Before you go and scream bloody murder about the price of the whole Branzino—$56—now served on the summer menu at Llama Inn, which takes the place of the whole chicken during these warm months, consider what you’re getting: A meal for two on a platter. That brings us back down to $28 a head. This is New York City. We pay $100 for doughnuts swaddled in gold. We don’t blink an eye at $28 for some fish (or not much of one). And what a fish it is.
Since Llama Inn opened late last year, head chef Erik Ramirez has been telling people that Peruvian food can be a lot more than beans, rice, chicken, and ceviche (though, do try his ceviche; your mouth will go into ecstasies over its strange and exciting combination of lime, dashi, and, of all things, bananas). In this case, what that thing can be is a whole Branzino—sized very large—wrapped in charred banana leaves, marinated and stuffed with anatto oil, aji amarillo (a rich, traditional Peruvian sauce, orange-to-yellow in color) garlic, and cilantro. Served on a round board, it is accompanied by sides of Jasmine rice, salsa criollo (a zingy mixture of sliced, pickled onions, herbs and spices), large-kernel corn from the Andes, called choclo, served as a kind of salsa, and plantain chips.
Are you a person who lives for sides, and condiments, but also enjoys a lovely, savory base with which to consume them? This, Sides & Condiment Friend, is a dish for you, and one of the best you’ve ever known. This is how my friend and I ate the whole Branzino at Llama Inn: rapturously. Each bite was a brand new, perfectly cooked experience. The meat itself was tender and flaky, and each forkful was joined, alternately, by one of its five sides or sauces, or in combination with three of them at once. It was creative, choose your own adventure eating, and each of the components was light and clean yet filled with so much flavor.
At the end of it, we were nicely filled but—due to those light ingredients—not weighed down. Eaten on Llama Inn’s new roof, El Techo (which means roof in Spanish), which has its own menu separate from the dining room downstairs (including a very tasty slushy drink called the Dolly Llama: pisco, lemon juice, red wine, strawberry shrub), this was the summer meal dreams are made of. As the sun went away, and the BQE was shushed behind us by happy diners and a large, lush row of shrubbery on the roof’s periphery, I thought I could eat whole fish instead of chicken forever more. Or, that I will do so at least once more before the end of summer.