To see Virgilio Martinez in his element, you need to get him out of his kitchen. Ducking under low hanging branches in the jungle or roaming around lakes at over 13,000 feet, he is insatiably curious. Along with the core team that forms his investigatory unit, Mater, they explore the country, delve deep into local knowledge, and pass their days nibbling on odd little roots and mosses and fruit.
At the young age of 37 he has the highest rated restaurant in Peru and most commentators put him comfortably among the best 10 restaurants in the world. He has a Michelin star for his restaurant LIMA in London and has recently opened up a third, casual dining bistro just a few blocks away from Central. Let's take a look inside.
The food that makes up his menu is essentially an expression of what he sees and experiences on his travels. Martinez tries to take diners along with him to the far flung corners of Peru, showing off not only the best ingredients from the immensely varied ecosystems that make up the country, but also, in his plating and presentation hinting at the landscapes where they live and grow. A simple enough premise that is exercised with striking beauty on the plates and makes for one of the more interesting meals you’re ever likely to have.
Along with his team at Mater, Martinez scours the country for new ingredients and inspiration that are often found in traditional dishes or customs of the people they meet on their travels. The goal at Central, says Martinez, is not only for guests to leave happy at the end of the meal, but also surprised, and hopefully, curious about the food and where it was produced.
The tree bark on the right is called sangre de grado, an Amazonian tree whose sap has many uses in traditional medicine. Here, they use it as part of a snack along with a local Amazonian fish called gamitana. On the left, samples collected by the Mater team.
Pía Leon working on the pass in the kitchen at Central, open to view from the dining room behind a glass wall. Leon, Martinez’s long-time partner and now wife, has been an essential part of Central since the beginning, and is also head of research and concept development of the menu at LIMA in London.
All the dishes on the menu are categorized according to the altitude at which the primary ingredients are found, a mirror of a pre-Hispanic Andean method of categorizing the geography and ecological zones vertically instead of horizontally. Here, at 80m above sea level, you have roast lettuce with warm scallops, a beetroot powder, and oxalis flowers.
At 10m below sea level: charcoal grilled octopus, with tinted rice paper; the ‘rocks’ are egg whites with squid ink and a local algae called pata de gallo.
At 1800m above sea level: alpaca heart and a variety of quinoa over roast beef. It is accompanied by llama milk, which has been heated, emulsified, and dehydrated and served with Andean herbs.
Central’s wine cellar is on the second floor, above the dining room; under sommelier Gregory Smith’s curation, the wine list at Central has been awarded several times, recently earning an award of excellence from Wine Spectator.
It is well worth while arriving a little earlier and spending some time at the bar, the cocktails are a fine compliment to the quality and creativity in the kitchen.