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La Mar Cebicheria Peruana

Hot Newcomer Gets Poor Marks

Combine excellent waterfront views, a stunning space, an international celebrity chef and a mouthful of a restaurant name, and the result is a set of very high dining expectations. While the views, cebiches and cocktails are fabulous at La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, this high-buzz hotspot continues to miss the mark on much of its menu as well as on service.

The Story
The restaurant opened in late summer 2008 after much anticipation and an $11 million buildout of 11,000 square feet on Pier 1.5, located next to the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco. Celebrated Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio is the mastermind behind the La Mar brand; heís churned out over 20 restaurants across South America, as well as a cooking show and cookbooks.

La Mar is already a hit with locations in Lima, Mexico City, Santiago de Chile, and Costa Rica; San Francisco is the brandís U.S. flagship, with two more locations slated to open in New York and Las Vegas in 2009.

The Space
Imagine a breezy, sleek beachfront spot on a promenade in Rio de Janeiro, and you get the idea behind La Marís interior. Born of an international partnership between San Francisco restaurant guru Cass Calder Smith and Peruvian design group Nathan Pereira Arquitectura Diseňo, the minimalist, white space is punctuated by dark wood floors and bright, nautical blue woven nylon chairs, with windows that lend an airy feel.

The 88-seat dining room opens out to a large waterfront patio with seating for 80 (sure to be a haven during balmy summer days), while a cebiche bar seating yet another 30 surrounds part of the open kitchen. A separate pisco bar and lounge up front is a great way to start the evening with drinks and cebiches (aka ceviche), especially if you have a large group Ė some colleagues recently arrived en masse for a casually planned birthday dinner only to discover that the restaurant doesnít seat parties of 9 or more for regular service.

The Booze
Bartenders are attentive, exhibiting broad knowledge of spirits and their origins. The cocktail menu lists a dozen specialty drinks, with additional blackboard specials highlighting pisco, the latest ďitĒ spirit. The Peruvian classic pisco sour -- something of a pisco margarita made foamy with beaten egg white Ė is popping up on bar menus all over the country, and the grappa-like liquor even lends its name to the newly opened pisco Latin Lounge on Market Street.

For a refreshing taste of a beach vacation, try La Marís Pisco Punch ($12), which lingers with subtle pineapple that lends just enough sweetness. The extensive, fairly priced wine list composed by Master Sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji is focused on Spain and South America, and it pairs very well with the cuisine.

The Service
The few times weíve visited La Mar, the service has ranged from spotty to below par from the host stand to the table. Similar observations have been noted by friends as well as by users on Yelp, Citysearch, and Zagat. On our first visit (on one of the last perfect summer nights of 2008), we sat on the patio. While most tables around us were close to dessert, our server didnít attend to us until about fifteen minutes after we were seated. The server then profusely apologized for the negligible service we were about to receive ďbecause they were short-staffed.Ē

On our most recent visit, several hosts were gathered in conversation and we had to interrupt to ask to be seated. Our server this time was nice at first, but he gradually lost his appeal. At one point, he accidentally poured a new wine into a glass that still held a previous wine. Rather than apologize and repour, he dismissed the incident with a joke about making a personal blend.

The Menu
The menu is a bit confusing, organized on the first page into appetizers, cebiches, main courses, tiraditos (crudo or sashimi-like appetizers), and causas (traditional potatoes paired with different toppings). The second page is broken out again into appetizers, then soups, rice dishes, and traditional mains. Itís as if someone printed out one half of a page with the wrong second half.

On a positive note, the cebiches are fresh and mostly delectable. The cebiche tasting ($24) although not very substantial in portion, is good for group sharing. Of the four types in the sampler, the Ahi tuna flecked with avocado and Japanese cucumber stood out as the best. The halibut was also a hit, with fresh chunks of fish garnished with red onions, Peruvian corn, yam and habanero accented by ginger. We gave high marks as well to the yellowtail mixed with pickled carrots and daikon. The only component about which we shared mixed feelings was the mixed seafood cebiche containing rubbery calamari and octopus.

We also ordered the tiraditos, delicious sushi-grade slices of fish, hinting of Japanese influence in Peruvian cuisine and reminiscent of some of the delicious crudo plates at Bar Crudo. We were very fond of the tiradito criollo ($15): Kona Kampachi paired with habanero pepper, ginger, corn, and scallions with a chili pepper pisco dressing (aji amarillo leche de tigre).

While our friends had fallen in love with the grilled octopus skewers ($13) on a previous visit, they were disappointed in the overly salted dish on a subsequent visit. So we were curious to try this elusive dish. Unfortunately, this time, it was by far the worst of all their visits. The heavy handed saltiness was compounded by a smoky taste bordering on lighter fluid char.

A classic Peruvian beef dish is lomo saltado ($24), a stir-fry of tenderloin with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and aji Amarillo (yellow chili pepper) scattered with fries. La Marís version isnít very memorable, and our tenderloin was slightly overcooked.

Slightly more interesting was the cau cau ($29), a dish of roasted scallops served over a pool of clam and mint broth. While the flavor was satisfying, the scallops were overcooked, not very big and definitely not worth the price. Very disappointing. We did, however, like the toothsome risotto that accompanied the dish.

Honoring Chinese and Spanish influences in Peruvian cooking are the arroces, or rice dishes. We ordered the arroz criollo ($19), a seafood fried rice, which turned out to be underwhelming: a recurring theme.

For dessert, we tried the picarones ($10), yeasty pumpkin and sweet potato fritters with spiced honey. They were interesting but sounded better than they tasted. We also decided on the orange-glazed chocolate beignets with banana and passion fruit ice cream ($12). The ice creams were the highlight here.

Back to service however. We found that the largest offense took place as we neared the end of our meal. Service drastically deteriorated as it got later into the evening. Granted, our reservations were at 9pm on a Tuesday and we were seated around 9:20. We were also one of the last parties in the entire restaurant. But we had copious amounts of food and wine and had spent plenty for four people (remember, all SF Station review visits are anonymous).

At one point, we had a wine question. The server went to find the sommelier and returned to inform us that the sommelier had already gone home. Our server also came by way too often to hurry us into the next course. Then he forgot to include one of our wines on the check and had to correct our bill. Worse, on his last visit to our table, he had already changed out of his service uniform and informed us that the restaurant was about to be cleaned. If a restaurant does not plan on giving 100% service until closing time, perhaps they should close earlier.

Acurio is excited and ambitious to share such a wide range of Peruvian dishes, but he might do better by editing and refining the menu. Sometimes less is a lot more. A closer eye on the service will make a world of difference too. Until then, the pisco and the cebiches at the bar will do for me.

Reservations Essential? Yes.