Lunch at Lemon Tree Peruvian Restaurant

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.

"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.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham