I n Fair Haven, whose history is tied to the pursuits of river and sea, and whose current population is increasingly Hispanic, it’s only fitting that a restaurant like La Molienda should exist. Run by a Colombian and inspired by Peru, it’s got the unmistakable aroma of restaurant-quality seafood and is rumored to be among the best places on Grand Avenue to order ceviche.

Like its scent, La Molienda—“The Windmill,” a reference to Don Quixote—fills the space of old Geppi’s, an Italian restaurant closed in 2009 after about 25 years of operation. La Molienda moved in shortly after the closure and, it appears, left the place mostly as it was. The pool table looks grandfathered-in, as do the two jukeboxes standing at opposite ends of the space. But the most imposing and impressive relic of the old Geppi’s, enclosed by a half-wall and decorative window panes frosted with flora, is the thick, brawny, dark wood bar.

Nardo Marin, the owner, prepared a three-dish spread, based on recipes pulled from Peru’s coasts and fields. For an appetizer, there was Choros a la Chalaca ($14), a broad plate of mussels on the half shell, each hiding a buried treasure beneath a heap of onion, tomato and cilantro. At the center of the plate were golden yucca fries stacked like Lincoln Logs. Marinated in a sharp lime juice, the mussels were delicious, tasting as if they’d just been plucked from the briny surf.

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They hadn’t been, seeing as they’d come from halfway around the world. Marin, noting how the backsides of the mollusk shells had a sea green lip instead of the typical blue or black, identified them as “smileys,” harvested exclusively in New Zealand. These larger-than-average mussels are prepared here in the Peruvian way, but their Kiwi proportions allow for larger cargos.

The next seaworthy plate was the Ceviche Mixto ($16). Found along the coastal regions of South America, ceviche is a dish of seafood cured in citrus juices. The formula for ceviche changes from region to region in Latin America and, likewise, it changes from restaurant to restaurant throughout New Haven. Ceviche dishes around town are typically portioned as an appetizer for one, coming in a martini or other glass. But at La Molienda, the Peruvian-style ceviche is a full meal and, accordingly, requires a full plate.

Crowned by purple arcs of red onion, the dish arrived piled high with seafood—a veritable biome of shrimp, mussels, fish and calamari two ways: as rings that could fit around two fingers and as small squid with bodies left whole. All of it sat in a shallow pinkish tide pool of lime juice, evaporated milk and hot sauce. Beside a quarter cob of corn and a potato half, the ceviche came with half of a sweet potato, too. Sugar and cinnamon gave it the taste and texture of pumpkin pie—a quirky but likable shipmate for the rest.

The third dish at the table came from a landlubber. Lomo Saltado ($14), literally “salted loin,” is a beef-based platter Marin says is popular in Peru. The meat, seasoned with cumin, garlic, black pepper and a lip-licking sprinkling of salt, came with slices of warm onion and potato fries and was both comforting and appetizing.

Also coming from the land were two very different and noteworthy corn products. Before the meal began, a bowl of canchitas, or toasted, salted Peruvian corn, arrived with a hot date: a bowl of spicy, creamy green ají sauce. Instead of our common American corn, with its small, tooth-breaking kernels that soften and pop when heated, the Peruvian kernels—much larger, and shaped like footballs—keep their kernel form while attaining a crunchiness that’s satisfying but not hazardous.

The second corn product, Chicha Morada ($3 for a cup, or $10 for a pitcher), was a sweet, dark-red drink made from Zea, a variety of Peruvian purple corn whose kernels can look quite nearly black. The drink is made in-house by boiling the corn and adding sugar and lemon. The final look and taste isn’t too distant from grape juice.

In that sense, it’s like La Molienda’s larger-than-usual mussels, or its pumpkin pie-ish sweet potatoes, or its twist on steak and potatoes, or its toasted, not popped, corn: exotic and exciting to American palates, but with strong traces of the familiar.

La Molienda
113 Grand Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sun 11am-10pm, bar until 11pm
(203) 562-0675…

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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