In season one, episode seven of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain pronounced Peruvian food the next big thing, as he gnawed on beef-heart anticuchos at a Lima street stall and slurped ceviches washed down with pisco sours by the seaside. But is it? Gaston Acurio, Peru's most famous chef, belly flopped here at his high-end La Mar Cebicheria, shutting it down after less than two years. But long before Acurio, New York City possessed a decent collection of small, inexpensive Peruvian cafes aimed at immigrants and rotisserie chicken joints targeting the general population, both mainly found in Queens. Now along comes Jora, a Long Island City gastropub with a concept poised between fancy restaurant and budget café. Is Bourdain right, and can Peruvian cuisine succeed in attracting an enthusiastic citywide clientele?
Named after a strain of Andean corn used to make a fermented beverage called chicha, Jora is located just off Jackson Avenue near the Pulaski Bridge, which funnels traffic from Brooklyn to Queens. Think of the neighborhood as Greenpoint North. A friend and I stumbled on Jora after being told there was a two-hour wait at nearby Mu Ramen. We forged inside to discover a waiting area outfitted with plush couches and a pair of dining rooms sumptuously adorned with gilded Inca motifs. A line of Indian pottery lurked in niches up near the ceiling, making us feel like we were raiding a Pre-Columbian tomb. At the end of the dining rooms we found a rather luxurious bar. When was the last time you perched on a bar stool that had a back, let alone thick padding?
Looking for snacks before our ramen meal, our next pleasant discovery was Jora's extensive menu of appetizers. Fourteen in all, they included many of the things Bourdain had encountered as Peruvian street food. Anticuchos ($9) were a pair of ruby-red veal-heart brochettes — not minuscule morsels, but hefty chunks tender enough to remind you that, like steak, the heart is a muscle. Marinated in chile paste, the symbol of bovine love had a vinegary tang with a touch of cumin and came with enough sides to be mistaken for an entrée. Scattered around the plate were bulbous kernels of hominy, a couple of red spuds, and a heap of pickled purple onions.
The mixed-seafood ceviche ($15) was good, too: a pile of sea bass, shrimp, mussels, octopus, and squid laced with lime juice and little else. If you want to amplify the full-meal properties of this seafood collection, order jalea instead: the same assortment breaded, fried, and presented with planks of yuca, in what is probably Peru's most popular bar snack. Even before Jora appeared, you could see jalea being munched in taverns up and down Roosevelt Avenue.
The starter of octopus squirted with a curious lavender sauce, though, was dull enough to make us scream, which once again suggests the main problem of a gastropub like Jora: the owners don't trust the general public to like chili peppers as much as they do. This can be easily remedied with aji panca, a yellowish chile paste that is readily provided if you ask for it. At least one app doesn't need the hot sauce: rocoto relleno ($9), a portly red pepper stuffed with ground beef, raisins, and hardboiled eggs, a real peasant classic you could eat for breakfast every day.
If you've read this far, you deserve to know that the best starter of all is a dish popularized by Gaston Acurio himself, which lingers here on the shores of Newtown Creek like the ghost of La Mar Cebicheria. Tiradito ($13) is a wildly generous serving of sea bass cut in thick slices and laved in a spicy citrus sauce; it glows like a jumpsuit on Orange is the New Black. In fact, Jura's tiradito is every bit as good as Acurio's, and one of the best things I've eaten so far this year.
Jura's tiradito is every bit as good as Acurio's, and one of the best things I've eaten so far this year.
While the appetizers are invariably voluminous, the main courses, priced at perhaps 50 perhaps more, are mastodonian — so if you choose to venture into that territory, you'd be wise to order one for every two guests at the table. Unfortunately, the entrees also tend to be bland. Made with a massive lamb shank, seco de cordero ($19) might be a brown-gravied English casserole, while the national dish of aji de gallina —normally a fiery yellow stew with a thick sauce — is like cheesy library paste. The curry of shrimp and lima beans called chupe de camarones is even worse. A Midwestern German-American farmer of the mid-19th century would find the main courses at Jora agreeable in their mild flavor, but not a New York food lover of the early 21th century.
So do yourself a favor and stick with the excellent apps — this is a gastropub, after all. And the estimable pisco sours ($12), a drink featuring a high-test Peruvian brandy, along with bitters and lemon juice foamed up with egg white, goes a long way toward improving your fuzzy appreciation of the blander fare.
Cost: Two voluminous apps plus a beer, glass of wine, or mixed drink, including tax but not tip, $35
Sample dishes: Beef-heart anticuchos, tiradito (spicy sea-bass ceviche), seco de cordero (braised lamb shank), bistec a la chorrillana (grilled skirt steak with onions)
What to drink: The national drink of Peru is the pisco sour, and Jora also provides several variations, including one made with fresh strawberries.
Bonus tip: The menu features a surprising number of vegetarian options, including a mushroom quinoa risotto, potatoes with peanut sauce, and a lively composed salad of olives, corn, lima beans, and white cheese.