27 November 2018

At Central Restaurante, a 16-Course Adventure across Peru

It goes without saying that if you want to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, you need to book your trip a long time in advance. But there was another activity on my Peru to-do list that required a long lead time: dining at Central in Lima. Currently ranked number six on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, Virgilio Martínez's fêted restaurant, which applies modern techniques to Peruvian ingredients, has long been on my radar and my interest was further piqued by an episode of Chef's Table. I have high expectations, and the experience exceeds them, delighting my senses and taking me on a journey through the ecosystems of Peru that sets the stage for the rest of my holiday.

One morning six weeks before my arrival in Lima, I set the alarm for 6 am. Central bookings for September go live at midnight Peru time on 30 July and although I'm not sure my early start is necessary, it's worth it when I know I've secured a spot in the main restaurant at 8 pm. I check back on the website later in the day and the restaurant is fully booked on both of the evenings I will be in Lima so I feel vindicated.

I am booked in for dinner on my second night in Lima, a Saturday night. I try to eat carefully all day, worried I'll get sick — or ruin my appetite. The restaurant is located in the Barranco neighbourhood, about a three-mile journey from my hotel in Miraflores. I decide to walk to help me work up an appetite for my 16-course Mater Elevations tasting menu; I take an Uber home at the end of the night.

It's dark when I arrive and I'm guided through an attractive garden into the restaurant. I worry that as a lone diner, I will stick out like a sore thumb amid various romantic dates, celebrations and business dinners, but every member of staff is incredibly welcoming. I am seated at a table next to the kitchen and I can watch the staff at work through a large window. The table itself, as you will see in my photos, is a work of art, and there is enough space between the tables to allow a little privacy in the spacious, attractive room.

My first task is to choose a drink. There are wine and non-alcoholic pairing menus, but I start with a cocktail, the tart and fruity Selvático, which combines Amazonian Gin Company gin, kaffir lime and sacha cilantro. Like everything else I come to consume during the meal, it is delicious and beautifully presented. Later in the meal, I order the Arriba, which blends rum from northern Peru with cacao, lime from the Piura region and a tropical fruit called the mamey. It too jumps way up in my all-time list of best cocktails.

My waiter presents me with a circular menu, around which descriptions of the 16 courses wind in a spiral pattern. The text only hints at the complexity of each course, providing a name for the elevation — each course represents a different Peruvian elevation or altura — and a few ingredients, many of which aren't familiar to me. I have brought a notebook with me and I try to jot down as much as I can of the descriptions the wait staff serve up. And in case you are worried about making a food faux pas, each course arrives with exactly the right cutlery and/or tools — and instructions for how, and in which order, to eat each element.

Take dish number one, for example: red rocks, featuring percebes (goose barnacles) and clams from 10 metres below sea level. The waiter tells me to eat the orange clam with an edible flower on top with my fingers, and then use the stone spatula to add the barnacles to the crunchy wafer in the third bowl. The molluscs are fresh and taste exactly of the sea.

Another trio awaits me in course number two, edge of the desert. We've jumped to 180 metres above sea level, and the first bite is of what looks like a fuchsia piece of Turkish delight but is in fact a type of microalgae called sargassum, with cactus. Next, I eat the thinnest sweet potato leaf crisps, and finally, using the spoon, the beautifully creamy sea urchin.

The dish entitled dark purple root is perhaps the most diverse of the meal. The intricate maroon rose is made of mashua, an Andean root vegetable; it is simultaneously tart and creamy. The little tortilla tastes like a Weetabix with foie gras inside, although it's made of Chijchipa leaves with a sinfully rich mashua butter. The third vessel contains a few mouthfuls of duck tartare.

We skip down again to 106 metres for the forest cotton. The vibrant pink and purple morsel is river fish, and it is followed by a chaser of black bean broth, which is so smooth it reminds me of Coca Cola. The white bite is the cotton: it is soft and sweet, just as I expect, although there is a tanginess too.

The next course, jungle highlands, consists of two 'breads' made from the dale dale root. They are identical except that one (on the left) is prepared with ash, and one without. The former is served with a rich tree tomato butter and the latter with a butter flavoured with a cacao relative. The butters are the creamiest I've ever had, and much as I've been enjoying my tasting menu, I could have been persuaded to swap out a few courses for more of this bread and butter.

The courses start to get bigger now, with number six, ocean floor, being one of my favourites: scallop is paired with sweet cucumber (which reminds me of melon) and seaweed. The coastal foothills that comes next surprises and delights too. The central ingredient is a tuber called oca, and the dish includes elements that are crispy, salty and creamy, but there's also an unexpected passion fruit sauce.

It is almost inevitable that quinoa will appear on the menu in some form, and it's actually the grain's smaller, crunchier cousin kañiwa that pops up alongside the avocado and river shrimp in my foray into the high valley. This is followed by the only underwhelming item on the menu: the miniature 'jacket potato' served with a tangy green dipping sauce, which makes up the plant dyes of moray course. The sauce is nice but the tuber is a little dry. But I've already moved on because...eek: it's the piranha course (Amazonian waters)! Fortunately, the playful, piranha-head presentation is just for show and I only have to eat the sliver of crispy piranha skin with yucca root.

These vibrant colours fade to monochrome for the next course, jungle plains. The black and white foam contains Amazonian langoustines, cured meat and bellaco plantains. Foam also features in the next dish, deep sea coral, which is one of the prettiest courses. I have crockery envy for most of the evening, but particularly with these blue green dishes that coordinate so well with the squid and octopus foam, served with crispy sea lettuce (which tastes like nori).

"Now it's time for your main course," the waiter tells me. I chuckle. Although Andean slopes is the biggest dish of the night, it is also course number 13, and thus not exactly a classic definition of main course. I am treated to slow cooked baby goat, served with goat milk 'parmesan', and pink and yellow olluco root potatoes. I would never normally have ordered a dish like this but it is really good: the meat incredibly tender and flavoursome.

And then, it's dessert time. This is my kind of dessert menu, it turns out, because I get three. Amber woods, with yacón root, chestnut cream, a thin coffee biscuit and a slice of wrinkled lemon is first up; I am not usually fond of coffee-flavoured desserts, but it's hard to fault the combination of flavours in this dish. Hot on its heels is the cooling mountain rain, one of the most creative dishes on the menu. It comprises a super-intense cacao ice cream with a verdant matcha-like powder made from coca leaves and edible clay; a clear jelly represents the titular rain. This is so unusual and utterly delicious, although the cacao is so rich, I don't think I could have eaten any more. Finally, I drink the mil medicinal: an infusion containing jelly-bead-like microalgae. This is accompanied with a delicate wedge of 75% chocolate that contains the 'superfood' maca.

At the end of the meal, my waiter presents me with a lovely souvenir: a collection of illustrations and pressed flowers and leaves inspired by the ingredients on the menu. Then, it's time to settle up. My bill comes to about 650 PEN (about £150), including the tasting menu and two cocktails. Although tipping isn't especially common in Peru, I am happy to leave a tip here given the exceptional service. It is not a cheap meal but the quality of the food, the creativity of the menu and, indeed, the journey Virgilio Martínez has taken me on around the country of which he is so proud, make it extremely good value and an unforgettable experience. I have learned a lot about the country, its lands and its food. I have challenged myself to eat outside my comfort zone, and I feel as though I have eaten not just the rainbow but the whole Pantone colour system.

Suffice to say, I would highly recommend factoring a trip to Central into any Peruvian itinerary. It was a wonderful way to start my holiday and it was a meal that I will remember for years to come.

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