It’s hard to find words to describe the experience of eating at Central, Lima’s top restaurant of the moment. His creator, Chef Virgilio Martinez, is a combination of a cook and a playful artist. Sweet and laid back, and seemingly unaffected by all the buzz created around him, when it comes to the kitchen this talented chef knows what he wants and works with utmost precision, like a painter in each one of his masterpieces.
Virgilio never thought he wanted to be a cook. Going with the flow, he decided to study law just like his father. But one day he noticed that he loved to buy cookbooks and read them like novels, absorbing every piece of knowledge he could from them. Ten years traveling and living abroad, working in restaurants throughout Asia, Europe and America, gave him the experience and the confidence to start dancing to his own tune.
When he opened Central, the process of creating the concept, food and space became a labor of love and a constant quest for experimentation and innovation. He worked with his mother on the design of the dreamy space, filling every corner with subtle details. The kitchen is open and one can see the cooks at work. The rooftop of the restaurant is an herb garden, where the chef gets inspired for some of his dishes. In the second floor one can visit the wine cellar, which is next to Virgilio´s personal haven: his office. The walls of this room are covered by boards with long lists of ingredients: fruits, roots, fish, vegetables…and small jars of every spice imaginable, seeds, grains, and books. I´m sure I could live in a place like this forever. And don’t even get me started on the chocolate cellar. This is a dream come true for the chocoholics of the world, where they can find every kind of Peruvian gourmet chocolate.
The tasting menu is different from anything I’ve seen before, printed in fabric, with a design that references to the geographical areas where the products come from. I can tell from this early on that I’m up for something special. The nibbles –native potato and sweet potato chips with avocado cream– are presented in a copper pan, followed by a board of homemade breads with flavors including aji amarillo, coca leaf, and cheese. You can eat these on their own, or spread them with the black butter, smoked salt butter, or roasted pepper cream at hand. After this comes a line of fresh scallops with kiwicha (amaranth), seaweed butter and flowers, and some charela (white fish) fillets, served over a fruit granité that is not only spectacular to the eyes, but to several other senses too. The contrast of temperatures and textures is unexpected, and every bite melts in your mouth.
Rock octopus cooked in purple charcoal and served over a bed of lentils is next in line, visually beautiful, and very dramatic in texture and flavor. A base of rice noodles is then topped with raw shrimp layers, and the hot juice of the shrimp heads is poured over this to allow the raw shrimp to cook slightly. Just enough. Perfectly.
In the main dish area, a piece of paiche, a giant Amazonian white-fleshed fish, with palm heart salad and charcoal, accompanied by a silky tubers puree is a love poem to the Amazon jungle. Crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside, the suckling pig arrives at the table still on the sandalwood and pink pepper coals, which smoke the meat with their original aromas.
Virgilio’s kitchen is his playground, and the result of all this creativity, passion and dedication is show stopping. Food and Wine, The Washington Post, San Pellegrino, Marie Claire, Gazzetta Gastronomica, among many other publications, are raving about his food. And even more so since he opened his new restaurant, Lima, in London a few months ago. Considered the most talented chef of his generation in Peru, Lima has been highlighted as “the one to watch”, and Central has won the title of “best restaurant” in Lima. When I mention this Virgilio smiles a relaxed smile, and tells me his secret: all he really cares about is pampering his clients. He surely succeeds every single time.