Eclectic, Energetic Aya Street

Aya Street is the hottest place in town . . . that feels a lot like home. Words: Sarah Douglas. Photos: Lucky 8.

If your Mum was a large and gregarious Peruvian, you would probably feel right at home at Aya Street. That is of course if Mum liked to add small rubber toys to her smoky cocktails and pole dance on her bathroom breaks. Oh, and she was an enthusiastic collector of street art.

Aya Street is effervescent with loads of street cred and plenty of heart. The welcome is warm, the menu is inspired by Peruvian street food and the atmosphere is charged with friendship, cocktails and a small but very flexible menu.

Chef Marco Cueva is at the centre of Aya Street. The restaurant wraps around his open kitchen and he chats to diners as he goes about the business of plating and preparation, adjusting his menu, making suggestions, and infusing the kitchen with his enthusiasm as he works.

“I want it to feel like a home. You can rock up and let me know what you feel like and I’ll make it for you. The menu is small so that I can add or change it as I go. I cook the food I grew up with, inspired by my mother and grandmother and the street food of Peru,” explains Marco. “And I want a little of that feeling here, like coming home.”

Cocktails, inspired by South American flavours, fly over the bar; adorned by small toys, spiked with chili or smoking with dry ice. The cocktail menu plays large in the dining experience.

Sitting at the counter overlooking the large open kitchen (where chef Marco is the link between the menu and the guests) is recommended. The former La Favela chef, a native Peruvian, is familiar to many of his guests.

As are his fellow partners. Junanjo Suarez is behind the successful Shelter café and Nalu Bowls, while fellow director Rafael has been supplying some of Bali’s best chefs with a range of superfoods for the last few years.

Aya Street often feels like a collective of their many friends. People know each other, wave, call across the bar. If Marco has seen you before he very likely remembers what you ate and will suggest something new. With this crew, it’s little wonder that Aya Street feels like a party every night, and if you didn’t know anyone when you arrived, chances are you’ll have made new friends by the time you leave.

Aya Street’s menu is literally just a two-sided card with a great selection of Peruvian favourites; from the national dish, ceviche, to a vibrant, vegetarian toradito (Peruvian sashimi), to a host of grills, stir fries and some lighter dishes.

“I have adapted the dishes I grew up with. I bought some seeds over and a friend grows them for me. The yellow chili from Peru is quite distinctive in taste and I am growing it here. The only thing I import is the beef. For the rest, I want to support local businesses and also show the local chefs how to create these recipes with ingredients they can find here,” explains Marco.

Sitting up at the bar watching the food being prepared is a lot of fun. The chef has a station at the edge of the hot kitchen where he painstakingly finishes every dish. Watching where every spot of spicy mayonnaise goes, piling the grilled meat just so, creating mosaics with seafood and vegetables.

The plates reflect the volcanic elements of the restaurant. Dark and moody and the perfect foil for the vibrant colours found in the food. Peruvians have an innate knowledge of all the culinary elements at play in their diverse country. A meal at home may well combine elements of Spain, Italy, Japan, China and Peru all in one plate. This is possibly the most multicultural of all cuisines.

We had heard the ceviche here was good and our meal began with this, but not before we were served a welcoming soup. A traditional fish stock made with wine, herbs and chili was delightful and warming and set the scene for a dinner that wakes the palette up to new flavour combinations.

The ceviche was every bit as good as advertised, one of the best I have had. With large chunks of firm white fish, the famous tiger’s milk – a broth created from the salting and marinating of the fish – mingling with fresh radish, sliced red chili and burnished baby corn.

The tiradito followed, glistening slices of watermelon “cooked” sous vide, then roasted, layered with asparagus and hazelnuts and topped with a truffle mayonnaise. According to the chef he created the dish for vegetarians so they could feel they were having something ‘meaty’. Vegans can omit the mayonnaise.

We had started with cocktails. A Funky Duck for me, with a cute little yellow duck floating on top, the refreshing cocktail is inspired by the signature pisco sours of Peru. A coconut mojito, long and cold with a bright red chili as garnish, for my partner. From there we moved on to house wine. The happy hour from 6-8pm every night offers cocktails at Rp65k, so it’s worth arriving early. The house wine, a quaffable Spanish table wine, is priced at Rp95k.

Dishes continued to be replaced with almost lightning speed. There’s a lot to take in at Aya Street as people come and go, dishes are plated and replaced, wait staff and the chef check in with you and a lively sound track plays out. Street inspired art adorns the wall and a trip to the bathrooms is literally ‘a trip’.

Next up was a famous Peruvian dish, la causa, a kind of spicy mashed potato. Marinated with yellow chili and mingled with avocado, it’s usually served alone or with seafood, while ours was served with spicy, char-grilled chicken, a side of Kalamata mayo, and a tangle of fried potato to add another textural element.

A Peruvian mixed grill followed; a beautiful, pink, charred steak is laid out over a smear of potato, scattered sautéed mushrooms glowed with chimichurri, a quinoa risotto side, topped with a brilliant sesame foam. Full on flavours, textures, spices and a world of culinary influences play off each other, like a block party on a plate. The chef explains the origins, as we go, “this is Peruvian/Med, this one is Asian…”

Dessert brings it all together with one of South America’s most famous exports, chocolate, oozing out of a perfect, little volcano cake, served with a refreshing side of mango sorbet.

Aya Street is all it promises, eclectic, energetic, casual and fun. Peruvian street food meets the streets of Bali with a cracking good beat to wash it all down.