We had arrived at about 1:00 PM for our lunch reservation at Central Restaurant. There was no sign on the front door to indicate the nature of the business inside. It could have been just another upscale residence in the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima. A subtle hint perhaps that we were entering a different place, another world.
We had pre-ordered the sixteen course tasting menu with paired wine for each course when we made our reservation. The real Slim Shady, to use a popular music title from some years ago. We had settled at our table and were enjoying watching the work being done in the kitchen when the first course of the afternoon arrived.
Chef Virgilio Martinez himself brought the first course to our table and graciously welcomed us to his restaurant. From our brief interaction, he seemed focused and purposeful, as might be expected from the list of accomplishments he has achieved. These include being named 2016 international chef of the year and opening two restaurants in London, one of which has earned a Michelin star. There is also a new restaurant in Dubai (with food to be flown in from Peru). Last, but certainly not least, he founded and manages Central restaurant in Lima, Peru, which has been ranked by some as the best restaurant in South America and fourth best restaurant in the world. Oddly, Central does not seem to have been awarded a Michelin star. Indeed, there appears to be no Michelin starred restaurants in all of Lima. This must certainly be an oversight, but I digress.
The first course (River Cotton) was triangular and wrapped in a dried green leaf. A dried leaf from what was not at all clear. (Likely it was pacaya, but what’s that, really?). The menu description is not much help here since two of the four ingredients listed were completely unknown to me. And river shrimp is shrimp, of course, but is it different from ocean shrimp? The first bite is therefore a small leap of faith. The temptation is to nibble a little bit at the end to see how it tastes. The point, however, is not to sit there and obsess about it, but to pop it into your mouth and try it. In short, to embrace the entire experience. This is a theme that repeats several times during the nearly four hours we spend eating lunch.
It is not easy to describe a novel flavor. River Cotton certainly did not taste bad, but it also was not what I would call delicious in a traditional sense. Perhaps intriguing is the best word for it. It served well as a suitable introduction to a new culinary landscape. Less confident chefs might be tempted to start off a tasting menu with something more familiar and then gradually draw you into more exotic territory. Not chef Martinez. The first course parachutes you directly into the heart of culinary terra incognito and invites you to start exploring from there. Fortunately, we are in the hands of a capable guide.
The menu items are sorted by altitude, as seems appropriate for the Peruvian extremes. The first course, little more than a teaser, was from 140 meters (about 460 feet). The second course (Desert Plants), again just a bite, lists at 230 meters and had a certain earthiness with an undercurrent of peppers. The dishes ranged from a low altitude of -10 meters (Close Fishing with octopus, yuyo, barquillo and squid) to 4100 meters (Extreme Stems containing oca, olluco, mashwa and elderberry, which was one of my favorites). Another favorite, Diversity of Corn, surprised with its creamy texture and bright flavor.
Andean Plateau was a small loaf of bread served on a bed of dried coca leaves. The leaves had been singed and emitted a wonderful, earthy aroma as the bread was brought to the table. By itself, the bread tasted a little bland, but came alive when combined with the herbed butter and jam that accompanied it. The dish and presentation were sensual, aromatic, over the top, unique. It was an experience I will not soon forget. A perfect example of individual parts that combine to make a greater whole.
There were times when I did give in to the temptation to nibble the edges. This led to the discovery that each part played an integral role. What seemed at first like frills were more than mere decorative touches. Each course was a well crafted whole in which all the individual components made their contribution. A crisp that was not just a textural element, but contributed a distinct anise flavor. Or a green lattice frill that looked like nothing but the merest decoration but was made of herbs and spices. Again, the key to get the complete, rich flavor was to embrace the whole experience. Perhaps this was intended as metaphor, but I was too dazzled by the passing parade of unique flavors and creative presentations to think about it very deeply.
It would be remiss not to mention the excellent service we received. Each succeeding dish appeared at the table at a good pace. I admit that a couple in the beginning seemed slightly rushed, but only a couple. The rest seemed to show up almost magically just as we were ready for them. The staff were professional, yet friendly and happily gave a brief description of each dish. For one course (Extreme Stems) they helpfully pointed out that a small plate of native Andean potatoes was not part of the dish, but only an aspect of the presentation. The sommelier was especially good at describing each wine pairing and answering our questions.
Other ingredients included fruit from the rainforest and fish from the Amazon. Even edible clay from the mountains found a use in the rich, chocolatey dessert Green Highlands. Many of the ingredients are unknown outside a small circle in Peru. But one of chef Martinez’s goals is to explore and highlight little-known foods in his native country with the hope of preserving them by making them better known. This culinary exploration of Peru is an ongoing project by chef Martinez and his team. You can read more about this search (passion would be a better word) at the web site mater iniciativa.
On leaving, a staff member handed us a booklet with paintings of some of the ingredients used. Each painting is followed by a page of hand-made paper incorporating bits of the ingredient. An original and thoughtful keepsake of the experience.
Central is dining raised to the level of fine art. I can hardly wait to go back.
(I have to apologize for not having many pictures for this post. Unfortunately, we were having some issues with our camera. Eating With NJ and Gina Powers have recently posted pictures of Central’s tasting menu.)