06 Nov In heaven: the tasting menu at Central in Lima
I flew across an ocean and a continent to eat at Central, eight years before it was named as the World’s Best Restaurant in 2023. I could have told you back then that it was. The experience was worth every single penny and every single minute of my journey.
The restaurant’s world-famous chef Virgilio Martínez (right in the featured picture) takes diners on a gastronomic tour of the diverse ecosystems of his home country Peru, from Pacific coastal shores to the high Andes and the depths of the Amazon jungle.
So this was my experience, back in 2015, when I ordered the Alturas Mater Tasting Menu of 16 courses. Fast forward to 2023, and Central still has a similar menu, and the concept is still the same.
Alturas Mater Tasting Menu
Central’s Alturas Mater Tasting Menu is made up of 16 courses. The produce is grown, foraged or raised from altitudes starting at 20 metres below sea level and rising to 4,100 metres, so that’s up to 13,500 feet. Like the Incas, Virgilio perceives land on a vertical rather than a horizontal plane.
I was so overwhelmed by the experience that, once the last course was finished and a few final chats ended, I took a taxi back to where I was staying, retreated to my bed, at 4.30 in the afternoon, and did not surface again until 8 the next morning. I needed to ‘integrate’ the experience, as my kundalini yoga teacher would say.
Central occupies a modern building in a quiet street in the Barranco district of Lima, a few minutes’ walk from the seafront. It even has its own rooftop garden for herbs and spices.
It is from here that Virgilio leads the Mater Iniciativa, with a team of researchers travelling around Peru collecting from the country’s ecosystems, among the most diverse in the world. “The actions of Mater influence the soul of Central,” I read. This is an initiative that is not just culinary but also anthropological.
Central’s passion for detail
The passion at Central – and it breathes passion – is not just about the food and the produce; it’s also about getting every detail right … the service, the colours, the design, the stories, the music, the note of fun. Even the water is not left to chance: it is bottled on-site, filtered, ozonated and purified using reverse osmosis.
What’s more, Virgilio himself was at the restaurant that day. He came to greet me at my table, I turned into a blithering mess, hardly able to talk Spanish. His looks reminded me of Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, which made me even more weak at the knees. Never have I met a chef so approachable, so open… and with such a full agenda (although at that time, Kol Restaurant in London, with Santiago Lastra was yet to open).
Visit from Tokyo’s Den
Central acts as a place of pilgrimage for other chefs from around the world to come and see what the buzz is about. That day was the turn of Zaiyu Hasegawa of Tokyo’s Den restaurant, which won the One To Watch Award 2016 organised by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Zaiyu is famed not only for the quality of his cuisine but also for putting “the fun into fine dining”. Below are the two from Den having a lot of fun at Central.
Now for what I ate…
The price of the Alturas Master menu was S/398 or £94/US$118. (Yes, I know, the price has tripled since then, but this is a priceless experience.)
I started with a Pisco Italia cocktail, with basil and tumbo, otherwise known as banana passion fruit.
Then came, each course with its own title and story … a word of warning: you don’t eat everything you see in the pictures.
River Cotton… with pacay (from the Inga feuillei or ice-cream bean tree), shrimp, nut, huito (or Genipa americana, a type of fruit from the rainforest) … all produce from 140 metres below sea level (MBSL).
Desert Plants … huarango (American carob), yellow chili, onion, mamey (fruit) 230 metres above sea level (MASL)
Spiders on a Rock… sargassum (seaweed), mussels, crab, limpet 5 MBSL
Diversity of Corn… corn, ginger, honey, tumbo (banana passion fruit) 2,010 MASL
Jungle Scales… river snails, gamitana (freshwater fish), turmeric, sangre de arból (a red latex from the bark of a tree – often used for medicinal purposes) 230 MASL
Andean Plateau … tunta (type of freeze-dried potato), tarwi (a type of lupin), coca leaves, cancha corn 3,800 MASL
Here I must say something about coca. We in Europe are funny about coca leaves. I could not bring any back to the UK, and neither can you to the US, even though coffee has more of an effect on me than coca leaves.
In my bid to fight off altitude sickness, I had chewed lots as I climbed Mount Salkantay, in the Andes. In the hotel, I had coca leaf tea in the morning. At Central, the coca bread lay on a bed of coca leaves. And, no, I did not put them in a bag and take them home.
Marine Soil… pepino, sweet lemon, razor clams, starflower 20 MBSL
Tree Skins… avocado, huacatay (Tagetes minuta in Latin, and sometimes called Peruvian black mint), kiwicha (otherwise known as Love-Lies-Bleeding and seen in gardens in the UK, and an ancient superfood in Peru), macre (a type of squash) 2,300 MASL
Half way through the 16 courses
Extreme Stems… oca (also known as New Zealand yam), olluco (a root vegetable), mashwa (another tuber), elderberry 4,100 MASL
Colors of Amazonia… paiche (type of Amazonian fish), sachapapa (a type of yam), pijuayo and ungurahui (both types of palm trees) 450M
Harvest and Collection… lettuce, scallops, sweet potato leaf, stevia (usually used as a sugar substitute) 50 MASL
Close Fishing… octopus, yuyo (a type of seaweed), barquillo (a type of wafer), squid 10 MBSL
Here I switched from my cocktail to a glass of Quebrada de Ihaunco. This is a red wine made from the Quebrada grape, brought over by the Spaniards and now hardly heard of in Europe. In Peru, they use it to make pisco.
It went perfectly with the food. Usually I find in the more equatorial countries of Latin America that it is hard to find a wine that matches the vibrant tastes of the region.
Low Andes Mountains… quinoas, beef, airampo (prickly purple pear), muña (often used to make tea in Peru, and with a wide array of medicinal properties) 1,800M
Chirimoya & maize drink
Now came a glass of Chirimoya (custard apple) and Maize. It tasted divine, and perfect for the food, but by this time I had stopped asking questions… I just enjoyed.
Amazonian Rainforest… cocona (an Amazonian fruit), pitahaya (another fruit), lemongrass, rose apple 650 MASL
Moving to a sweeter note
And then came some European wine… a dessert Riesling. Perfect.
Medicinals & Plant Dyes… congona (I never found out what that was), matico (spiked pepper), malva (mallow), pilipili (a pepper) 3,050 MASL
The book to go with the meal
As I was preparing to leave, the gave me a little present – a slim, handmade book published by Central. The pages were devoted to 9 plants from Peru, with their seeds and leaves embossed onto the pages. A book to keep for life.
And for plant geeks like me, the 9 plants are: Sargazo (Macrosystis pyrifera), Tumbo (Passiflora mollisima), Algarrobo (Prosopis pallida), Mashwa (Tropaeolum tuberosum), Coca (Erythroxylum coca) , Tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis), Flor de Papa (Solanum tuberosum), Flor de Cacao (Theobroma cacao) and Achiote (Bixa orellana).
Would I go back? Of course! And now the Central ecosystem itself has spread, to open Kjolle in Lima and Mil, at the Central Food Lab & Interpretation Center at 3,568 metres in the mountains, some 53 km (500 miles) northwest of Cusco. This is one life experience that will stay with me until the pearly gates, and beyond.
This post was updated on 22 June 2023. Discover my other posts on Peru.