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.

Mater Iniciativa

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.

Zaiyu Hasegawa, chef of Den in Tokyo, taking a selfie with the team at Central Restaurant, Lima

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.)

The Alturas Master tasting menu at Central Restaurant, Lima

I started with a Pisco Italia cocktail, with basil and tumbo, otherwise known as banana passion fruit.

Pisco Italia at Central Restaurant, Lima

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).

Alturas Master tasting menu, River Cotton, Central Restaurant, Lima

Desert Plants huarango (American carob), yellow chili, onion, mamey (fruit) 230 metres above sea level (MASL)

Alturas Master tasting menu, Desert Plants, Central Restaurant, Lima
Alturas Master tasting menu, Spiders on a Rock, Central Restaurant, Lima

Spiders on a Rock… sargassum (seaweed), mussels, crab, limpet 5 MBSL

Diversity of Corn… corn, ginger, honey, tumbo (banana passion fruit)  2,010 MASL

Alturas Master tasting menu, Diversity of Corn, Central Restaurant, Lima

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

Alturas Master tasting menu, Jungle Scales, Central Restaurant, Lima

Andean Plateautunta (type of freeze-dried potato), tarwi (a type of lupin), coca leaves, cancha corn  3,800 MASL

Alturas Master tasting menu, Andean Plateau, Central Restaurant, Lima

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.

Bread made from coca leaves, Alturas Master tasting menu, Central Restaurant, Lima

Marine Soil… pepino, sweet lemon, razor clams, starflower  20 MBSL

Alturas Master tasting menu, Marine Soil, Central Restaurant, Lima

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

Alturas Master tasting menu, Tree Skins, Central Restaurant, Lima

Half way through the 16 courses

Alturas Master tasting menu, Extreme Skins, Central Restaurant, Lima

Extreme Stemsoca (also known as New Zealand yam), olluco (a root vegetable), mashwa (another tuber), elderberry  4,100 MASL

Alturas Master tasting menu, Colors of Amazonia, Central Restaurant, Lima

Colors of Amazoniapaiche (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

Alturas Master tasting menu, Harvest & Collection, Central Restaurant, Lima

Close Fishing… octopus, yuyo (a type of seaweed), barquillo (a type of wafer), squid  10 MBSL

Alturas Master tasting menu, Close Fishing, Central Restaurant, Lima

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.

Quebrada de Ihaunco, Central Restaurant, Lima

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

Alturas Master tasting menu, Low Andes Mountains, Central Restaurant, Lima

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.

Drink made of chirimoya and maize, Central Restaurant, Lima

Amazonian Rainforestcocona (an Amazonian fruit), pitahaya (another fruit), lemongrass, rose apple  650 MASL

Alturas Master tasting menu, Amazonian Rainforest, Central Restaurant, Lima

Moving to a sweeter note

Green Highlandscushuro (a type of bacteria!), cacao, Chaco clay, maca (the superfood of the moment)  3,800 MASL

Alturas Master tasting menu, Green Highlands, Central Restaurant, Lima

And then came some European wine… a dessert Riesling. Perfect.

Riesling Auslese dessert wine, Central Restaurant, Lima

Medicinals & Plant Dyescongona (I never found out what that was), matico (spiked pepper), malva (mallow), pilipili (a pepper) 3,050 MASL

Alturas Mater Tasting Menu, Medicinals & Plant Dyes, Central Restaurant, Lima

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).

Virgilio Martinez in the kitchen, Central Restaurant, Lima
Virgilio in the open plan kitchen.
Exterior of Central Restaurant, Miraflores, Lima
Central occupies a modern building in Miraflores, a short walk from the sea and near the Larcomar shopping centre.

2023 footnote

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.

  • Frederik
    Posted at 22:21h, 07 November Reply

    Thank for explaining it all very clearly, we travelled all the way from the Netherlands to experience the food from Vergilio Martinez at central upcoming Friday the 10th. We made the reservation months ago and it is finally there!

    Can’t wait!!


    • Gina Power
      Posted at 22:42h, 07 November Reply

      Dear Frederik, I hope you have as amazing experience as I did. Like you, I travelled all the way to Peru to experience Central. And would definitely do it again. I hope to publish a post about Lima for this weekend, but in terms of an eating experience, nothing beats Central. Very best wishes, Gina

  • JP Schulze
    Posted at 22:57h, 07 November Reply

    Great article.
    Just a small remark: are you sure pacay is the flower of the date palm and not the the fruit (beans) of Inga feuillei?

    Also, if you liked pisco and Peruvian wine, make a small jump to Bolivia, and try singani and bolivian Wines at Gustu (in La Paz).

    • Gina Power
      Posted at 23:17h, 07 November Reply

      Yes you are right! Pacay is Inga feuillei, or I see it is also called the Ice-Cream Bean tree. Thank you so much for pointing this out. I will correct it now! I am always looking for new places to go and those suggestions regarding Bolivia look very tempting! All the best, Gina

  • Anders Pedersen
    Posted at 21:39h, 11 March Reply

    I hope it’s okay that I post a comment including a link to my own review.
    I’m glad to hear that you had such a great experience at Central, but my Peruvian girlfriend and I went to Central in late February 2017, and we had some of the same dishes as you, but many were different.
    Although compared to European and American prices, the 17 course tasting menu could be considered “cheap”, then we were underwhelmed by the food. A few courses stood out slightly, but overall we felt the food was very, very creative, but just not particularly tasty. It wasn’t bad in any way – just bland tasting, course after course. Hardly anything stood out the slightest. The service was also less than stellar, although not bad either.
    We also went to Astrid y Gaston, and we both liked both the food and the service there a lot better.
    You can see my review of Central (and very soon of Astrid y Gaston as well) on my website here:

    • Gina Power
      Posted at 10:44h, 14 March Reply

      Dear Anders, Apologies for the delay… I’ve been busy posting following a trip to Alsace! I don’t usually link to other reviews… especially as I try to do more than just restaurant reviews, and look at the social, cultural and artistic catalyst that food can play. It was interesting reading your review. I also went to Maido – people kept on telling me that I had to go as it was so amazing – and was disappointed . Luckily we all have different expectations and experiences… otherwise the world would be very boring. Are you on Twitter? I would love to follow you … you’ve been to some interesting restaurants. My next trip is Scotland, or Mauritius… Mauritius booked, Scotland not. Best regards, Gina

  • Pingback:Our Lunch at Central Restaurant in Lima - A VIEW FROM THE SOUTH
    Posted at 22:05h, 26 March Reply

    […] for this post. Unfortunately, we were having some issues with our camera.  Eating With NJ and Gina Powers have recently posted pictures of Central’s tasting […]

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