Last May, the chief technician for our company up in Montreal, Michel, came out to Iowa to pick up a treasure trove of old short-wave magazines that I had picked up for him in the Chicago area and transport them back to Canada. His wife, Marisa, came back with him and I decided to cook some good ol' Iowa prime beef steaks on the grill when they came. Michel is my partner-in-crime who shared the 40 oz. porterhouse for two with me at Stack Steakhouse in Las Vegas a couple years ago. (Click here to see that entry.) I had to be up in Montreal just before Christmas for a meeting, so Michel asked me if I could come in a day early and we'd go out to dinner. He told me a couple days before that we'd be having dinner at a place in suburban Verdun called Villa Wellington. He asked me, "Do you like Peruvian food?" I told him that I'd never had Peruvian food before, let alone I didn't know what it was. He said, "If you like seafood, you'll like Peruvian food."
After landing at Pierre Trudeau International Airport and getting through customs quicker than any time I'd flown into Montreal before, I took the ramp from the customs area and immediately saw my bag on the carousel waiting for me. After dropping off my declaration card with the customs agent at the baggage claim exit, I quickly got out to my rental car and set the GPS for Villa Wellington on located on Wellington St. in a nice little neighborhood of shops and restaurants in Verdun. (see map) Traffic - as it always seems in Montreal - was a bitch and it took me over an hour to go about 11 miles and I got to the restaurant around 6 p.m. I parked just down the block from the restaurant and walked along the brightly lit street with large green and red Christmas circular lights hanging up and down Wellington Street. With a little snow coming down - the first I'd seen in the season - it was almost a festive winter atmosphere.
Meeting us for dinner that evening was Michel's wife, Marisa, and one of our customer service guys, Francois, who actually lived in Peru for five years working for the Peace Corps. It was Michel who turned Francois onto the restaurant, I found out. Michel said he has been coming to Villa Wellington for nearly 20 years, about the same amount of the years the Saravia-Ramirez family has been running the restaurant. (One of the Saravia-Ramirez sons has opened a small Peruvian restaurant just down the street - Augusto al Gusto.) Francois has worked for us about five or six years. Once Michel found out that Francois lived in Peru for five years, he brought Francois to Villa Wellington one evening. Francois said it was as close to the real type of Peruvian cuisine as what he had in his years in Peru.
Francois - in addition to being fluent in English and French - is also fluent in Spanish. And that helped. The waiter spoke a little English, but was more comfortable in Spanish and French. And the menu at Villa Wellington was in both Spanish and French. Now, I can make out some words in both languages, but I was going to rely upon both Michel and Francois to guide me along this evening.
The first thing Francois and I had to have was a beer. I understood the waiter when he said, "Rickard's Red", the so-called leading red beer in Canada, brewed by the Molson brewery based in Montreal. I asked the waiter if he had any Boreale beers, specifically the Blonde. Unfortunately, he did not. I fell in love with the Boreale beers on my last visit to Montreal the previous year.
Starting off, they ordered up two different types of soup - a shrimp soup and a sort of seafood soup, kind of like a cioppino. And Francois also ordered ceviche - raw fish marinated in a lime juice that cooks the fish. I hadn't had good ceviche in years and Francois said Villa Wellington's was very good.
While we waited for the first course, I took a look through the menu to see if there were things that I could pick out with my limited knowledge of Spanish and French. Interestingly, they had a section for Mexican food (fajitas, mostly), Italian food (fettuccine alfredo, spaghetti, etc.), and something called "Canadian" food that featured fish and chips, a hamburger steak and, quite curiously, souvlaki. I guess I didn't know souvlaki was a Canadian dish.
Two large bowls soon came onto the table. The first, at the lower left, was the Chupe de Camarones, a traditional Peruvian chowder with shrimp and potatoes in a cream sauce. I was told by Francois that potatoes were a national staple in Peru with over 200 different varieties throughout the country. "It's like each village has a special type of potato," he told me. "Because of the difference in altitude and climate, the potatoes can change in texture and taste from area to area."
The soup above right is called Parihuela - also known as "Peruvian Bouillebaisse". It consists of a variety of Pacific whitefish and shellfish seasoned with Peruvian chiles and a Peruvian brandy called "pisco". Both, I have to say, were just excellent. The Chupe de Camarones was rich and flavorful with large pieces of shrimp and nice chunks of potatoes. But the Parihuela featured large chunks of whitefish, shrimp and mussels. It was much lighter in taste than the chowder-style soup. In fact, Michel - who is a big eater - told me that he'll sometimes just order a big bowl of the Parihuela just for himself.
The ceviche - Ceviche Mixto - was a combination of lime marinated shrimp and whitefish served with pickled onions and served on a bed of endive with some sauces off to the side. I first had ceviche on a trip to Isla Mujeres off the Yucatan coast in Mexico about 15 years ago. I had never had anything like it before and the ceviche I've had since then has never come close to the taste of what I had in Mexico. But I will say the ceviche at Villa Wellington was superb. We made short work of the ceviche.
After finishing what was basically the first two courses of the meal, Francois started to ask me what I fancied in food. I said, "Come on, you know me, man. I won't do like raw squid or octopus, but I will try about anything. You seem to be doing pretty well turning me on to Peruvian food already."
Francois called the waiter over and began to talk to him in Spanish, the two carrying on an animated conversation. When Francois finally said, "Si! OK!" after a minute or so, the waiter smiled and left the table. He said, "I ordered a couple things for us to try. Both are true Peruvian dishes."
I asked Francois if he spoke any Spanish when he first went to Peru. He said, "No, none. Just French and English." He said working with Peruvian farmers taught him that he had to learn Spanish, and learn it fast. "I just picked it up along the way," he explained. "It was all out of necessity." He said he was conversing in Spanish in about six months.
About 15 minutes later, the waiter brought out the first of the two entrees. It was called Lomo Saltaldo - basically Peruvian fajitas with grilled beef strips, sauteed onions, peppers and tomatoes, and - surprisingly - potato strips, sort of like French fries. It was served without tortillas and each of us just grabbed a spoon full and put it on the plate. It was actually very good. And the French fries in the mix were really the highlight.
While we were noshing on the Lomo Saltaldo, the waiter brought out the second plate - this one a diverse house entree mix of beef and seafood called Piqueo Wellington. It featured a mixture of anticuchos - basically grilled skewered meat; seafood ceviche; fried calimari; grilled octopus; and causa - a sort of hybrid "catch-all" type of Peruvian food that features potatoes, herbs and marinated onions. For good measure, Francois also had a small dish of beef off to the side and he offered me a bite of it. It was sort of chewy and tough, but it wasn't unpleasant. He said, "Do you know what it is?" I said I didn't. "It's beef tongue," he said. Ugh! I probably wouldn't have eaten it had I known, but I will say it wasn't bad. I didn't have another bite, however.
But the other stuff was pretty good. I focused on the Lorno Saltaldo, the antichucos and the ceviche. It was all very wonderful. It was definitely a horizon-broadening experience for me. Michel looked at me and said, "Isn't this just great?" It certainly was. I'm glad he invited me to join them for dinner.
As we were finishing up the meal, Francois turned to me and asked, "Do you like green tea?" Sure, I'll drink some of my wife's green tea from time to time, especially when I have a cold. And since I was on the back side of a nasty cold that I had caught the week before, I thought some tea would be nice. Francois and the waiter began to speak in Spanish and speaking back and forth for a few moments, Francois said, "Ah! Good! They have it. This will be a treat."
A few moments later, the waiter brought out some coffee for Marisa, a glass of milk for Michel ("I don't know," he said. "I just like having milk after a meal like that." Hey, I like milk, too!), and a couple small tea pots with a couple tea bags. Francois took the tea bags and put it in my small tea pot to steep for a few minutes. When I finally poured the tea and took a sip, it was sort of a refreshing experience. He said, "Do you know what you're drinking?"
He showed me the outer pouch that the tea bag came in. It was called Mate de Coca (ma-TAY day Coke-ah) - basically an herbal tea taken from the leaf of a coca plant - the same thing that cocaine is extracted from. Quite actually, Francois was surprised that Villa Wellington had Mate de Coca at all. "It's supposed to be illegal to export any coca leaf product from Peru," he told me. "Somehow they're able to get it from somewhere."
When the waiter came back, Francois asked him in French where they were able to get the Mate de Coca. The waiter replied and Francois started to laugh. "He said, 'I don't know! It just shows up,' " Francois told me. While it didn't have any effect like cocaine would, it was a very refreshing tea to drink. Francois explained to me that shepherds in the higher elevations chew on coca leaves "from the time they get out in the field each morning." They'll put four or five in their mouth and it helps them stay energetic throughout the day. "And at those high elevations, and we're talking 3000 meters (about 9800 feet) above sea level, they need all the help they can get," Francois explained. I have to say not only was it a wonderful dinner, the conversation was great and I learned a lot about not only Peruvian cuisine that evening, but Peru, as a whole.
My first experience at a Peruvian restaurant was fun and certainly educational. The food was interesting and very good at Villa Wellington. I went over to Michel and Marisa's house for a nightcap and Marisa kept trying to get me to eat some Christmas cookies, but I was so full and satiated from my meal that I couldn't have any more than one. I couldn't thank them enough for the hospitality they showed me all evening long. Villa Wellington was one of those very memorable meals.