Maz – Tokyo, Japan
Virgilio Martínez was just 31 when he took his Cordon Bleu training and line cooking experience back to his native Peru with a goal of starting his own restaurant and upending the Latin American fine dining world. Fifteen years later, Central, his baby, has catapulted itself to serious international recognition––it is considered by some to be the best restaurant in the world, and has reached culinary heights few thought would be possible. The critical acclaim and recognition has paid serious dividends for Chef and also for Peruvian cuisine––Martínez's research on indigenous foodways of pre-Columbian peoples in Peru is more robust than ever, and he now has restaurants in Lima, London, Dubai, and, most recently, Tokyo, possibly the most important hub for food in the world.
Peru has a fascinating culinary history––centuries of indigenous foodways became supplanted in the colonial era by traditions imported by the Spanish. But that's not where Peru's cross-cultural history ends. Enslaved peoples from West Africa brought rice- and legume-based recipes. Then, a steady stream of Chinese and Japanese immigrants seeking work in booming natural resources sectors in the 19th century in Peru fused their cuisines indelibly with indigenous and Spanish traditions––there's even an entire sub-genre of Peruvian food called "Chifa," a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian fare, as well as "Nikkei," a similar fusion of Japanese and Peruvian foodways.
Peru also boasts breathtaking biodiversity for a country of its size, and the most important contributor is the youthful Andes mountain range, which provides dramatic shifts in altitude that create remarkably divergent climates for various crops and wild ingredients. From the Pacific-adjacent deserts, to fertile mountain valleys reaching in excess of 10,000 feet in altitude, to the plant- and animal-rich damp lowlands of the Amazon rainforest, Peru's sheer breadth of microclimates is perhaps unparalleled for a country its size.
Virgilio's Cusco-based project with his sister Marlena, Mater Iniciativa, works tirelessly to discover and cultivate indigenous ingredients from all over the country and explore the most distant margins of the land's staggering biodiversity in the name of research, cultural preservation, and creating new delicious things for diners at his and his wife Pia León's restaurants. Their motto is "Afuero hay mas," or roughly "there's more out there," and they are constantly seeking new ingredients and culinary traditions to cultivate and bring to diners at their restaurants.
Today, Lima, remarkably, is perhaps the most important food destination in the Americas. In the last few decades, Peruvian chefs like Gastón Acurio and the Peruvian government have made serious efforts at elevating the status of Peruvian foodways, particularly indigenous ingredients, in the international conversation, but perhaps no chef has been as important as Martínez for planting Peru's flag firmly at the pinnacle of the highest echelons of food culture the world over.
It is poetic that Peru should return to Japan via Virgilio's latest project, Maz, given the profound mark the foodways of Japanese immigrants left on Peruvian food and culture. Latin American cuisines are so rare in Japan, even in sprawling and cosmopolitan Tokyo, that you'd be hard pressed to find even a handful of notable spots serving them. Consequently, and on the heels of Virgilio's Lima flagship being named the best restaurant in the world, Maz has taken Tokyo's culinary world by storm.
Given that sister-Maestro Georgia and I were lucky enough to dine at Central together when we were in Lima a few summers back, we decided to check out how Virgilio's vision worked thousands of miles west across the Pacific––as a bonus, this was Mom's surprise birthday trip, and we wanted her to see what all the fuss was about!
Much like Central, a menu at Maz, helmed by Martínez acolyte and right-hand man, Santiago Fernandez, is an exploration of different altitudes, from which each course is constructed as an entire "vertical world" or "ecosystem." At Central, for example, you might start with a course labeled "15 Meters below Sea Level," and eat only things that can be found in a single ecosystem at that altitude below the sea off Peru's Pacific coast––think seaweeds, crab, and the like––and climb to "4000 Meters above Sea Level" for a course of indigenous Peruvian potatoes, quinoa, blue-green river algae, and even clay from Andean mountain valleys.
At the Japanese project, 80% of the ingredients come from Japan, but each course still represents an ecosystem tied to an altitude in Peru, a fascinating play on the precise types of ingredient and cultural fusions that make Peruvian cuisine so unique and special.
In fact, when you make your way into the compact dining room cleverly concealed behind a stone wall in the middle of a shopping complex in Akasaka, the first thing you encounter is a stone table with inlays containing all of the Peruvian ingredients you'll be tasting. But unlike a similar table at Central, the ingredients here are more limited––it's clear that Japanese ingredients are the paints for the canvas, the same way that Peruvian ingredients were adapted to Japanese foodways for migrants to Peru centuries prior.
Among the ingredients are freeze-dried sweet potatoes from the Andes, "Mil Moray" corn from the Sacred Valley near Cusco, and achiote seed pods which the Peruvians use for dye and also as a spice. The host explained each ingredient's provenance and indicated that each would make an appearance at some point in our meal.
Central's space in Lima is a veritable compound with multiple rooms, courtyards, and a sprawling yard. In Toyko, the space houses maybe 25 covers and is windowless, completely covered in dark paint and stone with atmospheric lighting. It makes it very easy to abstract from the bustling metropolis around you and place yourself directly within the ecosystem each dish represents, even though they are nearly 10,000 miles distant.
Awaiting at our table were a menu, napkin, water glass, and a charger made in Peru by indigenous artists and sent over by Virgilio's team. Throughout the meal we would be presented with what can only be described as works of art to form various place settings, house food, or offer utensils, all curated by the team in Lima. Some of them were nothing short of breathtaking, and this charger was no exception.
And look at these two other lovely people at my table!
Our Dutch sommelier greeted us and we quickly made clear we all intended to enjoy the beverage pairing with dinner. Soon after, our utensils for the next course were presented on a sculpture resembling what can best be described as a melted brick, and the first of our "textures" were placed at our table––these were little cards with a visual texture that was meant to transport us to the ecosystem that was the focus of the dish. A cool, unique angle to the menu.
I: Cold Rocks (2 meters below sea level)
Just off the southern Peruvian coast, both above and below the sea, depending on the tides, the craggy shore houses an abundance of hardy sea life thriving together in a single ecosystem. To evoke this little world, the staff brought out two small bites and a more substantial helping, all containing shellfish you might find nestled amongst the wave-battered rocks. Resting on a dish made from barnacle shells were amorphous crisps bearing sliced flesh of barnacles and thin slices of cactus leaves, which are some of the few only land plants that grow in that environment.
On a presentation of a rugged rock were tiny fried crabs topped with hairy crab meat from Hokkaido and edible flowers. Stunning.
The focus of the ecosystem, however, was mussels. Japanese mussels were prepared in an absurdly luscious aji amarillo pepper sauce and topped with shaved frozen compressed mussels, a temperature contrast meant to evoke the chill of the environment, and sea grapes. I can't think of a more successful opening to a meal in recent memory.
The beverage program includes more than just wine, which I appreciate––Mater Iniciativa worked with apple growers and producers from the Peruvian coast to create a cider made in a classic, semi-dry, slightly funky style which complemented the shellfish beautifully. My god, what a course.
II: Desertic Coasts (185 meters above sea level)
The next course celebrated the desert coasts of the environs around Lima, where the cliffs drop precipitously from hundreds of feet to the shore. In these environments, shellfish such as shrimp thrive, and pumpkins are one of few cultivatable vegetables because of their ability to hold water. Within one such pumpkin, but this one sourced from Hokkaido, was botan ebi, or spot prawns, also from Hokkaido, cooked in a sauce made from the heads and topped with pumpkin foam and powder. The sauce was heady (lol) and powerful, with intense salinity and umami, and while delicious, I wished the dish offered some acid to provide a contrast.
The pumpkin toast served alongside also had shrimp, this time tiny shiro ebi from Hokkaido, and a pickled pumpkin relish that would have provided the perfect foil to the main dish. Still, a wonderful course.
Marrying “old and new” varietals, a semillon-torontel blend from Chile provided an intensely aromatic swig to provide a bit of respite from the concentration of the prawn sauce. Delicious and much needed.
III: Water Current (10 meters below sea level)
Chef Santiago made his first appearance at our table to present the next dish, which was so beautiful in presentation it felt shameful to eat. Chef explained that scallops thrive in the brackish, flowing waters in mangrove estuaries off the northern coast of Peru, as well as salmon who swim upstream through these mangroves to spawn.
Hokkadio scallops were cooked in a scallop reduction and laid atop was a thicker sheet of the sauce ornamented by salmon roe. Spirulina further decorated the sheet atop to evoke the flow of water. The dish was as delicious as it was beautiful––it captured brilliantly the pure, sweet essence of scallop with slight salinity from the ikura, and I'm convinced the visual component of the "flowing" spirulina assisted in transporting my palate to the ecosystem. Among the most successful dishes I've enjoyed in years.
A natural rosé from producer Canopus in the Uco Valley of Argentina paired with the scallop dish. Called "Subversivo," and complete with a capsule that read "stop making stupid people famous," the rosé was made from pinot and fermented three different ways in order to capture a spectrum of flavors ranging from saline to tart. Perfect with the sweet salinity of the scallop.
IV: Andean Mountain Range (3800 meters above sea level)
Beef cheeks are a common ingredient in Peru, and take on a lip smacking, melty texture when slow cooked. Braised with mushrooms and choclo corn, which Georgia and I called "big corn" when we were in Peru owing to its massive kernel size, the beef cheeks were topped with mushroom straws and egg yolk "strings." Not the most elegant presentation, but the flavors were, once again, superlative.
The winner of the course, however, was a maca root toast topped with thinly shaved matsutake mushrooms, a seasonal delicacy in Japan. The bread had a crispy exterior that gave way to a moist, nutty crumb inside, and the matsutakes sailed with umami and a whisper of pine atop the richness of the maca root.
Red wine was the pairing, a blend called "Pencopolitano" from hands-off producer Pedro Parra, a self-taught winemaker who holds a terminal degree in geology, making him an expert in soil types. Cinsault, carmenère, carignane, and país make up the blend, resulting in a brooding, complex wine with particular salinity.
V: Fresh Water (225 meters above sea level)
Perhaps the most remarkable ecosystem in Peru is the Amazon rainforest, a dramatic ecological foil to the deserts of the coasts and mountains, but less than two hours’ distance by plane. A meal at Central will routinely feature an Amazonian river fish, like pacu or even piranha, but this dish paid homage to the massive, scaly arapaima. The dehydrated tail of the arapaima was the rest for our utensils, and the texture swatch and placemat was a piece of arapaima leather.
Of course, there aren’t many arapaima in Japan, so they use rainbow trout, covering the meat in a very thin layer of persimmons and topping with dollops of caviar. Chef Santiago brought out a sauce made from physalis, or goldenberries, spiced with bright red achiote oil, and poured it alongside the fish from yet another stunning earthenware vessel. As with all that came before, the flavors were spectacular.
The beverage pairing was also particularly excellent––using a sort of Amazonian botanical spirit made much like a gin, the beverage team had created a cocktail with a tea of quince and asmunth flower combined with the spirit. Inspired.
VI: Deep Sea (15 meters below sea level)
Returning to the sea, this time a few kilometers off the coast in the deeper parts of the Pacific, two preparations of cephalopods which thrive in these waters came next. The first was a sort of gougère of octopus ink and liver, a rarely used part of the animal, perched on a whole octopus turned to stone through dehydration. I wanted to like this more than I did.
The second component, meanwhile, was among the highlights of the evening. Grilled pieces of cuttlefish were presented, again, in a bowl with an accompanying sauce, and beautiful lobes of Hokkaido uni provided a characteristic sweet essence of the sea. Atop was a lattice “net” made from rice and colored by algae. The cuttlefish and sauce alone would have constituted a superb course, but the addition of the uni elevated the dish significantly.
I will say that if I have one criticism for this place, it’s that two thirds of the courses were presented in much the same way, with the primary ingredient and an accompanying sauce in a bowl, and while I loved the flavors in all these dishes, some variation in medium might have spiced things up a bit.
A high-elevation chardonnay from Catena Zapata was the pairing, saving a few old vine rows from two of the producer's highest vineyards in Mendoza, resulting in a chardonnay with lovely acidity and serious concentration. Georgia declared it was her favorite wine of all time.
VII: High meadow (3260 meters above sea level)
In the Andean meadows surrounding the sacred valley, goats are a widely cultivated protein source. Andean grains, such as quinoa and amaranth, also play a significant role in this "vertical world." But the most important story of the course came from the tradition of choclo clay to slow-roast various proteins and vegetables, a method that dates back centuries among the peasants and farmers of these fertile Andean valleys.
Huatia ovens are a critical food preparation of farmers from the Andes––needing a makeshift mechanism to prepare tubers and other foods while the worked the fields, they made makeshift ovens from local clay and heated them over open fires. The team at Maz cooks a local abalone mushroom in the huatia and breaks the clay open at the table, instructing us to dip slices of the fungus in a spectacular sauce made from Andean herbs like huacatay. The sauce was magical while the mushroom on its own wasn't particularly flavorful. But the story was wonderful.
Meanwhile, the goat dish contained the braised flesh of the goat as well as a crisp wafer of dehydrated goat milk from the same Japanese farm. Amaranth was part of the sauce, a critical Andean grain. While the goat wasn't anything particularly remarkable, the goat milk provided a wonderfully tangy, slightly funky foil to the rich goat meat, and dashes of the Andean herb sauce elevated bites not just of the mushroom, but the main dish as well.
Cabernet Franc from Chile paired with the goat, from Garage Wine Co., paying homage to the origin of the winery's work in the garage of their winemaker. With some earthiness and vegetal notes, it worked quite well with the course.
VIII: Jungle Slopes (1890 meters above sea level)
As the Andes cascade eastward and lose altitude into the Amazon jungle, new crop possibilities emerge unencumbered by the water constraints faced on the western slopes. Here tropical fruits like guava thrive, as well as various sweet potatoes.
I've never been visually compelled by the inclusion of "straws" or "strings" in Virgilio and acolytes' dishes, and this wasn't really an exception, with guava straws resembling supermarket candy more than a fine dining ingredient. Still, the flavors were fantastic––the tang of guava helped cut through a nutty and rich ginkgo and sweet potato sauce.
The star, however, and one of the best bites of the evening, was a helping of sweet potato brioche made from freeze-dried Andean yams served in the creamy milk of an Andean-Amazonian nut "rediscovered" by Mater Iniciativa, bahuaja.
I was particularly tickled by the pairing, which took the same Argentine pet nat rosé, but opened three days apart, for each of the two bites. The freshly opened bubbly had more effervescence and acid, while a bottle opened three days ago displayed more sweetness befitting of the sweet potato brioche. Really wild and inventive––a pairing concept I'd never encountered. The different glasses made it even more salient.
IX: Amazonia (750 meters above sea level)
Virgilio and team are famous for making various parts of the cacao plant, as well as its lesser known relatives, into a dessert. At Maz, this dessert has become famous among Japanese foodie circles, but at Central, a similar final dessert was presented in more complex form. Central and Mater Iniciativa retain their own indigenous-style chocolatier in Peru, and the centerpiece of the chocolate dessert was a fried chocolate dough with some of the most fantastic cacao you can possibly imagine.
Alongside, you find preparations of chocolate relatives, like brulée of copoazu, as well as atypical manifestations of otherwise discarded parts of the cacao seed, like the juice of the seed. The inventiveness, combined with an ethos seeking to minimize the waste from chocolate production, is truly something to behold, and taste!
The beverage to pair was a sort of amaro distilled from Andean herbs and grains, including cacao, for a lovely bitter counterpoint. I'm incredibly impressed by the diversity offered in their beverage program as well as the commitment to spirits that come directly from the communities represented in each dish.
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I left this experience with little ambivalence––this is the most successful meal, top to bottom, I've had in probably a decade.
Yes, that includes Noma, or Atelier Crenn, or Blue Hill at Stone Barns, or Benu.
I cannot think of cuisine I've enjoyed that is simultaneously so inventive and unique and also so perfectly executed. Even the "misses" weren't really misses, and the hits were so good it's hard to capture in words. I'd even endeavor to say my meal at Maz's big brother Central, currently ranked one of the best if not the best restaurant in the world, paled in comparison. There's something going on at Maz that is truly special, and I can understand why it's taken the culinary world in Tokyo by storm.
There is something so profound about the approach that the Central team uses––pairing ingredients that share ecosystems. It's almost as if these flavors transcend the chef's considerable talent; they're instead metaphysically bound to one another, meant to pair together and needing only to be balanced to achieve a perfect dance, much like the ecosystem itself. But somehow Chef Santiago and team have magnified Central's approach in such a way that achieves almost ineffable perfection. I don't know if it's the sourcing of these pristine Japanese ingredients, or the perfect calibration of each element in each "vertical world," but whatever is happening at Maz might make it the most exciting kitchen on Earth.
The supporting cast of elements, too, contributed brilliantly to the experience. The beverage program isn't about vintage grand cru Champagne or expensive bottles of Burgundy because it doesn't have to be; instead, every wine or spirit tells its own story that complements the food marvelously, both in flavor and concept. Even the glassware added something, with each wine being poured into a glass of a wildly different shape, almost all from different manufacturers.
To top it all off, the artistry of the presentation was unparalleled. The incorporation of the texture cards was inspired, assisting in transporting the diner to the ecosystem the course represented. But even more impressive were the various vehicles for utensils, like dried arapaima tail, or woven or earthenware sculptures crafted by Peruvian artists. No element was overlooked, and it works perfectly.
Tokyo's restaurants are notoriously impossible to visit due to the extraordinary numbers of people vying for reservations at mostly tiny restaurants. Head to Tokyo and get into Maz before it becomes one of those places that only luck will get you a table.
Maz was just the beginning, however, of an epic food and bev jaunt around Asia. Stay tuned for more!