The Lima files: Central

Chef Virgilio Martínez (r) of Liam's Central.
Chef Virgilio Martínez (r) of Lima’s Central.
The clouds are on the verge of passing and the mists lifting, and it’s almost as if we were in Lima on a winter’s day. Close your eyes, clench your fists and let’s magically transport ourselves to Peru’s capital as we anticipate the début Latin American edition of World’s 50 Best restaurants this Wednesday.

This regional offshoot of the prestigious awards will confirm the continent’s top dining rooms, and follows on from the success of the Asian version. While some food writers question such awards, one thing is sure: certain cities will be cemented with a certified foodie status, while 50 chefs will be lauded, giving them a whole new celebrity status.

Latin America has previously made the final cut in the World’s 50 Best with a sextet of cooking stars making sweet culinary music. Top-placed Sao Paulo’s D.O.M. led by Alex Atala specializes in contemporary Braz-ilian/Amazonian cuisine leads the pack at number six (he popped up at BA’s El Baqueano in July); Gastón Acurio with the Lima branch of Astrid & Gastón is at 14; ranked 17 is Mexico City’s Pujol led by Enrique Olvera; the Spanish-Mexican tasting menu at D.F.’s Biko ranks 31; it’s back to Brazil with SP’s husband-and-wife team Daniel Redondo and Helena Rizzo at Mani; and slipping in at number 50 is Virgilio Martínez and Central, his Peruvian fusion establishment in trendy Miraflores.

The question is: how will Argentina’s restaurants rank? There is a shroud of secrecy surrounding the results ahead of the big day, so much so that when I asked Raquel Rosemberg, local food guru and journalist who not only forms part of the World’s 50 Best selection team but has led the regional standoff, whether she had a moment to talk about the awards at Tuesday’s Masticar food fair launch, she immediately said: “I can’t give you the list.”

Let’s be clear: I’m not so crass as to ask for “the list,” plus my own research has led to various dead ends. Let’s also be clear: it’s an open secret in the local gastro community, and it’s safe to say a team of chefs is headed Lima-wards this week. BA will make the Latin American food map.

Speaking to another chef, who shall remain nameless and genderless, at Masticar, I queried: “So, are you off to Lima next week?” And the reply, with a knowing eye-twinkle, came: “I’m going to Mistura,” the annual food festival held consecutively alongside 50 Best and the perfect cover for the awards ceremony.

So much lies on the decisions made by experts such as Rosemberg. Individual reputations will be boosted to the extent that restaurants that tick all the dining experience boxes yet can barely fill two tables at lunchtime will end up with a waiting list — and it will change the reputation of Buenos Aires as a gastro city.

Sao Paulo and Lima are already known for culinary innovation, but I like to think that BA can also pack a punch. Chefs have no choice but to think outside the box when it comes to obtaining ingredients — a particular pork cut available from Spain or the perfect Hungarian botrytis wine to accompany a certain dessert just aren’t reaching Argentina. And with a wealth, albeit a select wealth of Argentine products, from which to choose, chefs needs to keep their wits about them in order to compete with the continent, and world’s, best.
At the first LatAm edition of World’s 50 Best, there’s a lot at stake. And not much mention of steak.

Let’s return to part two the Lima Files, and Central.

What is obvious from the offset about Virgilio Martínez, our number 50 ranking chef and owner of Central, is that he is totally down to earth. There’s no PR lady or man in the middle of our dialogue, he gives me his phone number to give him a bell to co-ordinate dinner, and he serves me his 13-course menu himself. It’s doesn’t get much more regular than that.

Hang on! I’m eating at one of the world’s 50 BEST restaurants — a personal first, too — and the chef and owner is serving ME! Here’s a tiny secret. Although it won’t guarantee you a piece of the charming Virgilio who is usually busy putting finishing floral flourishes to dishes, book the kitchen-side table for a ringside seat into everything, and right next to the chocolate cava. If the table is available, it’s there for the taking.

Let’s cut to the chase with his Asian and European experiences, helming Lima’s Astrid & Gastón and his executive chef-ship of Lima in London (is there a “Buenos Aires” restaurant in London? Just wondering…), Virgilio holds everything in spades. And his current efforts go into Central.

Designed across two floors, the window fronting the open kitchen is the frontier between cooks and diners, each able to look briefly into the world of the other before resuming slicing or chatter. Upstairs is a more private experience, with a separate dining room and wine cellar — if, like me, it’s your lucky day, you can check out the hidden herb garden, sprouting even in the middle of winter. The overall look is up-to-the-minute yet simple: a banquette lines up against the brick wall, a glass ceiling maximizes natural light, stiff linen adorns tables. Another word on natural light — the kitchen is in fact roofless, so the staff are at one with nature. (Lima is known for its clouds and damp air but not its rain.)

But on to business of the day. The current star turn is Mater Uno (285 Peruvian soles), a 13-course extravaganza tasting tour of Peru — those with a fear of heights, look away now. This altitude-raising menu starts with Peru’s lowest points then rushes you to the highest 4,500-metre point, whipping you around the rich coast, the Andes and the tropical Amazon, as it focuses on key indigenous ingredients. A real gastro treat if you only have a few days and can’t visit these areas.

No stone is left unturned, literally. One of the amuse-bouche is Alga calamar, a local seaweed covered by ceviche reclining decadently atop a salt rock plucked from the Andes now reincarnated as a plate. This is just the start of getting up close and personal with Peruvian nature. The double bitesize dish is so fresh, Virgilio might have just run back up Lima’s cliffs after reeling the fish in himself. This is merely one example of Central showcasing Peru’s classic products, from the humble potato to corn and, of course, the rich Pacific pickings.

A perfect example of the creativity behind Central’s menu is Toma de mar, which combines scallops coated in kañihua (canihua), a crunchy herb that grows at 3,800 metres in Bolivia and Peru. The textures and flavours that go into that sextet of scallops, especially when you combine the tumbo (banana passionfruit) salsa, was refreshing, delicious and palate-awakening. Various firsts in one dish.

I could continue to name the rest of Mater Uno, but frankly you’ll be bored of me waxing lyrical about the epic deliciousness by course five.

What I can say is this: Central is worth the flight alone and after these latest awards, Virgilio’s star will shine even brighter.

Central Restaurante
Calle Santa Isabel 376, Lima
+51 (0)1 511 242 8515

Buenos Aires Herald, September 1, 2013

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