Chez Wong: No Sign, No Menu, No Problem
--Keith R. Sbiral
It was like having dinner with an old friend.
For years I have watched Anthony Bourdain use his writing and travel documentary style to bring the sights and sounds of far off places right into my home. His irreverent, sarcastic, and detailed style of describing what travel is really like served as a mentor to my travel style. He helped teach a boy from rural Iowa what travel is all about.
Of course the news of Anthony Bourdain committing suicide in France in June was emotional for so many people. Here was a guy who so many people wanted to be like, wanted to travel like, and who served as a travel mentor and inspiration, whether he knew it or not. Now his voice was no more. Indeed there were things in his life that were stronger than his travel and voice that took him from us too early.
But the “Bourdain Style and Voice” of travel still exists. In fact, as I walked down a a relatively deserted street in Lima, Peru around the corner from blocks of auto repair shops and looking for a restaurant with no sign and no street presence, I could hear that voice like it was right next to me.
We were fortunate enough to get a randomly open reservation for Chez Wong. Not the “best restaurant in the world” or even a top 20 or 30 restaurant that Lima claims several of, but a small, humble 30 seats in a room attached to Chef Wong’s living quarters. Marked by no sign with only a non-working doorbell left to further confuse patrons who eventually realize they have to knock hard on the door to be let in (aided by locals obviously used to this routine), and only then if you have a reservation. Indeed there is no walk-in seating — we watched as people showed up throughout our meal and were turned away, even when seats were available.
As you sit down you want a beer. And regardless of if you do or don’t, you do. The Chef believes this is a good way to start the meal and he discretely has a beer as well. Chef walks out making minimal eye contact and checking the work of his team of male sous chefs. Vegetables in perfect order, limes squeezed, fish in the cooler, sauces prepared.
He is a star and he knows it. The wall lined with awards, articles, and yes, even a picture of Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert’s visit to Chez Wong. Chef Wong slices the freshest of fish and makes his signature ceviche as he has thousands of times before. Yet every batch is perfectly seasoned. Perfectly fresh. Bites of the most amazing food in a small room, with no sign, on a quiet street…and a beer.
At a perfect break time the Chef makes eye contact and says hello to the patrons. As if to say, you have tasted some of my creation and now I’m looking for your feedback. He offers to take pictures with those interested and is open to photography of his technique as well. In a light moment he shares a laugh with his staff before it is back to business. And it is clear with each change-out of his cutting board (and there are many) that details are important to Chef Wong.
The meal continues with several courses, each one better than the last. Then, as we really can’t eat more, the waiter asks if we are interested in one more dish the Chef wishes to prepare. Of course we are. You don’t travel thousands of miles, get a reservation, and pass on one more dish.
The wok flames fire high in the kitchen with smoke filtering out as the Chef and his famous flaming wok are in perfect harmony as he stirs and prepares the final dish. “The Chef wants to know if you are okay with spicy,” says the waiter. Of course we are. As the dish comes to the table I know we are in for a treat. This is the pineapple, fish, pepper, concoction that in Anthony Bourdain's words, “has no business tasting good, but it does.” And it did taste good. Just as Bourdain and Ripert sat sweating while they devoured the dish, so do we.
A restaurant is more than the food on the plate. A restaurant is made by the experience. Your favorite waiter at the place down the street that you have been going to for 20 years who knows what drink you will order before you order it (Sosa), the ambiance of the space, the freshness of the ingredients, the Chef, and the neighborhood, all add to the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that create your experience.
That late July day, everything aligned and I enjoyed one of the best meals I have ever had. Prepared right in front of me by a Chef who had met years earlier with a travel mentor of mine. As I sat in the room I could almost hear Anthony Bourdain’s irreverent commentary and banter with Eric Ripert and it made the meal that much better. This was a well rounded experience I will never forget.
If you find yourself in Lima, Peru there are many, many dining options, but if you can carve out the time and a reservation for Chez Wong, I highly recommend it.
Please contact us if you would like specific reservation information, phone numbers, or email for Chez Wong.