It's hard to compare something top-notch with something average. And since all of my experiences with Peruvian food, to date, have been nothing short of stellar, I think I expected more when I walked into the highly recommended Lemon Tree Restaurant.
Lemon Tree is a bit off the beaten path, tucked away behind a flower shop just north of Westheimer at Dairy Ashford. In fact, because it was partially hidden behind the shop, I drove right by it without seeing it, and when I finally did find it, the small, cramped parking lot had run out of parking spaces.
I arrived for lunchtime on a warm, sunny day, and inside, the cheerful yellow decor and neat, well-appointed main dining room were immediately welcoming. You could tell that it was a family-run business, and I'd heard that it is the owner who also cooks in the kitchen. The look and feel of the place reminded me of a family-style osteria in Italy, and it had all the makings of a best-kept-secret-type hole-in-the-wall.
My Peruvian friend, who accompanied me that day, and who had been there in the past, prefaced our meal with a disclaimer, saying that the food was typical Peruvian food you'd find at any average restaurant in Peru. I think he wanted to dampen my expectations somewhat, because the place had been talked up by other Peruvians I'd met in the past. I told him not to worry, and that as long as the food was good, that I would be happy.
Our meal started off well with what was in essence a mussel ceviche, the choros a la chalaca, one of their specialties. Mussel shells filled with diced mussels, corn, and onion had been marinated in lemon juice and were prettily arranged in a round pattern. The flavors were tangy and citrusy, in keeping with what I've come to associate with Peruvian-style ceviche, and I quite enjoyed this dish. In fact, in hindsight, it was probably the highlight of our meal.
On the recommendation of our server, I ordered the lomo saltado, a traditional Chinese-influenced, stir-fried cubed beef dish, but when it came out, I found it uninspired. The dish itself was simply presented with a round mound of rice, and the french fries, which are often served on the side, were stir-fried in with the beef to soak up all its juices.
I don't know if it was intentional or mistakenly done, but I felt like the execution of the dish was off that day, because the meat came out more like a stew beef than a stir-fry beef. "It has a lot of gravy," my friend said, when he asked me how I liked it and I tried to explain what I thought. And that was exactly the problem. The beef had not been seared in the wok, but sort of pan-fried in its juices until it turned a boring livery-brown color.
For our second dish, we ordered the pescado lo macho, described on the menu as "fried fish covered in a spectacular sauce." On presentation the dish looked appealing, with a bright orange viscous sauce, almost as thick as a Chinese sweet and sour, generously poured on top of two fried fish filets. The sauce itself tasted all right, like a kind of tangy yet savory gravy, but the fried batter covering the fish was a bit soggy and powdery, while the small slices of calamari in the sauce had a sort fishy flavor that made it hard to eat. I can't say I enjoyed this dish.
The dessert, however, a generous slice of their merenguado de lucuma, a white meringue cake with lucuma cream, was excellent. Lightly sweet, with a bit of crisp from the meringue and a pleasant lucuma flavor that is hard to describe, it's a must-try for anyone visiting Lemon Tree. I wish I could say the same about their coffee, which was no better than a watered down instant coffee.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
"So what did you think?" my Peruvian friend asked me at the end of our meal. On the whole, I thought that each dish was well-presented, with small artful touches to make them look appetizing. The ambiance was very pleasant, and it's one of those places where you could picture someone having a nice dinner date. I could see a lot of potential, but unfortunately, the execution was off on that afternoon, so I shrugged my shoulders and said, "It was okay."
Sometimes that happens. It wasn't the best, it wasn't the worse, it was just okay.