Central – Lima, Peru
When I posted my first food photos from Lima to my Instagram story, a friend of mine who is a fellow lover of food and works in the industry in New York messaged me, fervently asking if I would be eating at Central. I replied, of course, that I was, and he answered that he had never before and never since "wept during a meal." Another friend, who we met up with for lunch in Lima, had visited a few days earlier, and described it to us as "a spiritual experience."
It really is a special place. Chef Virgilio Martínez, a young and unassuming dude, is quietly producing some of the best food in the world, produced from Peruvian ingredients selected with the most exacting standards, and deeply connected to the pre-Columbian foodways of the country. His flagship menus explore all corners of the country, focusing primarily on altitude, a key feature of ingredient creation, and an element that varies wildly in Peru, from the 20,000-foot Andes to the seashore to the jungle lowlands.
A meal here will take you on a magnificent hours-long journey that spans the indigenous foodways of Peru, exploring all manner of ancestral ingredients and practices, many (if not most) of which you’ve likely never encountered before, all while setting you back less than $200 with beverages. Ranked at no. 6 in the world on Pellegrino’s “50 Best” list, it’s a worthy destination for any lover of good food.
This was my gift to Georgia for her birthday, and Jo, her roomie from NYU days and a dear friend of both of ours, had joined us in Lima. We had all had a bit of a rocky afternoon, so we were very excited to venture down to Barranco and begin the journey. The property is walled off from the bustling neighborhood, featuring a xeric garden with local plants atmospherically lit from below. As you enter the building, you are led past a table full of the various ingredients you’ll be enjoying throughout the meal, many of them strange and alien to you, but known deeply by the mastermind in the kitchen, who greets you humbly while your party walks by the pass.
We had a private, glass-walled room to ourselves, over which hung an artsy photo of a potato. We had pre-ordered our menu, “Creatividad Mater,” an homage to Chef Virgilio's motherland, and just needed to decide on beverages. Since there were three of us, we opted for two pairings of the “Wines of the World,” and one “South American” pairing, which was a mix of wines, cocktails, and beer from South America. The journey began swiftly, our attentive server bringing us the first pairings of the night.
I: Red Rocks (10 meters below sea level) – crabs, clams, saragassum
Each course at Central is called an “ecosystem,” celebrating multiple ingredients that grow in a single geography in harmony. Our first ecosystem came from the north coast of Peru, where red rocks tumble from the coast into the shallows of the Pacific. There, small crabs and clams flourish, along with all manner of seaweeds and algae. A small bite of raw clam, blue from briefly marinating it with algae, was served atop a seaweed cracker. Seaweed is possibly the most nutritious and sustainable thing you can eat, I have recently learned, and is loaded with flavor. Spectacular.
More seaweed, this time an alga called saragassum, formed the base of the second bite of the course, another cracker, with bits of seaweed adorning the top. A small ramekin of crab meat in a crab liquid was brought to us, and we were told to spread it atop the cracker like the toast. The essence of the entire ecosystem in two tiny bites.
To pair, we received a cocktail flavored with seaweed, citrus, and a Peruvian spirit distilled from cane called Caña Mater. The wine was a classic starter––a French sparkler made in the traditional Champenoise style. It was tasty and paired well, but almost seemed out of place in the ecosystem, since everything about the dish was so specific to a particular geography.
II: Lima Desert (55 meters above sea level) – sweet potato, scallop, tumbo
If you read my first Lima blog, you know how important scallops are to the people of the Peruvian coast. Here, raw scallop was paired with crops that grow in the arid coastlines above the shores of Central Peru––a sauce of tumbo, a tropical fruit that resembles passionfruit, and crackers made from sweet potato, along with the dehydrated leaves of the sweet potato. I don’t think I’ve had a better seafood course this year, or maybe this decade. The scallops were the best you can find and just brimming with that sweet scallop essence, without a hint of funk, and paired beautifully with the nuanced, mouthwatering tumbo beneath. The course of the night for me.
The pairings complemented this and the next course. The wine of the world was from Austria––a crisp, food-friendly grüner Veltliner, with surprising heft that paired beautifully with the marriage of creamy scallop and tangy tumbo. For the South American pairing, we enjoyed a Semillon-based blend from the Valley of Itaca, which was more aromatic and floral than the grüner, bringing forth different components of the accompaniments to the mollusks. Love having two pairings to compare!
III: Mil Moray Corns (3800 meters above sea level) – white corn, kculli, golden
Corn is an immensely important crop in Peru, and throughout Latin America, and predates the coming of Europeans by centuries. A bowl full of multiple varieties of indigenous corn grown in the Andean valleys was brought out first, showing us the various types of corn used in the construction of the dish. Two small bites were then made available for each of us, along with a spread in the middle. The first was a soft cornbread with fried corn tassel threads atop, which we were instructed to dip into the spread in the center, a fermented corn butter. Alongside was a finger of cornbread brioche, topped with coarsely ground red and white corn.
The cornbread with the fermented corn butter was one of the simplest, most magnificent flavors I have ever had the honor to enjoy. Rich, nutty, and incredibly complex, with a salty acidity from the fermentation of the corn in the butter, it made all of us say, almost simultaneously, some permutation of “Are you fucking kidding me?” The corn brioche was also very good, but was an afterthought compared to the first bite. I found myself enjoying the last of the corn butter with every vehicle I could, from my knife to my index finger, so I didn’t waste a molecule of it.
IV: The Heights (4200 meters above sea level) – ocas, amaranth, mashwa
The two most quintessential Peruvian crops, back-to-back. Potatoes were cultivated by pre-Columbian indigenous societies for centuries, but it was the Inca, with their masterful agricultural experimentation, that were perhaps most responsible for the incredible biodiversity of the potatoes and their tuber relatives that this part of the world enjoys. A bowl of the tubers, called “ocas,” a relative of the potato, used to make the next course was brought out with the course.
The ecosystem before us was a creamy purée of the tuber with oca chips and crispy amaranth seeds, which grow in the same Andean heights, atop for a textural contrast. Really magnificent.
The potatoes were paired with a pinot noir from Marlborough in New Zealand, which was everything a pinot should be––silky, sexy, bright, and earthy. A perfect complement to the potatoes. I seem to have missed a photo of the wine served as part of the South America pairing, and alas, without it my memory fails me!
V: Low jungle (148 meters above sea level) – arapaima, yuca, mishkina
Sixty percent of Peru’s land mass consists of the Amazon Rainforest. As you might imagine, all manner of species of fish flourish in the Amazonian rivers and lagoons, including arapaima. A preserved body of arapaima was brought out with the course, which consisted of arapaima meat, thinly sliced and fried yuca (a potato-like starch), dried quinoa leaf, a savory powder of dehydrated and spiced arapaima, and jungle pork for some extra smoke and umami. Delicious.
Two funkier wines were brought out to complement the saline elements in the arapaima powder and the pork. The first was a dry white from Jurançon, a peculiar region in France known for its unique grapes and funky, almost salty wines. Peru’s wines are often experimental, like Chile’s, and use natural wine styles, and this skin-contact wine made from pisco grapes was an interesting, though controversial among the three of us, pairing with the course.
VI: Coast of the cold sea (0 meters above sea level) – squid, loche pumpkin, yuyo seaweed
Loche squash, with their green skins and yellow flesh, grow along the northern coasts of Peru. Chef paired a purée and ribbon of these pumpkins with some grilled squid, as well as a beguiling blue foam made from seaweed from the same ecosystem. The pumpkin had a lovely sweetness to it, while the seaweed added some saline elements and the grilled squid some smoke. Really delicious.
They paired this with a white from Portugal as well as a bubbly made in a traditional Champenoise style from Chile. I actually preferred the bubbly with the squid, which had a nice toastiness to it that complemented the smoke from the grill.
VII: Mil lab (3600 meters above sea level) – Mil potatoes, cushuro, egg, lamb
Really interesting dish here, returning to the agriculture and ingredients of the Andes––a colorful crumble of potatoes grown at Chef Virgilio's culinary "lab" and restaurant in the Sacred Valley outside Cusco (overlooking the terraces of the agricultural laboratory of the Inca, Moray) was the textural and visual component atop, as well as what has been called "the caviar of the Andes," a spherical algae that grows in the creeks and rivers of the Andes called cushuro, which has been prized for centuries for its health benefits and incredible amount of nutrients. Egg and a potato foam also covered a bit of braised lamb to complete the dish.
I was happy to see nebbiolo as one of the next pairings! Piedmont reds without village designations are mostly nebbiolo, and for the Italians are "the best kept secret" of this region, since they escape the price markups of Barolo and Barbaresco. Cherry to its core, with some grip and soil, it worked perfectly with the lamb dish. They also paired this with a beer that comes from Cusco for the South American pairing, which I failed to photograph. Oops.
Jo got a version of the dish that just had the lamb removed, which was pretty disappointing––seems they could have replaced it with something substantial on the pescatarian version of the menu. Perhaps the other ingredients were more the point!
VIII: Amazonian waters V.02 (190 meters above sea level) – Pacú, watermelon, lulo
I was hoping I'd get to chow down on some piranha while in Peru, so when they brought out this dehydrated fish head, I was excited!
Turns out this is not, in fact, a piranha, but rather a relative of the piranha called pacú. These fish are actually invasive in the US and have been causing a lot of alarm when people buy them for their aquariums and then release them into rivers and streams. But in South America, they are a standard Amazonian fish for consumption. This one consisted of two dishes––one that was slices of the fish simply prepared with a citrus fruit called lulo and watermelon, and another that I keep looking at and for the life of me can't remember. An interesting but (apparently!) not very memorable dish in the context of the rest of the meal, besides the dehydrated fish head staring at us with those human-like teeth for a few minutes!
IX: Andean forest (2465 meters above sea level) – Beef, chaco clay, arracacha root
Beef cheeks seem to be popular in Peruvian food, and the final savory course at Central featured them as a protein. The more interesting components, however, were some other Andean ingredients, one of which was, well, dirt. Yep kids, I ate dirt. And at a restaurant that cost me $200. Chaco clay has actually been served with potatoes in the Andes for centuries, and was believed by the people to extract impurities and harmful characteristic from the bitter potatoes that are grown at this altitude. Indeed, these bitter potatoes combined with this clay are not bitter, but nutty and delicious, and while their naked form can cause stomach pains and cramps, the clay extracts the chemicals that cause these symptoms. A recent study done with this clay confirmed what the Andean peoples have known for centuries––a little dirt is all you need to cure a sick stomach.
Arracacha root is not one of these bitter potatoes, but instead a root vegetable similar to celery root, with a bit more sweetness, that is consumed all across Latin America and grows in the forests of the Andes. The root was combined with clay for the purée that complemented the beef, a fascinating homage to indigenous food and medicinal practices, and a wonderful way to close the savory courses. Jo's pescatarian dish was, sadly, a misfire, and though they actually gave her an alternative dish this time made with fish as the protein, it wasn't nearly as thoughtful or delicious as the beef. Perhaps the only blindspot in Central's food is the way they handled the pescatarian dishes.
Red wine was on the docket for the beef, naturally, and I was happy to see one of my absolute favorite producers––Lopez Heredia––represented. This was one of their mid-range tempranillos from Rioja in Spain, and had the same brambly, leathery character I love in their wines, with the finesse that only comes with the age at which they release them. The South American wine was an interesting one––Uruguay, on the east coast of the country, has been quietly building a reputation as a rockstar producer of the inky French grape Tannat, and this reserve version from 2013 was spectacular, with the age to mellow the brooding grape. Most Tannat is still a bit too foreboding for me to pair with food, and tends to swallow up what it's paired with, so I was happy to lean toward the Heredia when pairing with the beef, but I was glad to try such a standout version of this up-and-coming grape.
X: Dry forest (150 meters above sea level) – Algarrobo, coconut, sweet cucumber
In Peru, the arid tropical forests on the dryer west side of the Andes contain some of the most quintessential "tropical" crops, including the coconut. This dish had a lot of coconut to it, from the coconut custard topped with coconut meringue to being the dish that served the other components. In one half of the coconut was a sweet cucumber granita. The other half housed another sort of sticky gel from the coconut that I can't remember much about, but which we were supposed to put on top of the granita. Somewhere in this "ecosystem" was the fruit from the carob tree, which also grows in these dry forests. Georgia loves coconut, so this dish was a particular hit for her.
Spätlese Riesling is sweeter than the Kabinett Rieslings that make up much of Germany's exports, and this one had a lovely semi-sweet profile and was teeming with green apple. Fittingly, a semi-sweet cider was the South American pairing, also called "Mater" and from the Ica and Mala Valleys south of Lima. Delicious, and far more interesting than the Riesling, to my mind!
After this course, Chef Virgilio himself came to speak with us for a while, and to wish Georgia happy birthday, and we were amazed by the unassuming humility and general chill of one of the best chefs in the world. We got the chance to take a photo with him, but the wide angle lens was rather unkind to me in my alpaca sweater!
XI: Cacao chuncho (1800 meters above sea level)
One of my favorite movements sweeping the more progressive fringes of the culinary world right now is the desire to use the entirety of an ingredient rather than just part of it. Plants and animals alike have become the subject of this movement, with a desire to minimize the amount of edible matter that is thrown away and wasted rather than consumed. Chef Virgilio took this concept to heirloom chuncho cacao that has been grown for centuries in the Urubamba Valley just under the towering cliffs of Machu Picchu. Here, he presents not just a ganache of the sought-after beans and a cup of hot chocolate, but many different components of the cacao pod you'd never think to eat––the seeds, shells, and even the mucilage, a gelatinous substance around the beans and seeds that comprises some 5 to 7 percent of the pod's weight. The mucilage had an almost minty flavor, which you can imagine was an awesome flavor combo with the preparations of the cacao beans! So cool!
They also brought Georgia a little chocolate cake with a candle for her birthday, which was a nice touch!
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This was among the more spectacular meals I have ever had the chance to enjoy. Each dish was delicious, and some transcendental, and the idea of having the "flavor" of a single ecosystem in one bite is pretty mind-blowing. Chef Virgilio has taken altitude, perhaps the most important determinant of what types of ingredients flourish, and used it to demonstrate the vast culinary heritage of his home country. He is a visionary, almost to the point that his understanding of the food could never be comprehended by others. But that's the thing that makes Central so magical––it is a peek into something far more grandiose than our human palates can understand, through the mind of one of the most inventive chefs in the world.
You should absolutely have Lima at the top of your bucket list if you are a lover of food. I believe this may be one of the most important food cities in the world, and you can sample so much of what is exciting here in a single trip while spending a mere fraction of what you would have to spend to have an analogous culinary experience in almost any other major city. I, for one, will be back as soon as I can to see what Chef Virgilio and the dozens of other talented chefs are up to, and Central will be at the top of my list once again.