I’ve never been to Peru, but it’s been on my bucket list ever since
reading watching Diarios de Motocicleta while studying for my A Level Spanish exams. The cinematographic scenes depicting Machu Picchu left a lasting impression, fuelling a desire to one day follow the Inca trail.
Unsurprisingly, my wanderlust has since been supplemented by a foodie interest in covering Peru’s eclectic gastronomic trail too, which over the centuries has imbibed influences from all over (Spain to Japan), whilst preserving age-old traditions, such as those of ‘picanterias’ – the welcoming restaurants run within the houses of strong, matriarchal-type figures in the Andes.
It is this homely dining concept that Martin Morales (the chef widely credited with bringing authentic Peruvian cuisine to London), has sought to recreate in a quiet street in Soho…
Previously known as “The Little Cottage,” the former site of Casita Andina is steeped in a colourful history of its own, having served Soho regulars – from theatre folk and thespians to market traders (and even the odd dodgy character) – for over two hundred years now… And it fittingly reminded Morales of his granny, Mamita Naty’s home, from the moment he first stepped into the building!
At Casita Andina, he pays tribute to other inspiring mama-chefs in his life too. The walls are lined with their portraits, commissioned especially for the new restaurant, which also showcases the rich artisanal heritage of Peru – from contemporary art, crafts and intricately woven textiles and embroidery…
… To the complex wood carvings on the bar doors and even in the toilets.
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There’s even a cosy rustic terrace on the first floor, where you can imagine yourself on holiday in the South American country-side… It definitely made my lunch companion, the very stylish Vanessa from City Freude Blog, very snap-happy!
In a thoughtful note written by Morales for his guests, he explains the many inspirations and influences driving Casita Andina. It was a lovely and rather insightful read, as we tucked into a few nibbles to start with…
Not your average crudités, cruditos involved seasonal local roots and veggies dunked in a pingingly fresh green-pea dip, beautifully seasoned with huacatay – a zesty Peruvian herb, aptly described as falling between mint and coriander in flavour. While panca chilli-coated avocado fritters were a gloriously deep-fried treat, with the lightly crisp batter giving way to an indulgently creamy avocado filling.
We washed it down with a tall “Cochinilla” – a surprisingly earthy and bittersweet blend of carrot, ruby red grapefruit, strawberries and passion fruit, with a kick of annatto (an orange-red condiment) and pink peppercorn!
More substantial options on the menu are divided across hot and cold dishes.
My chilled watermelon and quinoa salad was essentially summer on a plate – a large chilli-pressed wedge of watermelon, layered with crunchy black quinoa and soft, fresh cheese in nutty lemon-almond vinaigrette.
Served with delicate dollops of sweet potato mousse, Vanessa’s classic seabass ceviche was a thing of beauty too – balancing sweet, spicy and zingy favours with an acidic bite.
After much deliberating over the selection of dishes from the “hot kitchen”, Vanessa did well by choosing the salmon escabeche – tender chunks of fresh salmon marinated with seaweed, it featured pops of sweet and sour flavours from the relish added on top.
With only the one veggie option, my choice was essentially made for me…
I know what you’re thinking.
“Not another cauliflower dish!” – was my initial reaction as well, having been exposed to different avatars of this humble vegetable across a string of recent restaurant openings, from the Barbary to Foley’s.
Casita Andina’s variation was fundamentally simple yet packed with versatile dimensions, as the crunchy florets were lightly marinated with panca (a mild chilli pepper) and featured more of the moreishly-herby huacatay sauce and smooth sweet potato mousse, alongside a scattering of fresh broad beans. It was pleasantly enjoyable.
By this point, we’d also moved on to the restaurant’s signature (and super strong) pisco-based cocktails. Let’s pin it on #MondayMotivation, shall we?
As for dessert, it was an offbeat (by London standards, anyways) but incredibly refreshing affair involving a tall jar of diced mango, chia and chicha (a maize-based liquid) and a rather lush purple corn granita…
… All of which came together in a vibrant burst of colours, flavours and creative textures, much like with the rest of the lovingly prepared dishes we’d just enjoyed!
While new restaurants sometimes feel ten-a-penny in this city’s dynamic culinary scene, it’s clear that with Casita Andina, Morales has created something rather special.
I’m still ever-so-keen to visit the Andes. But until then, I’ll seek comfort in this haven of cheer and Peruvian pleasures in the heart of London.
Casita Andina, 31 Great Windmill Street, Soho, London, W1D 7LP
Casita Andina opens on July 28th, but are running a soft launch offer for lunch between 25th – 27th July.