Northeast Florida’s food scene continues to grow, and players like popular six-month-old St. Augustine Beach hotspot Llama dominate, even after an unforeseen beginning.

 

A few weeks after Llama’s September opening, Hurricane Matthew rocked the First Coast, dumping two feet of water in its small space. Fast forward to March, and the quaint but inviting restaurant is thriving.


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Llama exudes a simple, intimate elegance while serving up approachable yet refined Peruvian cuisine. In a sea of nearby touristy options, it is a welcome gem, offering limited but refined brunch and dinner menus at affordable prices.

Behind the curtain is talented 20-something chef Marcel Vizcarra, who utilizes a variety of influences from Latin American cuisine, focusing mainly on American-inspired Peruvian bites. His creativity shines. We were thoroughly impressed by the modern execution and presentation of our food and beverages: vibrant colors, meticulous detail, artful plating.

Start with the causa trio ($13). Three chilled golden Peruvian potato cakes are served with different toppings — creamy sliced avocado, tender octopus and cilantro sprigs, chicken salad and chopped shrimp salad adorned by a cheese crisp.

Also order the ceviche appetizer ($12). It is a work of art: A half-circle of fresh corvina fish marinated in tangy lime juice, cilantro and spicy limo chile peppers meets cubed glazed sweet potatoes, red onion slivers and creamy and crunchy Peruvian giant corn. Tableside, our server poured a pink-hued leche de tigre (the citrus-based marinade that “cooks” the raw seafood, made from the leftover fish runoff, lime juice, onion slices, chiles, salt and pepper) over the dish, letting the excess run off into a reservoir in the center of the dish.

Our quinoa salad ($8) arrived in a large, thick bowl. An abundant medley of red and white protein-rich quinoa was topped with juicy tomatoes, crumbled queso fresco cheese, crunchy sunflower sprouts, fresh grapefruit segments, avocado slices arranged in a rose formation and a sweet honey-panca chile pepper dressing. Chicken ($5), shrimp ($6) or grouper ($11) can be added. of which We added the latter, and it was perfectly cooked and seasoned.

For dessert we shared the jarred passionfruit tres leches ($7) topped with blackberry and mint. Since the passionfruit grows on the vine in some areas of Lima, Peru, the chef’s interpretation incorporates both wild vines and a sugary vine-like coating on top of the jar.

Whereas Llama only serves beer and wine, there are several standout drinks made using sparkling wine. We enjoyed the deep purple-hued chichamosa ($8) — champagne, purple corn, pineapple, lime and spices, garnished with orange — and flower bomb ($8): prosecco, elderflower syrup, rose essence and an edible orchid ice sphere.

We went for brunch but are anticipating a dinner visit soon. Seating is limited so make a reservation. It’s absolutely worth the short trek from Jacksonville and a must for anyone in St. Augustine.

Caron Streibich is an avid food-lover who will review restaurants every other week in the Dining section. Follow her dining adventures at facebook.com/caroneats and #caroneats on Instagram.