First things first… this is not a travel blog. This is not a food blog. This is a place where I am going to write about whatever I want. Nevertheless, I just recently visited Peru, and it was one of the best trips I have ever had, so I might as well start off with something exciting.
If you have never been to Peru, I highly recommend you go. The people are friendly, the drinks are good (and cheap), and the landscape is incredible. Be warned though, it will be hard to not eat while you are there. I gained ten pounds while in Peru and I was only there for ten days.
I had the privilege of eating at some of the best restaurants in the world while I was there, but the most unique and unforgettable dining experience was at Central. If you are not familiar with Central, it is currently the 6th best restaurant in the world and is arguably the restaurant that put contemporary Peruvian cuisine on the map. The restaurant is run by husband and wife couple Virgillio Martinez Veliz and Pia Leon. Their success with Central has allowed them to build a fine dining empire across Peru, which allows them to fund culinary research excursions that search for new ingredients across Peru’s diverse ecosystem.
Ok… enough with the backstory. The second you get to the restaurant, you know that you are in for, at the very least, an interesting night. The building that houses Central includes, another one of their restaurants, a cocktail bar, and a culinary research facility. The entire building is surrounded by 15 foot walls, barbed wire, security cameras, and a couple of security guards. Most people would likely assume that it was a mafia compound (think of the original Godfather), or a highly secure government facility.
Before I get into the full experience, I want to let you know that I do not eat at restaurants of this quality very often. I love food. I love wine. It is probably where the majority of my income goes, but I only eat at a restaurant of this caliber maybe once a year. That being said, I am normally not hypercritical of restaurants, but restaurants like Central strive for perfection. Everything is taken into account. The food is just part of the experience. They want you to notice EVERYTHING.
The first thing you notice when you walk into the restaurant is its design. It has a wonderful feeling of openness. The kitchen isn’t hidden. It is visible in every corner of the dining room. Your experience starts by the restaurant first being vulnerable to you, which in turn, makes you feel more comfortable. They have trees growing in the restaurant that ultimately grow out of the roof, but not in the corny way that a place like Rainforest Cafe does it. You are not supposed to feel like you are in a forest while you are there. The trees exist as a reminder of why a place like this can exist in the first place, and that reason is because of nonhuman life on this planet. For this place being the 6th best restaurant in the world, it is incredibly unpretentious and earthly.
We sit down at our table and are immediately explained what we are in for throughout the night. The theme of Central is based around elevation. The meal consists of 16 courses, and all of the ingredients in each course will have been sourced at the same altitude somewhere in Peru. Every dish on the menu represents an ecosystem in Peru. We were asked if we wanted the wine pairing, and I said “duh” without even realizing I said it. If you like wine, and you are at a tasting menu, then I always suggest getting the wine pairing. It becomes half of the experience. The food can be good by itself. The wine can be good by itself. But the wine and food together can be something entirely new and incredible. For our first wine we were poured a ‘97 Riesling that was the color of dark amber. I took a sip, started laughing out of pure joy because it was incredible. At that point I knew we were in for a good night.
Then the food starts coming, and it is almost indescribable. The first course set the stage well. It was a razor clam that explodes in your mouth like biting into a fresh fruit. Have you ever had that happen to you? Ya, me neither. I consider myself fairly experienced when it comes to different flavors. I have tried everything from seal meat to natto, but this experience was humbling. Out of the sixteen dishes, I can honestly say that eight of them were flavors I have never had before in my life. You are not going just to eat. You are going to experience something new. This is the part where I talk about the dish that made me cry. The fourth dish comes out. It is a three bite dish that you eat from right to left. The first bite’s main ingredient was a fruit called a pacae. I ate the first bite and started tearing up. Yes, it was that good. I do not know what they did with the fruit after it was picked off the tree, but that fruit was made by god. The server even came to our table and asked us if everything was ok and I told them that everything was fine, I was just very happy. They smiled and poured us more wine.
The food keeps coming, and every bite is just as good as the next. A little over halfway through the meal, the owner of Central, Virgilio, comes over to our table. He asks us how everything is and we just start laughing. He laughed and he said “that’s good.” We asked him how service was going, and being the humble person he is, he simply said, “Good, I hope.”
Once we finished our meal, we walked through the research facility. You see ingredients like huampo gel, dale-dale, ungurahui, and arapaima. There are hundreds of different types of corn and potatoes. You soon understand that this is the only restaurant in the world cooking and preserving some of these ingredients. This is when you realize Central is more than just a restaurant. It’s a culinary institution.
What sets Central apart from the other best restaurants in the world is not its look, the service, the wine, or even the plating, it’s the ingredients. You won’t see truffles, caviar, or foie gras on the menu. Instead you see corn, quinoa, and potatoes, simple and humble ingredients native Peru. I am not saying it is cheating by using truffles, but there is something special about creating something incredible out of something as ubiquitous as corn. Changing the perception of what something can be is Virgillio’s biggest strength. I never knew that the world needed someone who can champion the potato until I went to Central.
“Not everyone can be a truffle. Most of us are potatoes. And a potato is a very good thing to be.” – Massimo Bottura