LIMA, Peru — Somewhere between the courses of high-altitude lake algae and cooked Peruvian clay came a bowl of frozen piranha heads, their jaws open and razor-sharp teeth bared.
“You don’t eat the fish heads,” the waiter said, amused by my relieved look. Instead, they served as a vessel for two strips of crispy piranha skin resting precariously between the alien-like mouths.
Like much of the dishes at Central — chef Virgilio Martínez’s exotic Lima eatery where haute cuisine meets bizarre foods — the plate of piranha is meant to tell a story.
“The story of Peru,” Martínez had told me earlier.
Lima has long been on the culinary map, put there years ago by chefs such as Gastón Acurio, who helped take ceviches and pisco sours global. More recently, Martínez has added a novel twist. Using the mountains, deserts and jungles as his pantry, he is serving up dishes with ingredients heretofore consumed mostly by indigenous tribes in hard-to-reach regions of Peru.
His plates with rare fruits and vegetables, along with various things that squirm, seem to have touched a nerve. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, a listing produced by the British magazine Restaurant and based on the opinions of culinary experts, ranks Central as the fifth-best eatery in the world and No. 1 in Latin America. Martínez also starred in an episode of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table.”
So what’s dinner like at one of the globe’s most unusual restaurants? It's like Christmas morning, with each of the 17 courses a surprise gift.
The adventure here is mapped on the menu, with each dish listed alongside the altitude where its most interesting ingredient was sourced. Here are a few of the highlights.
Coca Leaf Pisco Sour
Okay, so this is not actually a course. But this signature cocktail — a twist on a traditional pisco sour, flavored with the leaf that serves as the building block of cocaine — is a sensory overload.
An egg-white foam fills half the glass, hovering like a thick atmosphere above a pool of rich liquid made up of lime juice, sugar syrup and pisco, a Peruvian liquor made from grapes. Typically airy and tart, here, it is also earthy. That's because of the coca leaf, which is commonly chewed or drunk as a tea by high-altitude-living Peruvians needing a little pick-me-up.
Dish: Rock Mollusks
Altitude: 10 meters (33 feet) below sea level
The story of Peru appears, for a moment, to be something of a horror novel as a waiter arrives with an array of sea creatures sprouting from the depths of an inky-black bowl and holding two little gray bars. It turns out that these goose barnacles are merely for show — an intriguing way to present you with the marble utensils for this appetizer course.
At its most reductive, this dish is Martínez’s take on chips and dip. The chip: an intense-green crisp made of sargassum, a water algae. The dip: a concoction of chopped limpets mixed with the vermilion stamens of a Peruvian flower. The taste is salty and savory and inescapably of the sea.
Dish: Lofty Andes
Altitude: 3,900 meters (12,795 feet)
In this dish, the diner excavates charred mountain potatoes from a dish of ashen rocks that evoke a barren landscape. The potatoes are dunked into tree tomato compote accompanied by a dried alpaca heart, which can be shaved on top for extra flavor.
Dish: Waters of Nanay
Altitude: 450 meters (1,476 feet)
This aforementioned dish served on a bowl of frozen piranha heads offers up two strips of piranha skin fried in oil flavored with achiote seeds. Also known as annatto seeds, they stain the skin with a vibrant orange-yellow, imparting a peppery, nutty taste. The result is a fishy version of chicharron, a traditional Spanish-Caribbean dish of fried pork belly.
Dish: Amazonian Plain
Altitude: 600 meters (1,969 feet)
Cotton-candy-like seed casings of a pacae, an Amazonian fruit, are gently removed then stuffed with the flesh of a gamitana fish, also known as a tambaqui. The salty, fruity dish is plated as if resting in a wet garden of coral-like Baston de Angel seeds, which grow in the Peruvian jungles.
Dish: High Andes Mountains
Altitude: 4,100 meters (13,451 feet)
This pork dish is marinated in a miso-like emulsion of black tubers harvested at 13,451 feet. It is plated to appear like a forest bed in summer, with strewn, edible wildflowers.