Erik Ramirez isn’t playing with the usual set of flavors at his new restaurant, Llama San. He isn’t putting them together in the usual ways, either. The starting point of his menu is Nikkei cuisine, the hybrid style forged by Japanese cooks living in Peru, but Mr. Ramirez hasn’t let himself get tied down by it. Certain Llama San dishes have clear Nikkei roots, but have sprouted into something new. Others seem to come from an imaginary Peruvian-Japanese world that Mr. Ramirez dreamed up.
There can’t be many cevicherias in Lima where the tart and spicy marinade for raw scallops and soft hunks of avocado is made from cherimoya purée. Ripe cherimoya, also known as custard apple, has the miraculous ability to taste like bananas, pears, pineapples and about six other, equally delicious fruits at the same time.
And you could probably walk the entire Peruvian coastline without finding a hamachi tiradito whose leche de tigre — the sauce that is essential in tiraditos as well as ceviches — is a rich, spicy coconut milk soured with a squeeze of lime. If you added lemongrass and lime leaf at this point you’d have the beginnings of a number of Thai soups, but that’s not where this is going. Llama San scatters a few puffs of matcha foam over the plate, between curls of fresh coconut. If you didn’t already know that green tea, chiles, coconut and raw fish are quietly thrilling together, you do now.
Up and down the menu are flying leaps like this, followed by graceful landings. Mr. Ramirez’s confidence has grown since he opened his first restaurant, Llama Inn, in Brooklyn about four years ago. When news got out that he was planning to follow that initial Peruvian outpost with a sandwich shop called Llamita, I worried that his talents might disappear into the fast-casual sinkhole that seems to claim so many chefs these days. (As a budding empire builder, Mr. Ramirez, a native of New Jersey raised by parents from Lima, has at least one thing going for him, an irresistible logo of a llama in a bow tie.)
That fear was premature; last summer, when Llamita opened, it turned out to be a more interesting proposition than it had sounded, with homestyle Peruvian cooking at dinner and a wine list that hews to the organic, biodynamic and natural creed.
But neither place goes as far as Llama San, which slipped into its unmarked brick facade in September, taking its place between the tattoo studios and dildo boutiques that line the west side of Avenue of the Americas between Waverly Place and Bleecker Street. Sit at the compact bar in the front window, and the drinks menu you’re handed tells you right away that this is not going to be a typical postcard from Peru.
The Nikkei Martini includes pickled kombu and a “nori pisco rinse”; a drink called Flaming Creature, distantly related to an old-fashioned, is made with cacao and miso, and infused with smoke from palo santo wood; and the closest thing to a pisco sour contains matcha, green tea and coconut and is called Quizás, Quizás, Quizás, after the old Cuban song covered by Bing Crosby, among others.
While Llama Inn draws all its wines from Spanish-speaking parts of Europe and South America, Llama San claims a larger piece of the globe by specializing in coastal regions: Provence, Catalonia, Corsica, Sicily, New Zealand and so on. And, as at Llamita, low-intervention winemakers are favored. The result is an idiosyncratic read, with potential discoveries on every page.
Beyond the bar are two dining rooms. The front is more cramped than the rear, which spreads out a bit before ending in an open kitchen, but in either room the seats and the tables are so close together that you, or at least I, have to inhale to sit down. The décor is spare in a way that you might take for Japanese, particularly after a Flaming Creature or two.
You might take the nigiri for Japanese, too, if they weren’t topped with tender, plummy duck breast and a sweet mush of cooked banana with fresh cilantro. They come four to an order, but I could have eaten a dozen, leaving behind only the nasturtium leaves that cover them for no reason I could see.
Peru has a chile for every occasion, it seems, and Mr. Ramirez knows which ones to use and when. The swirling heat of rocoto chiles, underscored by a sprinkle of togarashi, lights up a bowl of rice noodles outfitted with mushrooms and seaweed. Ají panca, purplish and mild, brings some complexity to Llama San’s tribute to an izakaya standard, grilled salt-cured mackerel. The same chile turns up in the cream sauce on lobster meat that is paired with an exceptionally fine grilled beef heart rubbed with a classic Peruvian skewer spice mix that includes oregano, cumin and dried ají panca.
Bright yellow and sunny, the ají amarillo is crucial to the flavor of the walnut-thickened yellow sauce that douses a sushi roll filled with a rich stew of chicken thighs. This, in case you haven’t recognized it, is how Mr. Ramirez interprets ají de gallina, transforming it into a new form while keeping the qualities that make it a comfort-food staple in Peru. Ají amarillo is also the secret of another creamy yellow sauce, this one a shrimp stock that turns what could be an invitation to boredom — soft tofu stuffed with minced shrimp and covered with smashed potatoes — into a really good time.
The savory menu, printed on sheets of Japanese paper as soft as an old dollar bill, hops from success to success. Desserts are less memorable. I recall encountering three of them, and each one seemed to be some kind of semifreddo.
I’m not sure Mr. Ramirez knows yet how good the food at Llama San is. If he did, would servers still describe it as “a family-style, à la carte restaurant?” In any case, the assurance displayed in the kitchen gets a little shaky in the dining room. Every dish is deposited in the middle of the table, often one at a time, so four people may find themselves taking tiny forkfuls from a single plate as they try not to eat the whole thing at once. Repeat this routine for each of the two-to-three-dishes-a-person that servers suggest, and you might be there for hours.