without being too oily.
We were a bit nervous as to what would follow next, but the subsequent beef shortrib dish just blew us away. It seemed a hearkening to years gone by, as it was a rich, flavoursome stew, with excellent, slow-cooked meat and the hearty addition of beans. It felt slightly odd eating this almost wartime meal (served in a tin dish, no less) on a sunny day by the Peruvian coastline, rather than a cold winter’s night, but the flavours were no less succulent, and again, the rice was perfect.
Unfortunately, after this dish we were far too full for anything else savoury (though the pork ribs at the table next to us looked fantastic), so we instead went straight to dessert, which was a simple flan, and perfectly rounded off the meal for us.
After our visit, I can understand why there is a bit of controversy about Isolina being in the list of Top 50 Latin American Restaurants. To me, this is not about the atmosphere, as I think lists such as these should never restrict themselves purely to fine dining establishments. It was more that whilst the dishes were very well prepared, for us, the flavours were a little hit and miss, mainly due to the off(al)erings. Having said that, when they hit, they knocked it out of the park, as the fish dishes were simply spectacular!
I was a guest at Isolina, but as always, all opinions are entirely my own.