Four of us pull up to what’s been touted as one of the top restaurants in Lima, Peru, only to find a concrete facade that could be mistaken for any of the houses on the block. Should we get out of the cab? Central Restaurante, in the city’s fashionable Miraflores district, doesn’t even bother putting its name on the cedar door.
That’s the deceptively simple first impression that Virgilio Martinez, 34, wants his restaurant to make. “A little bit of a surprise,” says the Lima-born chef and owner of Central (pronounced cen-TRAHL). Introduced three years ago, the 80-seat restaurant brims with unexpected intricacies, from a mini-bottling plant for its water to meals made with ingredients plucked from the roof.
Martinez’s trajectory from law student in his home town to culinary schools in Ottawa and London to restaurant gigs in Colombia, Spain, Southeast Asia and New York (where he did entry-level work for the legendary Andre Soltner at Lutece) dizzies the résuméreader. His path reflects the reality that, until recently, Peru was not where anyone serious about cooking as a profession was likely to train. “I wasn’t proud as I am now” of the country’s food, Martinez says.
In 2012, it’s impossible to ignore Peru. Its most celebrated chef, Gaston Acurio, who has 36 outposts in 15 cities around the world, is spreading the Peruvian gospel this year with, he says, restaurants “in the nicest streets of the nicest cities in the world,” including Los Angeles, Miami and Barcelona. (Washington is a target for next year, he says.) Mistura, Lima’s fledgling annual food fair, attracts the chiefs of chefdom, which this past fall included Denmark’s Rene Redzepi and Spain’s Ferran Adria. Ceviche has become the beet salad of appetizers: It’s everywhere.
For the next few hours at Central, my comrades in forks and I encounter one example after another of what Martinez, lean as lemon grass and Hollywood handsome, calls a modern take on the “hectic” food of his country.
To dine at Central, which changes its menu six times a year, is to taste-test much of Peru. From the jungle of the Amazon comes the white-fleshed fish known as arapaima and from the mountains in the Andes comes everything from butter to chuno, a popular frozen dehydrated potato.
Martinez isn’t shy about using things he’s fallen in love with on his travels, however; hence the splash of Spanish olive oil here and the whiff of kaffir lime there. Tagliatelle draped with rabbit ragu looks Italian and tastes . . . why, there’s orange blossom in the whip of chestnut-infused milk that hovers over the entree like a cloud. Dinner might close with some of the best gulab jamun I’ve encountered outside an Indian restaurant. Red and violet flower petals from the upstairs garden help.
Plan to ease into the evening with a cocktail in the jewel box off the entrance, and make it a pisco sour, the national drink made with grape brandy and whipped egg whites. But which flavor? Rosemary, ginger, Sichuan pepper and vanilla are among the infusions on hand. Potato chips stained with squid ink and offered in a little copper pot with what tastes like a glam turn on French onion dip are set out for snacking and offer a preview of what’s to come in the room next door.
A window in the bar frames the open and airy restaurant beyond, which in turn frames the gleaming exhibition kitchen, where a fleet of 18 cooks, including Martinez’s girlfriend, Pia Leon, work like actors in a silent movie. The quiet is the result of a glass wall and several feet of stone planter — open air, even! — separating patrons from cooks. The divide works because it rarely rains, says Martinez.
My quartet is contemplating the show when an appetizer called Lines of Scallops lands before us. The picture starts with coins of bay scallops dappled with a sunny sauce of lime juice and pureed cocona (a citrus billed as the Amazon tomato) and moves upward with thin stripes. One line is whipped scallop roe, another is minced yellow chilies and cocona, a third finds a pink rope of scallop tartare, a fourth band is red with raw tuna. Little blocks of glazed sweet potatoes stand off to the side (spuds never being far away from any plate in Peru).
Martinez named his restaurant Central in part because he wanted a word that reinforced the notion of groundedness, which helps explain his all-Peruvian kitchen crew, members of which he thinks infuse the menu with the necessary “heart.”
“Virgilio is passion, talent, hard work, integrity,” says Acurio, who tapped Martinez to open his Astrid y Gaston in Bogota in 2004. The culinary ambassador of Peru sees a “great future” for Martinez. Although the protege vows not to repeat his singular dining experience anywhere, he does plan to return to some familar terrority with a second restaurant in July in London. It will be called Lima, of course.
Cooking was not in the life plan for the teenage Martinez. “I wanted to be an architect, like my mother,” who was also a painter, says the chef.
Mother and son got the chance to work together in creating the two-story Central, within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean, from scratch. Their collaboration embraces a temperature-controlled chocolate cabinet, a second-floor dining room walled in bottles of wine and a studio lined with books as well as ingredients, including 120 jars of salt from around the world. Cooks gather some of what they need — fennel, blackberries, chilies, herbs — from the rooftop garden that their boss calls his “orchard.”
No detail escapes the chef’s attention. Because he doesn’t want the bread to lose heat on its way to your mouth, the rolls, including one made from powdered cacao leaves, are served on warm stone slabs. Each chair in the main dining room is arranged so its occupant can see the kitchen.
Mom isn’t the only family member involved in Central; Martinez’s sister, Malena, is in charge of teas at the restaurant, which cost $1.5 million to put together, with none of the money coming from outside investors, says the chef. “No one tells me what to do,” he jokes. “Just my girlfriend and my sister.”
The muses, and Martinez, are on to something hot.
Central Restaurante, Calle Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores. 511-242-8515. centralrestaurante.com.pe/en. Entrees, $18 to $26.