Restaurant Review: Peruvian Ecosystem central to Central in Lima in Peru, focus on Altitude but has no Attitude as the 6th Best Restaurant in the World!

When the idea came to me to make a three day stop in Lima, Peru, having to make a stop in the city anyway in flying from Havana to Buenos Aires, I could not have dreamt that I would be able to eat at two of three iconic restaurants in this city, it having two Top 10 World’s 50 Best Restaurants in the city, an unbelievable achievement.
 

 
As soon as I had booked the flights and a hotel in Lima at the beginning of July, I asked my son to try to book a restaurant table at Central and at Maido, 6th and 10th, respectively, on the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. I had to accept the bad news that both these restaurants were fully booked, a month ahead. Through the luck of a friend of a friend living in Lima, I was advised to try two alternatives: Kjolle, which is in the same building as Central and is run by Chef Pia Leon, wife of Central Chef Virgilio Martinez and formerly its Sous Chef; and Astrid y Gaston, the first restaurant to put Lima on the world restaurant map. 
 
It was easy to get into Kjolle, and after eating there, it won’t be long before this restaurant will make the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list in its own right, in my opinion. But that is a separate review. By sheer luck, I managed to get a booking at Central the day before eating there, when I arrived for the lunch at Kjolle, asking Chloe whether there would be a space for one for the following day, my last day in Lima, by any chance, and I was shocked and delighted when she said yes! That simple and easy. The lunch at Kjolle was a perfect introduction to the work Chef Virgilio and his team are doing in identifying the produce that comes from the Andes mountains and Amazon jungle, and incorporating it into the menu of both restaurants, much simpler and without a story at Kjolle, and far more complex and with a story at Central. 
 
To better come to grips with the core concept of Central, its two Tasting Menus Ecosistemas Mater (12 courses) and Alturas Mater (16 courses), and food that is served there, one needs to come prepared, which I was not, needing to know about the Mater research project, driving the menu design. The wait staff did not inform me of any of this, letting down their kitchen and boss Chef Virgilio Martínez very badly. Chef Virgilio seemed surprised that this background was not explained to me. 
 
From the World’s 50 Best Restaurants website I learnt the following: 
 
The draw: In its three years as The Best Restaurant in Latin America, Central has been, well, central to Lima’s transformation into one of the globe’s must-visit dining destinations, while chef Virgilio Martínez has led a new generation of Peruvian cooks.
 

Chefs’ Choice: Still in his 30s, Martínez has achieved much for his country’s gastronomy in recent years, helping to promote Peruvian cuisine around the world and working with his sister Malena’s research project, Mater Iniciativa, to help discover and educate on local agriculture and ingredients. This year (2018), as recognition for his tireless work, he was voted by his peers to win the Chefs’ Choice Award, sponsored by Estrella Damm.

The concept: An exploration of its country’s biodiversity, Central takes diners on a journey through every altitude, from 20 metres below sea level to 4,100 metres above it, in 17+ courses. The tasting menu is a reflection of Martínez and his sister’s research into ingredients in the Andes, the Amazon and the sea.

The menu: Diners can expect a colourful journey through Peruvian cuisine, taking in some better known dishes like ceviche while presenting many exotic fruits, vegetables and herbs that most customers won’t have heard of – let alone be able to pronounce. Courses on the Mater Elevations tasting menu include Spiders on a Rock with mussel, crab and abalone; Marine Soil with razor clams, sweet lemon, pepino and starflower; and Close Fishing, an octopus dish with yuyo, barquillo and squid.

Other projects: Martínez also owns Lima and Lima Floral in London and is working on various new concepts with his wife and head chef Pia León, including a restaurant in Cusco to be run in association with Mater Iniciativa. Martínez also featured in the 2017 Chef’s Table series on Netflix.

 
Sadly, this was not communicated to me when I first sat down, photographing as much as possible initially. Alejandra was my hostess, and allowed me to divert my attention to a table in the restaurant on which leaves, seeds, tubers belonging to the potato family (such as illuco and oca), cereals (quinoa being a high protein one) and grains (kañigua and kiwicha having more calcium and less protein), edible clay (Chaco), and natural food dyes (e.g. green from espirulina algae extract, yellow from turmeric, red from the achiote jungle fruit) were displayed, and explained by Lesslie, in excellent and fast English. As happened at Kjolle, it felt terribly rushed at Central, I feeling under pressure to sit down and get ready for the eating experience, as well as during the lunch. I would recommend a dinner reservation to diners. 
 
But let me set the scene first. The restaurant is glass enclosed on all sides, the open kitchen is on one side, the offices and research station for Mater, the Peruvian Food research project of Central, and two sides to the garden, yet giving privacy from passersby, with frosted glass higher up, but at the bottom part the inside garden blends with an outside one visually. A tree grows in the restaurant and they did not want to touch it, so they had to create the glass wall on one side with an opening to accommodate it, making it very cold in the restaurant on a 17C day. Luckily I had a jersey as well as my puffer jacket with me, and was offered two blankets to warm me up, but it still felt cold, and it was inconvenient to get up and photograph the dishes with the blankets falling down. This opening, and resultant coldness, is a major weakness of the restaurant for a booking in winter. One should request a table furthest away from this opening. The ceiling has a wooden grid, underneath the glass top, and parts of it are visible, with leaves and ferns visible on the glass sections, all adding to the message that the environment is important in this establishment, and is represented in the restaurant in every possible way, with the most beautiful patterned stone-top tables, wooden tub chairs with grey upholstery, recycled paper used for the menus and the cover of the winelist, a wooden spoon here and there, naturalism and minimalism personified. There are no flowers on the table, no cutlery, no salt and pepper grinders, and no olive oil and balsamic vinegar, all passé. Only a small ceramic side plate with a neatly folded linen napkin in white with a blue edge. The food and its origin and heritage is the hero in this restaurant and nothing detracts from this, so refreshing. 
 
What I should have been told is that the restaurant presents the Peruvian Biodiversity in its 12 course Ecosystem Mater (548 Soles) and 16 course Altitudes Mater (592 Soles, about R2400) menus, it not being clear what the difference is between the two, other than four courses (Amazonian River, Mil Moray, Plain Forest, Amber Woods), according to Alejandra. Mater is the name of the Peruvian food research project in the Andes and Amazon, led by Chef Virgilio’s sister. 
 
Alejandra asked me which Menu I wanted to go for, but had not even brought them to the table, wanting to tell me verbally. I asked her to bring them to the table, as I was already struggling to understand her. The two menus are in the shape of a circle, in different shades of pink, and hard to read, being in very light print. They are in English, but do not explain anything. The dishes are numbered and each have a title, enumerating the ingredients, but do not explain anything. I felt that a take-home pack with all the Peruvian ingredients and their spelling would be a great advantage. I felt very stressed about hearing the staff in explaining and in spelling each of the names of the unique Peruvian ingredients, some staff being confused about an i and an e in English. A glossary of food terms and a brief explanation of the Mater project would help tremendously, for one to read in the Mayo bar, whilst waiting for one’s table.
 
I chose the 16 course Altitudes menu, having traveled so far, being told that eating it would take three and a half hours. The pace was fast, with the first course arriving. The sommelier brought the thick winelist, not looking very impressive with the pink recycled paper cover, almost like a file cover, without any branding, but the content made up for it. No South African wines are on the list, the restaurant concentrating on South American wines, due to the carbon footprint. I ordered a glass of Peruvian Shiraz, a 2017 full-bodied Viejo Molino. I ordered a bottle of the filtered house water too, but was not charged for it. It is served in a ceramic holder, and was topped up regularly.  
 
In general, each dish is presented by a chef or a waiter, the chefs being far better at explaining the dishes, having been involved in making them. Their English was better than that of the waiters I dealt with, having to ask for a replacement for Alejandra, but her colleague Vicente’s English and service was not much better, his English pronunciation being poor, and he forgetting to mention all the ingredients in the courses. The waiter quality is a downfall of the restaurant, it stressing me badly to have each dish’s ingredients, almost each uniquely Peruvian, spelt for me, and explain what they are, spoiling my enjoyment of the eating experience to a certain extent. The pace was too fast, in the speaking of the description, and of the rate at which the courses arrived at my table, to be able to comprehend and to savour each.  I tried to slow things down by Instagramming each dish when it arrived at the table, and then eating it. 
 
The 16 course Altitudes Tasting Menu, each course being served with ingredients sourced at the same specific altitude, but not always introduced, was as follows: 
 
1.  Red Rocks: 
 
Chef Kevin spoke English the best of all the staff that I interacted with, and explained that the ingredients come from 10 meters below sea level, from the Peru Coastline. Three dishes were presented, the red one representing underwater barnacles. At this level razor clams are sourced, one being placed on top of the red spiky base made with gooseneck barnacles, he explained. In the little parcel was the razor clam, filled with the cream of algae roobo. It had a strong lemony flavour. The second dish of the course was the meat of the barnacles, placed on top of a base of cream cheese. A crisp made of Pyura shellfish and rice, topped with dried yoyo seaweed, completed the presentation, the black base of the third dish representing the underwater rocks. Chef Kevin suggested that the eating order be the razor clam, eating it by hand, and then using the crisp to scoop the barnacle cream onto it, having a strong seafood flavour from both the fish crisp and the barnacle cream. The waiter and chef explaining each dish informs one which part of the dish is to be eaten. 
 
2.  Desertic Coast
 
The altitudes of each dish were not mentioned from this point onwards,  but I assumed that this was representing the zero sea level, from its name. Once again, three dishes were brought to the table. The first was intended to represent Red Tuna found at this level, through the red prickly pear topped with a green layer of seaweed, this element having a marshmallow-like texture, with a contrast between the sweet taste of the prickly pear and the fishy taste of the seaweed . With it was the most beautifully presented see-through crisp made of sweet potato and the oca tuber, placed on top of a bed of cactus leaves and flowers from the garden leading up to the restaurant entrance. The crisp did not have a distinctive taste, but was crunchy in texture. The third part of this dish was clams prepared with a prickly pear mousse, the oil from amatto seeds giving it a touch of red. It was delicious, light and creamy. 
 
My napkin had fallen on to the floor when I got up to photograph the dish, and it was replaced immediately by an observant waiter, offering it to me with a Tweezer for the benefit of hygiene, a nice touch. 
 
3.  High Altitude Farmlands
 
Chef Inez presented this course, also with three dishes. She referred to it as ‘Los Andes’. In these farmland fields the mashwa is grown, tubers belonging to the potato family. The yellow curled crisp with black dots was created with yellow and black mashwa. It was crunchy, had a lovely taste, and was extremely thin, a beautiful presentation with its curl. A woven ‘nest’ was created with the mashwa, and inside it was yellow mashwa butter. This combination gave the nest and butter a crunchy bite and creamy taste. The third element was duck cured with salt and panela sugar, the latter more natural and less industrialised, she explained. With the duck was duck egg yolk cured in a purple mashwa reduction. I could not get the taste of duck in this dish. 
 
At this stage the internet stopped working, but it was quickly fixed when I addressed Vicente about it. 
 
4.  Amazonian River 
 
At this point Vicente got himself confused with the name of the dish, calling it by the name of the fifth course. Again this course had three elements: a section of the Pacae fruit, filled with Paiche fish, was decorated with the green seeds of the fruit.A vegetable and herb broth was not explained in terms of its ingredients, but was decorated with ‘strings’ hanging over the edge of the broth bowl, made with river shrimp and black pepper.  The broth had a pronounced after-bite, which Vicente found out about from the kitchen, saying that it came from the wrinkly lime inside the broth. On top of the beautifully decorative fins of the Paiche fish the meat of the fish was placed on a type of rice cake to which had been added beans and shrimp. 
 
5. Amazonian Jungle
 
This course was presented by Chef Santiago Fernandez, saying that it is their bread course without any bread, but doughs instead. Both were prepared from the Dale Dale root:
 
#.  One was made with the ashes of the Dale Dale root skin, which was paired with an emulsion of copoazu, a fruit of the Amazon, a delicious taste. This one had a more pronounced taste, tasting more like bread, quite doughy.  
 
#. The other was made from the pulp of the Dale Dale, paired with a butter made from the burnt sacha tomato. It has a crunchy texture, tasting like potato. 
 
6.  Sea Terrain 
 
The background to this dish was not explained by Vicente, telling me that it is a dish of two textures of squid, raw and boiled, with wrinkly lime, green seaweed, red cucumber, and turnip. It is colourful, but did not have a pronounced taste. 
 
At this stage I became aware of the music, feeling it sounded like the music which is played in Spa therapy rooms. A weird choice.  Perhaps a mix of ocean, outdoor, and forest sounds would have better represented the restaurant theme. 
 
7.  Waters of the Desert 
 
Chef Inez explained this dish to me, informing me that there is a desert along the coast for a distance of 150 km south of Lima, similar to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Her dish had a base of avocado, a purée of squash (called ‘loche’), and sea urchins, over which she poured a broth with a very strong aroma made of crustaceans, including shrimp, crab, and langoustines. The avocado hiding at the bottom of the dish was a nice surprise, and tempered the very fishy taste of the sea urchins and the broth.  
 
8.  Extreme Altitude
 
It was explained by Chef Kevin that Andean corn grows at 4350 meters above sea level, in Kacllaracay. Here the restaurant and its Mater project partners with the farmers. The dish consisted of a dough made of choclo corn, a very common corn variety, red corn chips, purple corn foam, kiwicha grain, and a sauce of Andean corn beer Chicha de Jora. The green leaves of a tuber rounded off the dish. I was disappointed with this dish, despite its red and green decorative touches, in tasting raw and doughy. 
 
 
9.  Mil Moray
 
These two words for the name of the course were not explained by Vicente. In the Cusco area the huatia technique is used to cook tubers inside clay rocks. For this dish the oca tuber had been cooked in this way, one tuber being revealed from underneath a lime clay rock. It was accompanied by an attractive green uchucuta sauce, made of cheese, corn, and Andean herbs. I was invited to take the tuber with my fingers, and dip it into the sauce. My tuber was over-cooked, tending to crumble while I dipped it into the sauce. 
 
A Google search revealed that Mil is the name of Chef Virgilio Martinez’s newest restaurant, which opened last year, 11500 above sea-level, in Moray, outside Cusco. It is a restaurant, but also acts as a ‘laboratory that looks at Peruvían culture, produce and identity’, reported Conde Nast Traveller, and focuses mainly on vegetables, tubers, and grains. 
 
10.  Amazonian Lake 
 
The title of this dish didn’t seem to match its content. It was a study in white, a shell having been created from the fermented cassaba jungle root and potato. Inside it was a cream of bahuya nut, topped with chestnut shavings. It was placed on a bowl of dried pumpkin seeds, and sticks, to represent the jungle. I was told to eat it by hand. Vicente presented this dish, forgetting to tell me about the cream ingredient, revealing it when I asked him. Disappointing at this level of dining. 
 
11.  Marine Valley
 
The meaning of this course name was not explained. The dish consisted of boiled scallops, tomato sauce, pumpkin, decorated with seaweed. The most simple description of a dish of the 16 courses! 
 
12.  Plain Forest 
 
Again the link to the name and the contents of this dish was not explained, the staff appearing to experience explanation fatigue, having to explain each of the courses at least 20 times. This dish combined a cream of banana, with Amazonian shrimp, topped with the foam of cecina, dried and smoked pork. The descriptions were also getting shorter than those at the beginning of the meal. The dish tasted of chorizo, with tiny bites of minced flesh at the bottom of the dish. I was offered a copper spoon for this dish and its sauce.
 
13.  Andean Woods
 
Chef Inez introduced the dish as consisting of slow-cooked lamb, with the yellow yucu tuber, a lamb jus poured at the table, and decorated with sticks made from dehydrated sheep milk, a very attractive dish, the lamb playing a secondary role to the attractive yucu. 
 
14.  Amber Forest
 
Again the dish name was not explained. It was our first dessert. It consisted of fermented Andean root yacon, coconut cheese, and crisps of cacao and coffee, with yellow strips of natural yacon finishing off the dish. The yacon added a very crunchy texture to the dish, as well as the attractive colour. 
 
15. Green Mountain Range 
 
No explanation was received for the dish name. It was explained as a sorbet of Andean herbs, including the mints munja and huatay, as well as ginger. In a separate bowl was a coloured cocoa ice cream, without an explanation of its colours on top. In a third bowl was a gel called mucelage. The ice cream and gel were to be mixed into the herb mix, but it was difficult to mix it properly, the ice cream having a thick sticky toffee-like consistency. 
 
16. Medicinal Plants
 
This dish title was also not explained. It consisted of a piece of Huampo tree bark from the jungle, and cream, sprinkled with cocoa powder. With it was a cold infusion of the flower of the Kjolle tree, with red algae cushuro seeds. 
 
 
The highlight of eating at Central no doubt was getting a table at 24 hours notice, unheard of for a restaurant of this caliber. But an even greater highlight was meeting Chef Virgilio, who had been hands-on in his kitchen, such an amazing sign of humility to me, and was willing to come out for a photograph. And to join me at my table to chat for about half an hour, about his Mater research project, making 6th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, the change in how number one restaurant winners are now moved to a Hall of Fane, removing them from the 50 Best list forever after, and his Lima restaurants in London and Dubai. What was funny was that I confirmed twice with the young chef if he indeed was Chef Virgilio Martínez, having found a photograph of a far more serious-looking chef than the chef who presented himself at my table on Wikipedia. 
 
Chef Virgilio told me that he opened Central 10 years ago, and they moved to the current building a year ago, with his wife Pia Leon’s restaurant Kjolle one floor above. A Review of my lunch at Kjolle will be posted later this week. A chef from The Test Kitchen did a stage at Central three years ago, but Chef Virgilio could not remember his name. Through his Mater project Chef Virgilio and his restaurants are trying to educate diners about the Amazon jungle, making up 70% of Peru, and reverse the bad PR about illegal mining in the Andes. I asked him which restaurants inspire him, and he mentioned that he was impressed with Mugaritz and Asador, both top restaurants in Spain. He spoke about the community of chefs that they try to create, not only amongst the top chefs in Lima, but also amongst those on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. He shared that his Lima restaurants in London are easygoing, showcasing Peruvian ingredients. His English is perfect, having worked in London. World’s 50 Best is very powerful for the visibility of the restaurant, but ultimately it is about making customers happy. 
 
Chef VIrgilio gifted me a pack of recycled paper decorated with flowers and parts of plants, no doubt sourced from the Andes and the Amazon, as well as illustrations of some of the ingredients used in the Tasting Menu, being Oca grown at 3600 meters above sea level, Huarango found at 2500 meters above sea level, Huampo at 1600 meters above sealevel, Yuyo, at zero meters above sea level. and Coca at 1800 meters above sea level. Chef Virgilio talked me through the illustrated Peruvian Altitudes, starting below sealevel, climbing up to 3600 meters above sealevel in the Andes, and then falling into the Amazon jungle, at between 1600 – 1800 meters above sealevel. The Elevation brochure is hard to read, in a pale white, and it states: ‘The products we use tell stories, transmit beliefs, and speak to us of unique places, resilience, and social ecosystems. We decided to give evidence to them, taking into consideration the Uneven World as a reference’. I do not understand what this is trying to say. Sadly the rest of the brochure is not legible.
 
From Wikipedia I extracted the following profile of Chef Virgilio: 
 

’Virgilio Martínez Véliz (born August 31, 1977) is a Peruvian chef and restaurateur. He is considered one of the new generation of Peruvian chefs promoting the spread of Peruvian cuisine. He is known for his use of applying modern cooking techniques to indigenous Peruvian ingredients. Marie Claire magazine calls him “the new star of Lima’s gastro sky.”[1] On April 29, 2013, his flagship restaurant, Central Restaurante, entered as number 50 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants as awarded by the British magazine Restaurant. In 2014, the restaurant jumped 35 places to number 15, winning the “Highest Climber” award,[2] and later that year was named Best Restaurant in Latin America.[3]

Martínez is known for his use of unique ingredients such as a potato grown at 5,000 meters above sea level;[4] kushuru (cushuro), an edible cyanobacteria harvested in high-altitude wetlands; and wild varieties of kiwicha and quinoa. He is an aficionado of the use of salt, and cooks with more than 120 varieties in his restaurant in Lima.[5] In 2013, Martínez helped form Mater Iniciativa, an interdisciplinary group of professionals who travel throughout Peru in search of unique ingredients which Martinez in turn incorporates into his cooking.[6][7] In March 2018 he opened a laboratory in the middle of the Andes and works with local families to catalogue different crops.[8]

Martínez is currently chef and owner of Central Restaurante, his flagship restaurant located in the Barranco District, Lima, Peru. In June 2012 he opened Senzo, a project in conjunction with Orient-Express Hotels, located in Palacio Nazarenas hotel in the city of Cuzco.[9] In July 2012 he opened Lima, a modern Peruvian-style restaurant located in the Fitzrovia neighborhood of London.[4] It was awarded a Michelin star in the 2014 Michelin Guide.[10] In July 2014 a second Lima restaurant was opened in the Covent Garden district of London and dubbed Lima Floral.[11] On March 5th 2017, a third Lima restaurant was opened in Dubai at Citywalk Phase 2.[12]‘

 
To sum up my Central experience: eating at the 6th Best Restaurant in the World, in Lima, the best restaurant in Latin America, was mind-blowing. A unique restaurant concept, focused on the heritage of little-known Peruvian foods, educational and interesting to be exposed to. Beautiful presentation of the dishes. Hands-on Chef and owner Virgilio Martínez, in his kitchen! Decor matches the theme of the environment. Demonstration table of the ingredients in the Tasting Menu. Such an honour to have Chef Virgilio make time for not only a photograph, but also to spend half an hour at my table, the envy of the restaurant. And above all, that I was able to reserve a table 24 hours before the lunch, an unbelievable feat for a restaurant at this level. But the waitron staff let this restaurant down, running out of explanation energy, forgetting to mention ingredients, not explaining the Altitude concept in general, nor the altitude and its characteristics, course by course. And the English of the waiters was a struggle, with lost in translation moments.  Being too fast in bringing the courses to the table. And the incredible cold in the restaurant, due to the opening in a wall to accommodate the tree growing in the restaurant. I was charged more than the bill showed, and despite requesting an explanation there has been no response, a disappointing conclusion to this restaurant experience. 
 
If Chef Virgilio can address the waitron service issues, and the cold in the restaurant in winter, Central will soon become the Number 1 Restaurant in the World!  
 
It is important to be warned that both Kjolle and Central restaurants add a 20% tip without informing diners, not shown on the bill one receives. I was not informed about this, nor is it reflected on the menu, and I only discovered this when I left both restaurants. I am struggling to get both of these unauthorised payments reversed, disappointingly leaving a bad taste, and overshadowing the dining experience at Central in particular. The staff have subsequently not been able to explain the reason for this hidden payment to me, and have been very slow to respond to me, I writing to them immediately after leaving the restaurant a week ago! 
 
Central Restaurante, 301 Avenue Pedro de Osma, Barranco, Lima, Peru. Tel +51 1 242 8515. www.centralrestaurante.com.pe Instagram: @centralrest @ virgiliocentral Monday – Saturday. 
 

Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein

 

 

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