Chef Erik Ramirez has moved from fancy town to… well, another fancy town. But at his new Williamsburg restaurant, the former Eleven Madison Park sous chef isn’t invoking the trappings of his old place of employment, where they still ready the dining room by ironing their white linen tablecloths. Instead, he’s going for a relaxed atmosphere and moderately priced food that’s closer to his heart. Ramirez’s parents are from Peru (they moved to New Jersey in the 1980s) and this time last year the chef was traveling there, conducting the best research we can imagine to build his menu.
The Llama Inn officially opens tonight, but we stopped by late this afternoon to
bother the front-of-house staff get a peek at what to expect. Right under the BQE, the restaurant is blessedly tucked away from the busier parts of Williamsburg (though Night of Joy is right around the corner) and feels supremely inviting against the backdrop of a cold-looking hotel and a relatively lonely road. If you’re a weakling like me, you might struggle to get past the large antique-looking wooden doors without looking like a dum dum girl. But I made it! And let me tell you, it was worth it.
A large, diamond-shaped oak bar takes up most of the dining room, which seats 65 total. A few booths offer some privacy, but you mostly get the feeling the Llama is meant to be a convivial, communal atmosphere– as in, yeah go ahead and ogle your neighbor’s food. Hanging from the high ceilings overhead are three vaguely ’70s multi-colored string lamps. Along the perimeter, a variety of green plants and succulents bring some necessary life to the drab street scene visible through floor-to-ceiling windows. A colorful, backlit rope installation and some Peruvian knick-knacks (but not too many) brighten the brownish color palette.
One truly unique thing about the Llama is the ample seating that would be comfortable for lone-wolf eaters– an abundance of bar, counter, and window seats makes dining alone less awkward, coz you can look outside and not inside at everyone judging you.
Add an open kitchen and you can imagine the place will have a comfortably bustling vibe.
As for the menu, Ramirez is clearly having it both ways: he’s embracing classic Peruvian fare (ceviche, roasted chicken) as well as executing his own take on dishes using Peruvian ingredients like Andean potatoes (note there are more than 4,000 varieties of potato native to the Andes), cacao, huacatay (Peruvian black mint), quinoa, and aji (the ubiquitous yellow hot pepper sauce). Given the large Chinese population in Peru and the popularity of chifa, or Chinese food, we’re not surprised to see ingredients like ginger and yuzu, too.
Not everyone will know if what they’re ordering is typical Peruvian, given that some of the menu is laid out somewhat mysteriously. Most dishes appear simply as a list of ingredients rather than a name. Take, for example, this selection listed under “vegetables,” for $14: “black lentils, oyster and Maitake mushrooms, poached egg, kale.” Still, there are instantly recognizable items like the anticucho selection (grilled, marinated cow heart on a stick that’s known in Peru as a freaking divine cheap bite). Ramirez offers the classic beef heart, but with the option of different proteins like pork belly, shrimp, or chicken thigh to take its irreplaceable place.
Most items are small plates, while two– whole roasted chicken and a beef tenderloin stir fry that looks to be inspired by lomo saltado– are big guys for family-style pickin’.
Of course, no Peruvian meal is truly complete without a pisco sour, or a twist on it. The Flying Purple Pisco adds purple potato puree to the traditional concoction of pisco, citrus, and egg white.
The cocktail menu is supremely inventive and unsurprisingly pisco-heavy. I noticed at least a dozen different bottles displayed at the bar. And because you gotta have salt when you’re boozing it, guests can munch on cancha (a classic drinking snack: dried corn kernels tossed in salt and oil, kinda like corn nuts but, you know, good).
But beyond the imaginative pisco cocktails, Llama also makes room for an impressive selection of sherry as well as tequila and rum-based drinks. Scotch and bourbon aren’t excluded, either. There’s even a punch on draft called Llama del Rey made with pisco, red wine, chica morada (a sweet purple corn drink), zacapa, lime, grilled pineapple, and pink peppercorn. Dang.
Llama Inn, 50 Withers St., nr. Meeker Ave., Williamsburg; 718-387-3434