My Experience at Central, Now the #1 Restaurant in the World
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants just named Central as the #1 restaurant in the world. Chef Virgilio Martínez and his team certainly deserve this honor for their years of hard work and dedication to telling the broad story of Peru’s biodiversity through fine cuisine. I hope this recognition will help more people around the world to discover Peruvian cuisine.
If you’re curious about what makes Central a one-in-a-kind dining experience read on.
Central’s Tasting Menu
The tasting menu at Central is an all-out celebration of Peru’s incredible biodiversity. It consists of 10+ courses that take foraging to a whole new level. Each course brings together ingredients from a particular ecosystem at a specific altitude under Chef Martínez’s artistic vision. Some courses have whimsical names like “Spider on a Rock” or “Tree Skins” while others have straightforward titles like “Amazonian Rainforest.”
In a single meal, you’ll engage all of your senses as you experience the wonders of Peru’s coast, jungle, and mountains. The altitudes represented range from 10 meters below sea level to 4,000 meters above sea level. A single meal here may feature over 150 different ingredients ranging from edible flowers to giant fish from the Amazon to edible clay.
There are optional drinks and juice pairings featuring organic, native fruits. You can also order a cocktail from the a la carte menu.
An Ecosystem on Each Plate
At Central, Chef Virgilio Martinez and his team draw inspiration from the depths of Peru’s natural landscape. They continue to take regular expeditions to remote regions in Peru to discover new ingredients of each region and to learn about the ancient techniques from the locals in each region.
In experiencing the food at Central, you feel the inspiration of the Incan perspective in which the world is seen as composed of vertical layers, rather than a flat plane. You’ll see ingredients that you’ve come across during your travels while undoubtedly being introduced to new, exotic ingredients, some of which are incredibly rare and are found only in one particular region of Peru.
At Central, each dish is an entire ecosystem on a plate. The raw materials come from nature but the vision is distinctly Chef Martinez and the team’s. There’s a keen attention to detail in how every ingredient is placed. The tasting menu feels like walking through an art gallery. I almost felt bad digging into each plate and demolishing the carefully crafted plates.
My Experience at Central
In 2017, I finally made it to Central after traveling around Peru for six months to learn about the food. I was in between jobs at the time so a meal at Central was definitely a splurge. However, I thought that my research into Peruvian food was incomplete without a visit to Central.
I didn’t have a reservation and they were booked solid for several months. However, I was staying nearby so I introduced myself to the porter outside in my limited Spanish and explained to him my interest in writing about Peruvian food. In the following days, I would design my walking routes to pass him. Just two days before my flight from Peru, he waved to me across the street and told me a spot had opened up. And if I could come in at 8 am, I’d have a chance to chat with Chef Martinez!
The atmosphere of the restaurant felt cathedral-like with its simple layout taking advantage of the beautiful natural, lighting from the skylights above. The open kitchen is busy but calm, adding to the ambiance.
Each course was a work of art in which every detail has been considered and executed precisely. The dishes were so beautiful that it was a bit difficult to dig in and “ruin” the plating. The meal was so different than any meal I had previously or since.
Back then, I was new to the fine dining scene and was a fish out of the water. There were a couple of times where I had to ask the waiter what was edible and what was there for presentation.
Even after months of researching Peruvian food, I was learning new things in each course. This goes to show how dedicated Central and Mater Iniciativa, the research arm of Central are in their mission to uncover new things about Peru’s natural bounty. How many restaurants even have their own research arm?
The experience at Central appeals most to people who like food experiences that are complex and cerebral. Not every course is intended to be purely delicious. They are meant to challenge and engage the guest. My thought as I walked back to my Airbnb from my lunch at Central was that I had just experienced flavors and textures that I previously had no idea existed.
Here are a couple of my favorite dishes from my meal at Central:
Colors of Amazonia (450 m): This course features Paiche, the prized fish from the Amazon. With the first bite, I immediately could tell that this Paiche was different from other Paiche I’ve tried. It was deliciously creamy, with bright and pleasantly sour notes.
This dish also uses “Sachapapa” (a yam) along with “Pijuayo,” and “Ungurahui,” fruits from two types of palm trees. It’s a great example of how Central creatively weaves together components of a specific ecosystem. The dish is not about the Amazon as a whole; it’s specifically about the Peruvian Amazon at 450 meters.
Andean Plateau (3800 m): I was especially looking forward to this course since it depicted the altitude that I had spent quite a bit of time at. This course was a bread course and featured bread made with coca dough served over smoldering coca leaves, a dense bread made with choclo (Andean corn), and a freeze-dried potato chip. It was all served with smoked butter and an herb sauce. I especially loved the deep earthy taste of the bread.
Check Out My Guidebook
If you’re headed to Peru, please consider buying my guidebook. It covers over 100 dishes along with recommendations on where to try them. The Tasting menu section will help you select the best tasting menu or splurge restaurant for your trip.
Time for Another Visit
Central is the kind of restaurant that is constantly evolving. For some dishes, I still recognize elements of the courses I had. Other courses have the same name but have entirely been conceptualized. Even if everything was exactly the same, I would likely pick up new details that I had missed the first time around, a bit like watching and rewatching a movie by a great director.
Since my visit, a lot has changed. Central moved to a beautiful space in Barranco that they share with Kjolle and Mayo. In addition, Chef Martínez, Pia Leon (chef at Kjolle and married to Martínez), and the Mater Iniciativa team have established Mil, a restaurant featuring a tasting menu focused on the ecosystems in the Andes. They have launched projects in other countries including the latest, Maz in Japan.
In writing this, I realized that it’s time for another visit. I just booked a reservation for Mariela and me in September.
And my conversation with Chef Martinez? That’ll have to wait for another time.
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