Fine Gluten-Free Dining in Lima

My trip to Peru last fall wasn’t planned as a gastronomic tour, but that’s what it turned into. From Cusco to Arequipa to Lima, some of the best meals I’ve tasted were on that trip. Peru’s culinary scene is a true melting pot of cultures, and that rich heritage is enhanced by the fact that almost any ingredient you could want grows in this country.

There was one foodie destination on my trip checklist, though: I wanted to dine at Astrid y Gaston. I’d first heard of chef Gastón Acurio on a prior trip to South America, and I’d read a lot about him. In addition to his restaurants in Lima, Bogota, Caracas, Panama, Quito, Santiago and Madrid, Acurio has his own cooking show and is a popular media personality. I expected to be impressed with his restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, in the elegant Miraflores neighborhood, and it lived up to its advance billing. Located on a tiny street that runs off the crowded Parque Miraflores (where there are frequent open-air concerts, and where the beautiful church Parroquia la Virgen Milagrosa sits on the eastern edge), Astrid y Gaston was an intriguing combination of formality and irreverence. The setting — an old colonial mansion — is stunning, the service is impeccable, and the atmosphere is lively and warm.

The waiter who served my table spoke fluent English, but using a Spanish-language celiac card made it easier to explain my dietary restrictions. After a conference in the kitchen, I was told that about half the items on the relatively long menu were naturally gluten-free, and that several others could be modified to be so. I started with ceviche, the classic Peruvian dish of raw seafood marinated in lime juice. I’d been trepidatious about trying this dish earlier on my trip — eating uncooked seafood is normally too big a risk when you want to stay healthy — but the dish I had at Astrid y Gaston was perfect (and perfectly healthy). My main course — a spicy tuna steak with a hint of sweetness mixed in — was just as satisfying.

I don’t know if the other outposts of Gaston y Astrid are as celiac-friendly as the one in Lima, and I’d love to hear from readers who have tried them. This month, Gastón Acurio is opening a restaurant in San Francisco — La Mar Cebicheria Peruana at the Embarcadero’s Pier 1.5 — and I can’t wait to try it on my next visit.

Astrid y Gaston [address] Calle Cantuarias 175, Miraflores (Lima), Peru [tel] 01/444-1496 [web]

Open Skies

On March 30th, 2008, traveling between the United States and Europe may get easier… or at least more competitive. That’s the day that the new transatlantic flight pact (commonly known as “open skies”) goes into effect, allowing airlines to fly between any two airports in the regions. In the past, a British Airways flight en route to New York had to originate in the UK. Now, it could originate in Paris or Prague. Open skies is being hailed as a significant change in the travel industry — though charges to compensate for increasing fuel prices may mean that the price of a ticket won’t drop that much.

I know that no one chooses an airline based on its willingness to offer gluten-free meals, but if the amount of competition for your travel dollars increases, this is an issue to keep in mind. When I flew to Lima, Peru, last fall on American Airlines, I was dismayed to discover that there was no gluten-free meal for me on the flight there or back. Both my husband and I had called American to confirm the request, and I’d even mentioned it to the gate agent in New York; she checked and found it in the system. However, once I was on the plane, the flight attendant informed me that no gluten-free meals were available on the flight, period. This was because American Airlines had defined it as a “short” international flight, since it lasted only six hours (I had flown on American from New York to Miami, where I caught my connecting flight to Lima). The flight attendant was as helpful as she could be — she got me three mini-salads, which were naturally gluten-free — but there wasn’t much to be done (this is why I always have a celiac-safe protein bar in my bag).

This was a stark contrast with my flight to Santiago, Chile, a year before. That time I flew on LAN, which quickly became my favorite airline. Say what you will about how unpleasant it is to fly these days, but LAN’s friendly, helpful staff made it a pleasure. Not only did I get some surprisingly tasty gluten-free meals on my flights to and from Chile, but even the snacks were gluten-free. (I’ve had positive experiences with gluten-free meals on British Airways and Swiss International Air Lines, too, but this was the first time that even the snacks were safe for me.)

I just checked with American Airlines, and they are offering gluten-free meals on all of their flights to Europe. This makes sense, since the competition is about to get stiffer. But, in case you’re flying to Peru anytime soon, take note — there are still no gluten-free meals on American’s flights to Lima, but there are on LAN’s.