Hubert Burda Media

The Rule of Peru

Lima’s hottest spot is an exotic fine dining run by chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz. We land a table at the award-winning Central.

With only five days to spare in Lima, the gastronomic capital of Peru, we bypass numerous Gaston Acurio restaurants around the metropolis with one aim in mind: To dine at Central Restaurante.
The modern eatery is famed for pairing modern cooking techniques with indigenous Peruvian ingredients; from potatoes, grown 4,500m above sea level, to native herbs such as chia and wild varieties of kiwicha and quinoa. Opened in 2008, it is owned by 37-year-old chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz, who also runs Lima, a two-year-old contemporary Peruvian-style restaurant in London that clinched its first Michelin star this year with its second outlet, Lima Floral, slated to open in July.
Central is currently king of Peru’s dining scene, having clinched top spot in the Summum awards (Peru’s highest fine dining honours) two years in a row in 2012 and 2013. This year’s awards will be held next month and already, there is talk within gastronomic circles that Véliz will score a hat trick. This comes on the back of being named Most Improved at this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards (jumping from 50th to 15th).
With this knowledge, we arrived at Central — located on the tree-lined avenue of Calle Santa Isabel in the trendy district of Miraflores — with high expectations.
Ushered into its high-ceilinged dining space, it’s clear to us that its word-of-mouth reputation has drawn in the numbers: It is a full house on a Wednesday night. Divided into a bar and main dining room with copious usage of glass, stylish rock walls and soft, warm lighting, the place is comfortable yet chic. We are led past the other diners and are placed in the hot seat: A chef’s table next to the kitchen, right where the magic happens.
One can feel the considerable buzz in the air — convivial, not raucous. “We want our patrons to have fun, enjoy and discuss the food. A quiet restaurant is too dull, don’t you think?” says Véliz. He cuts a tall, lean figure and is prone to congeniality, sharing fond memories of Singapore, which he visited for Savour two years ago. (In fact, it was at the Singapore Marriott Hotel, where he proposed to his wife, Pía Leon, who runs Central with him.)
“My food takes you on a trip around Peru. I use fresh produce and 100 percent native ingredients from all over the country,” says the Lima-born chef as we clink glasses of Quebranta 2012 pisco (“made from quebrada de ilhuanco, which is the most planted grape in Peru,” he says). Spread out in front of us were soft, tasty breads made from the cactus plant.
“Peru is home to 8.5 million people, but most of them have never eaten food like this before. The ingredients I use mostly derive from ancient Inca times and its usage largely disappeared with the influx of immigration into the country,” he shares. Indeed, typical Peruvian cuisine today is fused with Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, German and African influences.
All the more eager to try Véliz’s atypical cuisine, we’re beside ourselves when he produces a Mater One tasting menu and begin a 10-course culinary adventure with nine varieties of wine.
True to word, his courses — separated into Elevations (appetisers) and Diversity (mains) — take diners on a voyage through Peru’s fascinating geography of sea, mountain and tropical forest.
Located on the westernmost part of the Latin American continent, Peru is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, the expansive Andean mountain range and the Amazon jungle. As such, Elevations is an ode to the country’s topography, with Sea (seaweed calamari), Coast (native corn), Andes (tuber chamomile) and Amazon (spicy root). These are presented as small bites made from ingredients sourced from their respective namesakes and served on either a hefty chunk of coral, rock or polished tree bark.
The first of the Diversity courses is Snapshot of the Sea. Comprising fresh scallops (scrounged from 10m underwater, according to the menu) and kañihua (a Peruvian seed), tumbo (resembles the passionfruit) and borrage (a purple flower), the mix of ocean-fresh scallops, crunchy seeds and tart, fruity flavours work perfectly.
The next dish, Coastal Interaction, instantly reminds us of our excursion to the city’s beaches, with tender octopus paired with corn, olive and limo chili exploding in a riot of flavours. We then journey upwards to the Andes, 3,800m above sea level with Altiplano and Lake: Succulent lamb, kiwicha, tarwi (a type of legume) and chamomile. But it is the renowned Extreme Altitude which really impresses — a savoury concoction of high-altitude frozen potato, cushuro (edible cyanobacteria), mullaca root and paico herb.
Red Jungle marks our journey south to 800m above sea level and introduces our palate to the earthy flavours of the Amazon. Fresh, delicate and melt-in-the-mouth, arapaima (the largest Amazonian freshwater fish) is complemented with airampo (red dried cactus seed), huito fruit and sweet hearts of palm.
Two types of dessert are served, one of which is Pure Amazon, a delightful meringue blend of bahuaja nut, huampo wood, maca root and taperiba (a citrus fruit).
Ending the meal with Véliz’s calming, tea infusion of herbs (culen and stevia), macambo (a cacao variety) and lemon verbena, we are transported back to the populous nine-million-strong city of Lima. Certainly, a well-enjoyed journey.