I don’t know about you, but I tend to plan my travel itineraries as much around food as I do around historical and cultural landmarks, museums, and sightseeing.
This was true when I scoured through the streets of Chandni Chowk in old Delhi to sample some of the best Mughlai cuisine last fall, or when last summer, I dragged my best friend to Alfredo Alla Scrofa in Rome, a restaurant that claims to have invented the Alfredo sauce.
So when I booked my plane tickets to Peru earlier this year shortly after watching Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” trying to score a reservation at the famed Lima restaurant Central was an absolute no-brainer. (This is no easy feat, mind you, as reservations run out months in advance. Try and book at least three months ahead.)
Central Restaurante is the brainchild of chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz, and holds the enviable title of the sixth best restaurant in the world. Located in the hip, bohemian neighborhood of Barranco in Lima, it is known for its modern and contemporary interpretation of Peruvian cuisine that puts an avant-garde spin on the country’s native ingredients, elevating them to new heights.
The restaurant is part of a larger gastronomical complex run by Véliz and his co-owner, chef, and wife, Pia León. This includes cocktail and quick bites at bar Mayo, León’s new restaurant Kjolle, as well as Central’s research arm, Mater Iniciativa, where a team of researchers studies a diverse range of ingredients sourced from across the country.
Food at Central is a heady concoction of art and science, and the restaurant isn’t afraid to flaunt that. In fact, you get a glimpse of it pretty much the second you walk in, with a large stone-cut table displaying the traditional ingredients that adorn the menu. The menu itself is an unabashed celebration of Peru and its rich biodiversity — from the snow-capped Andean mountains to the lush foliage of Amazonian jungle and everything else in between.
There are two distinct tasting menus: a 16-course menu organized around the country’s dizzying array of altitudes, and a 12-course menu that is designed around its ecosystems. I opted to splurge on the latter in the interest of time, which is essentially a compressed version of the former. And the $235 I spent on it (including a generous tip) was perhaps the most rewarding culinary investment that I’ve ever made.
The dishes are composed of bold ingredients that are brought to life in ingenious ways, offering a whirlwind tour of Peru in just a couple of bites. The food isn’t just delicious for the most part, but a piece of art — quite literally — with each dish’s presentation being as unique and whimsical as the ingredients that make it come together. You don’t always know what you’re eating and have probably not tried some of the ingredients before, but that’s what makes the journey even more exhilarating.
The roaring success of Central has catapulted Martínez Véliz into the ranks of culinary superstardom — and rightfully so. But the true stars at Central are his kitchen and wait-staff. You can see the chefs painstakingly curate every tiny detail to make every dish a cohesive whole behind the kitchen’s glass windows. And the servers had no airs of pretension either, you could see how passionate they were about being there.
Central isn’t merely a restaurant; it’s an unparalleled culinary experience unlike any other that I would highly recommend to anyone that happens to find themselves in Lima. Here’s a tour of the latest 12-course tasting menu at Central, and what it is like: