Of all the unlikely food trends to hit London (and, one assumes, other cities in due course), the current vogue for Peruvian surprised many. Before the likes of Ceviche and Lima and now Coya came along, our culinary knowledge of Peru revolved around a vague awareness of pisco, a fleeting knowledge of ceviche, and that famous schoolboy fact about Peruvians and guinea pigs.
Ponder the matter a little deeper though and the success of Peruvian cuisine – sans domestic pets, you’ll be delighted/disappointed to find out – is not so mysterious. Our familiarity with Japanese food no doubt helps as we’re rather more used to our fish on the raw side: that particular quantum leap is now absent for the most part. And, with just an ocean (albeit a big ocean) between them, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at the similarities. We can also celebrate the differences too: while much Japanese food is so precise and beautiful, Peruvian – as evinced by Coya’s attitude to, well, just about everything – is food with its hair down.
That pleasing informality becomes noticeable early. Seating is cosy (read: just the right side of cramped) meaning some will find their neighbours rather close. Others, like us, and several other tables on our visit, struck up dinner conversations with strangers, suggested dishes and, in many cases, traded bites and tasters of their own food. It might stop Coya winning plaudits from the straight laced sections of restaurant society but if your idea of what constitutes good eating out is equal parts food and atmosphere, then you’re in for a high old time as, for the most part, Coya executes both well.
There were some hiccups. In terms of intimate lighting, Coya errs on the coalmine side of that equation making it impossible to actually read a menu. This problem was solved by our waiter – the unflappable Javier – allowing us to use the torch function on his iPhone. In retrospect one wonders if that’s a deliberate ploy to break down barriers and get people talking. Or, indeed, a deliberate ploy to let your waiter do the ordering (and upselling) on your behalf. Anyway, most of what arrived was light, bright and nice to know. Atun Chifa – yellow tail tuna, soy, sesame, cracker – was a perfectly adequate place to start on the ceviche list although for once I thought the Pez Limon – yellowtail with green chilli – edged it and Causa Tradicional (potato, crab, from the Josper grill) was better still.
They were certainly all better than the tradicional anticuchos – charcoal-fired oxheart kebabs – which, while gamey, took a lot of jaw-work, and some slightly sub-par Alitas de Pollo (tamarind glazed wings) failed to get hearts racing. However, they then weren’t as well executed as what was to follow. From our table we made appreciative noises about the Lubina Chilena (sea bass and amarillo chillies, so much so that our neighbours offered to trade tasters of their stand-out dish, Arroz NIkei (sea bass with rice, lime and chilli). As it happens, they won: the Lubina was excellent but that freshness of lime and the way the juices had soaked into rice made the Arroz Nikei a stand-out, deeply satisfying dish. Also surprising was the arroz con choclo (corn, rice, sweet garlic) which was so much greater than the sum of its parts.
With assorted pisco sours – regular and flavoured with the likes of mango or pear – erasing the day’s edge, dinner passed in a very pleasant manner. There’s a sense of energy here, some middling-to-great cooking, a surprisingly small bill – £50-£60 a head in fact – and, hopefully, some very chatty neighbours. All in all, a very welcome addition to London, particularly in this otherwise pretty barren stretch.
London, W1J 7NW