Over the past few decades, Lima in Peru has experienced a restaurant boom and roughly 40,000 restaurants now call the city home. The likes of Chifas and Chinese-Peruvian fusion have brought local dishes like ceviche and quinoa into the limelight and Lima into a foodie heaven. At the pinnacle is the top restaurant in South America and fourth best in the world, Central – boasting a 17-course tasting menu that takes you on a journey through the different geographies of the country.
This in particular promises a culinary experience that easily ranks at the top of every gastronome’s “must-try” list.
Recently catalogued on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Central is chef Virgilio Martinez’s brainchild and his homage to his native land, Peru. The country is extremely geographically diverse, with different climates and ecosystems ranging from the Andes, the coastline, plains and the Amazon. The tasting menu aims to transport you to different parts of the country, playing with the concept of altitudes and the specific ingredients that hail from each region, culminating all of it onto your table. Each item is playfully titled to emulate the ecosystem it reflects and the restaurant-goer is teleported throughout Peru via both taste and knowledge of the altitude of where the ingredients come from.
Every detail at Central caters to ensure the spotlight stays on the food. The open kitchen, double level floorplan, marble tables and minimalistic décor delivers elegant simplicity at its finest, so that all your attention is on the presentation of the new course in front of you.
If you’re going to do a tasting menu and it’s not something you’re used to doing, you should be prepared for the fact that what you’re paying for is the experience of the chef’s creativity, and you’re not necessarily going to like every course. This is particularly applicable at Central, where Virgilio goes above and beyond to bring Peru to the table in all shapes and sizes, at some points genuinely shocking the patrons.
A peak into the dining experience…
The first seven plates can be described as appetizers or bites, then there are four mains followed by three desserts. There’s also a possibility to do an add-on wine pairing, which includes cocktails and beer in addition to wine. The core menu costs $180 and the wine pairing is an additional $80. It’s possible to notify the restaurant ahead of time letting them know if you have special dietary needs, and they will provide a custom menu for you. You definitely leave satiated but with any tasting menu, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so you’re not going to fill up immediately. The waiters do a good job of providing the initial plates in quick succession of one another, then leaving more breathing room between the later dishes.
I went as part of a birthday party celebration with 10 friends. Some of us opted to not partake in the wine pairing and just order wine a la carte, which was made easy by the restaurant, as I’ve been to some restaurants that are strict on having the full party partake in the alcohol pairings.
Each course is delivered with a presentation that was obviously meticulously prepared. The entire menu is adventurous, providing a variety of flavor profiles, from tangy, bitter to sweet.
My favourite plates from the selection include –
Course 1, “Rock Molluscs”
Starting off strong, the first plate was also probably my all-around favorite. The star of this appetizer is sea snails, which are cut up and eaten on an edible, airy barnacle. Buttery and tender snail on top of a crunch provided an impressive first bite.
Course 7, “High Jungle”
High Jungle, the last of the appetizer courses is one of those dishes where you wouldn’t have any idea as to what you’re eating just reading off the menu. Three of the four ingredients (Macambo, Cassava, Copoazu) were completely foreign to me, but it was absolutely delicious. One of the key components was what could only be described as a fruity fluff of marshmallow consistency, which proved to be irresistible, and we wanted to put it on everything.
Course 13, “Sea Coral”
A trifecta of octopus, crab and squid, topped with sea lettuce, Sea Coral was my favorite main course. Light and perfectly prepared octopus, it will certainly be a delight to any seafood lovers.
Course 16, “Amazonian White”
As mentioned before, it’s impossible that you’re going to love everything on a tasting menu. This particular dessert proved to be quite polarizing. While it was my favorite dessert, half of our table did not care for it. A mix of banana, coconut and rich chocolate flavors, it also won “most beautiful presentation” in my books. Presented on a pale green plate, the black and white ingredients on the plate stood out in contrast from each other and were adorned with edible flowers.
Most Exotic Bite – Course 5, “Waters of NayNay”
It’s difficult to beat eating something more exotic than piranha skin, served on top of piranha heads. This course definitely delighted us, in both a pleasant crunch of the skin and the playful presentation.
The overall opinion from our group was that Central was a great experience, and there were some unexpected touches like the ability to meet Virgilio himself, as well as tour the kitchen and garden. There was a lot to enjoy from both taste and sight; however, from a critical perspective, our group unanimously agreed that sometimes there was too much on the plate by means of presentation that was inedible, which proved distracting at times. Additionally, 17 courses is a lot. It definitely allows you to appreciate the chef’s creativity and feel his passion of his work come through on the table, but it is probably possible to deliver the same output with fewer courses overall.
Ultimately, I would recommend Central to anyone who loves culinary adventures and isn’t afraid of out of the box flavors. Please be advised that it’s recommended to make a reservation six weeks in advance of your visit due to the large demand.
Central is a way to sample Peru’s diversity on a deeper level, enriching your overall experience of the country. Virgilio is often present at the restaurant and will visit patrons to ensure they are having a good time at his restaurant, so the chance to meet him is a plus. This attitude, even from a high-profile chef as Virgilio, illustrates how Peruvian’s are – extremely welcoming, warm and humble. Compliments to the chef indeed.