There’s a very nice candle in the bathroom at Llama San. We won’t name the brand, because this isn’t QVC, and we aren’t being paid to promote home furnishings, but just know that this candle smells great, costs about $50 more than you think it would, and is a textbook case of foreshadowing.
Llama San is a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant in the West Village from the people behind Llama Inn, a Peruvian place in Williamsburg we recommend for nearly any scenario. Just like that candle, their new spot is stylish and impressive, and it’s also a little more expensive than it should be. But if you visit a thousand other restaurants in New York City, you aren’t going to eat anything that even approximates the kind of creative and delicious food that you’ll find here.
The food at Llama San is the type of Japanese-influenced Peruvian cuisine known as Nikkei, and when you take a bite of something here, you’ll feel as though you discovered a new genre of music or an unfamiliar color you’d like to wear all the time. This bite might involve a strip of lean beef heart with a big chunk of lobster doused in a rich chili sauce, or it might be a piece of aged duck over cilantro-flavored rice topped with a creamy banana slice wearing a pristine nasturtium leaf as a hat. Even if you order one of the few relatively straightforward dishes here (like a ceviche or pork katsu), you’ll find they make their equivalents at other restaurants seem lazy and unimaginative.
The space, on the other hand, is a tad impersonal. It’s about the size of a one-bedroom apartment, and almost everything is a shade of light brown endemic to stores that sell juices and healing crystals. With its soft lighting, cream-colored walls, and affluence-scented candle, it feels a bit like a wellness retreat where you’d be asked to describe your aura or a bare template for what a New York City restaurant is expected to look like in the year 2019. It also doesn’t seem formal or impressive enough for a special occasion, despite the special-occasion prices.
And this brings us to the most substantial complaint we have about Llama San. You can easily spend $100 per person on a meal (without any drinks), which takes just a little bit of joy out of eating here. But until another spot starts serving beef heart with lobster, duck nigiri, and some of the finest ceviches in the city, we’ll have to take a deep breath, count backward from 10, and accept the slightly inflated prices as a minor flaw in our consistently imperfect reality. The food here is worth it, and, besides, $75 candles don’t pay for themselves.
Maybe you need to prove to someone that you’re fun and adventurous. Order this hamachi tiradito. It comes with uni and matcha foam, which sounds like it could get a little gimmicky, but the matcha flavor is actually pretty subtle, and the uni is perfect.
The marinade in this scallop ceviche is fantastic. We’d drink it plain, we’d drink it over ice, and we’d drink it shaken with a twist in a chilled martini glass. The chunks of scallop are also delicious - and we happen to like this bowl of food just a little bit more than the tiradito. So ask a friend to loan you some money, and order both.
For $26, you could buy a few pairs of socks or a ticket to your friend’s off-Broadway show, or you could get an order of this duck nigiri. It only comes with four pieces, so the price does feel just a tiny bit offensive - but where else are you going to find some delicious strips of duck topped with banana slices and nasturtium leaves? As long as you’re already here, just do the right thing, and order this.
This is a tricky one, because, with so much other interesting stuff on the menu, this cabbage dish doesn’t really sound essential. But Llama San works in mysterious ways, and it just so happens that this is very much worth ordering. It has a ton of nice texture and pleasant anchovy flavor, and it’s a great lighter option to start your meal.
Hidden under that big, crispy puff, there’s a pile of warm lobster meat and beef heart over rice. There’s also a rich aioli-like sauce, as well as what seems like a handful of dry spices that were thrown on top. And all of this works magnificently. It isn’t an especially huge portion, but it is pretty rich, so split this dish with one or two other people.
We’ve had many bowls of rice (somewhere in the thousands), and this one right here makes it into the top 20. There’s plenty of octopus and crab spread throughout, and the soft-boiled egg adds another layer of mildly smokey flavor. Order this, or know that you could have done better.
We feel conflicted about this dish. On the one hand, it’s wonderful, and we’d like to eat it every day for the rest of our lives (especially the creamy basil udon on the side). But it also isn’t too hard to find some good udon or pork katsu in New York City, so we don’t feel like this is a necessary order. In the end, you just need to decide for yourself whether you need this. We believe in you.