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Celebrations with Gaston and Others

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Tony and I recently had all our individual special occasions (i.e. as distinct from general holidays like Christmas) in quick succession: our second wedding anniversary while we were in Quito, and our birthdays while in Cuzco.

To mark our anniversary, we indulged in the spa at the Quito Swissotel and went out for a formal dinner. Particularly for people who had gotten their last massages in Manhattan, the services at the Swissotel were a great deal. For less than $100 per person, one can get packages like an hour-long soak and rubdown in a rose-petal-filled tub followed by another hour of Swedish massage.

Thoroughly relaxed and strangely perfumed, we were going to have the concierge book us a dinner reservation at Zazu, which has a general reputation among tourists as the best restaurant in Quito. However, she recommended that we instead go to Astrid y Gaston, of which I'd never heard but was promised to be Zazu's equal for food, while having a more intimate and romantic atmosphere.

As our server later explained to us, Astrid y Gaston in Quito is one of several restaurants in the culinary empire of Gaston Acurio (and his pastry chef wife Astrid). After nearly two months in South America, I feel safe in saying that Acuria is the celebrity chef of the Andean region. He smiles at you from cookbooks in the Lima airport bookstore, and local loyalists insist that even El Bulli has taken some ideas from the great Gaston. We enjoyed the Quito Astrid y Gaston well enough: the service was attentive, the prices were fair, and the menu introduced us to delicious Peruvian specialties like leche de tigre (although our entrees were sauced a bit too heavily).

For Tony's birthday dinner, he picked a restaurant in Cuzco that he'd walked by and found attractive. Called ChiCha, it coincidentally turned out to be one of the newest outposts of the Acuria empire. This we liked even better than Astrid y Gaston. The service in Cuzco was just as obliging but less formal than in Quito; the menu was more grounded in traditional Andean food and better-executed; and the bartenders were friendly and generous with their pours and knowledge.

My birthday choice was The Tearooms in Cuzco, which is what I wish Alice's Tea Cup in New York would be if it weren't so busy with children's parties: a whimsically-decorated space for leisurely enjoyment of a nearly-vanished tradition. The afternoon tea service is particularly worthwhile. For 50 soles, there are warm scones with cream and jam, crustless sandwiches and rich cakes enough for two, along with your choice of either coffee or a pot of tea.

Although not a special occasion sort of celebration, our last night in Lima was spent in a place also worth recommending. In walking distance of our Barranco hostel, Ayahuasca spreads its various lounges through a restored mansion, with multiple bars that make getting the elaborate cocktails a reasonably speedy process. The bartenders (especially Miguel, though in the next year he may be more easily found working on a Princess cruise) were as friendly as those at ChiCha, explaining the contents of our drinks and recommending pisco brands worthy of souvenir purchase.

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The afternoon tea service is particularly worthwhile. For 50 soles, there are warm scones with cream and jam, crustless sandwiches and rich cakes enough for two, along with your choice of either coffee or a pot of tea.

Makes me want a cream tea now! My favourite place is Bake-A-Boo in North London which Venta introduced me to.

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