One Sunday afternoon in the north most tip of the Miraflores district in Lima, Peru, I was hungry and looking for a place to eat. It was Sunday so it had to be ceviche, for Sunday is the day of the Christians and fish is the dish of Jesus and it is a personal rule of mine to eat ceviche for lunch on Sundays whenever possible. But where, in a city full of excellent places to eat ceviche, should I go?
I find that the problem with going anywhere that has been recommended to me is that however pleasant I subsequently do in fact find it, I always end up worrying it wasn’t as good for me as it was for everyone else. Take Machu Picchu for example. I know Machu Picchu isn’t a restaurant (it doesn’t even have a McDonalds. Yet.) but everyone had told me how amazing Machu Picchu was that when I eventually got there myself I spent the whole time wandering around the place thinking “Well this IS amazing, but am I being amazed enough? What if there’s something really amazing that I’m missing? Is there one bit that is supposed to be the most amazing bit? Is everything supposed to be amazing? Because there was a bit back there when I wasn’t so amazed . . . ?”
Ceviche is a bit like that for me too. Except I do it to myself. I do. And that’s what really hurts. I do it to myself. I go around telling everyone “Ceviche?! Oh my god! You haven’t had Ceviche? You don’t know what Ceviche is? Ceviche’s probably my favourite dish in the world!” Every dish is probably my favourite dish in the world if you haven’t had it. “Croutons?! Oh my god! You haven’t had croutons? Croutons is probably my favourite dish in the world. Dried orange peel? My god! Dried orange peel is probably my favourite dish . . . ”
So I go around telling everyone how amazing Ceviche is and eventually, sooner or later I find myself in Peru again, on a Sunday, actually having to eat the stuff. And I spend the whole meal watching myself and wondering, worrying, if I’m really enjoying it as much as I tell everyone I do. Is Ceviche that amazing? Is this an amazing Ceviche? Is Ceviche really all it’s cracked up to be anyway? Am I a bad person?
The first time I ate Ceviche I was quite frankly nonplussed by it. Perhaps it wasn’t a Sunday? Certainly no one had been telling me for ages how amazing it was. I’d just rocked up in Peru one year in the glorious ignorance of my youth, knowing nothing about my surroundings, as usual, and then one day found myself in a restaurant where the prospect of raw chunks of fish next to an orange potato and some over sized sweet corn seemed to me rather underwhelming. To be fair I should make it clear that I usually find any dish that doesn’t have melted cheese on it underwhelming. There are surely few things in life that can’t be improved by melting some cheese on them? But Ceviche, along with velvet trousers and cigarettes, is probably one of them.
And like velvet trousers and cigarettes, I gradually learned to love Ceviche. And learned how to order it too—poco aji for my delicate gringo tummy and only for lunch, never for dinner, to ensure the fish is as fresh as possible. It doesn’t look particularly exciting on the plate but to my mind Ceviche is the complete meal (minus the melted cheese if course). I call ceviche the Fisherman’s Plowman’s lunch – minus the hanky of course (If you find a hanky in your Ceviche send it back. Come to think of it if you find a hanky in your Plowman’s send it back. Plowman’s lunches haven’t been wrapped in handkerchiefs since there were real plowmen doing real plowing. I think. Maybe no dish has ever been wrapped in a hanky, perhaps I’m just thinking of birthday cake wrapped in a paper napkin, the icing stuck to the paper when you try to unwrap it when you get home. Anyway, back to the narrative: I’m in Lima and hungry. Plus it’s a Sunday so we know I’m looking for somewhere to eat ceviche as I stumble through the humid heat of summer. But where?
I live my life like a cross between Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter and Mr Bean in Mr Bean, which means I’m a mysterious loner but nobody thinks I’m cool. And I often end up eating on my own in restaurants. Often, I’m almost high from a lack of blood sugar due to having forgotten to eat for several hours, inducing a kind of tunnel vision and obsessive paranoia that I must eat NOW. And that’s how I end up eating some ill advised things, in some ill advised places. And it’s how I ended up eating in Fusion on La Mar in Miraflores on this Sunday afternoon. Alone. And on my own. As in I was the only customer. I felt like I’d accidentally walked onto a film set but no one had told the other extras. Not only was I the only one in there, I was by now also dizzy with hunger. I was so hungry and the place so empty, I wondered if I’d hallucinated the restaurant but was just too weak to hallucinate anyone in it.
The waiter came to take my order and he appears to be one of those hipster waiters who’s got the job because he’s really an actor preparing for a role. In this case presumably the role of Mr Timothy Claypole in a new South American production of Rent-a-Ghost. I’m aware that’s a rather niche and provincial reference for a U.S. based magazine but once again I invite you to step out of your comfort zone and Google “Timothy Claypole” and “Rent-a-Ghost”. This was a man playing at being a waiter, pretending I was a customer. For a moment I was back in kindergarten and he was an eager adult indulging my fantasy and ruining it with his over the top acting.
It was the way he spoke to me mainly. Over-rolling his Rs flamboyantly like he was doing his own drum roll before everything he said. I couldn’t work out if he thought this was classy or he’d just clocked me as a gringo and was merely teasing me for his own amusement. When I inquired, he told me I’d just missed the other customers and the place had been full only half an hour before I turned up, in a tone that challenged me to believe him. I wondered if I was actually the victim of a hidden camera prank show. Did there have to be a reason he’s not behaving like any waiter I’ve ever met in real life and instead like someone who learned how to be a waiter by watching Twin Peaks? In Mexico they have the day of the dead, in Peru do they have the day of false restaurants? Afternoon of the silly waiters? Was he really a silly waiter or was I just a silly customer? But then aren’t all customers silly to a waiter?
The young man described everything on the menu as being “for my enjoyment”. When he brought anything to the table or took it away he did so with the unnecessary flourish of a stage magician producing a bunch of flowers or a rabbit. But crucially without producing a bunch of flowers or a rabbit. If he had produced a bunch of flowers or a rabbit I’d have welcomed them. Not because I like magic particularly but I do like flowers and rabbits. And often think a rabbit on your lap would give you something to stroke whilst you’re waiting for your starter. I‘ve never understood why restaurants don’t do this—and don’t say live animals are unhygienic—they’ve got dead ones in the kitchen.
Eating alone is pleasant enough and often less stressful than dining in company when you have to mind your manners and think of interesting things to say. But eating alone when you’re the only customer and you’re frightened of catching the waiter’s eye in case he comes over pulls out another invisible rabbit is another prospect entirely. I felt like I was in an experiment, even when the waiter wasn’t looking at me, there was a sense that somehow I was being observed—I had to be. How could I be entirely alone in a restaurant—the food must have been prepared by someone? And then, out of the corner of my eye, much like when you’re on a nature trail looking for badgers or meercats, I spotted a movement. It was another man! Older than the waiter. He was standing about 20 feet away from me watching me from an open doorway to the kitchen. Another customer?! No. When he noticed that I’d seen him he looked away and quickly crossed the floor to stand behind the bar and pretended to clean things, where perhaps he felt safer or to where maybe he felt I’d feel safer if he stood there. And then another face appeared from behind the same door. The chef? His was a younger more surprised countenance, peeping his head cautiously around the corner and regarding me with curiosity. It was as if they’d all heard of customers, they knew what a customer was, they’d prepared their whole careers for the eventuality of customers but until today, until I’d walked in and sat down at one of the many empty tables, they’d never actually had one in their own restaurant. And so for the next few minutes I ate my ceviche, and they watched me. I was rather self conscious at first but then gradually I got used to their presence and I started to relax. And as I relaxed they seemed more at ease too. And as the last morsel of ceviche had entered my grateful mouth, the man behind the bar—the owner?—who was still watching me surreptitiously, caught my eye and beamed a smile at me from behind the bar and nodded gently, as if to say, “Yes, that’s right. Well done, you enjoyed that, didn’t you? All is well.”
So was it any good then? The ceviche? Yes. It was fine. By Lima’s standards. Which is to say if you’re travelling from anywhere outside of Lima it was outstanding. Absolutely delicious. I recommend Fusion on La Mar. For the food but mainly for the waiter and the overall experience. I recommend it because I want you to go there and tell me if you’re the only one in too, and does the place and the waiter, the chef and the owner actually exist objectively, outside of my own consciousness? I need to know this. Don’t order the ceviche though, try the Tiradito instead. Tiradito?! You haven’t heard of Tiradito? Oh my god! Tiradito is probably my favourite dish in the world. . . .
Illustration by Ayu Iwashima.