(Many, many) thanks to Latam Airlines, I was gifted with two tickets to Lima, Peru, and used the trip as an opportunity to eat. Yes, we visited museums, no we didn’t go to Machu Pichu, but we did eat. Ceviche of course, and pastries at the charming La Mora pasteleria around the corner from our hotel.
The education came at Central, Virgilio Martinez’s restaurant that “celebrates the bio-diversity of Peru.”
Behind a discrete facade, the sign nothing more than a brass plaque set into the sidewalk, and through a dark entry and bar, the dining room opens into a tall skylight dining room. The journey begins.
Impeccable but friendly service, refined decoration of raw wood and smooth stone, and a menu that ranges from the countries highest to lowest points–I mean that literally, not metaphorically. With his sister, Martines explores Peru’s unique environments from the thin air of the Andes, to the mysterious oceans. They gather flora and fauna, some that are used as food by local populations, some that are not considered food.
They gather, and empty their rucksack findings onto the kitchen counter, and he (and his wife, who is also a chef) begins to experiment. Each course is a composition of the biome where it was found–noting the elevation from 3,500 feet above sea level to below sea level. River Scales marks both the river shrimp and the texture of the dish. There are completely unfamiliar ingredients like air potato, sachaculantro, and olluco. On the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, Martinez admits that not everything tastes so good, but you quickly realize that taste is only part of the equation. You are participating in a scientific experiment.
It’s a food writing trope to describe the moment when you look at a menu and unfamiliar with the dishes, you just point and end up with something daunting like calve’s head. At Central, the waiter delivers each dish and describes what is in front of you. Nearly every word is unfamiliar, the colors are often bright, the shapes are sometimes Seuss-ian, textures unexpected, and with each bite you struggle to find familiarity and comparison. Aah, the corn dish is like American Indian pudding, the grassy corn flavor complemented by sweet molasses. Oh, pepino melon and with sea urchin and razors clams is a kind of ceviche. Flavors range from bright to earthy and are somehow a message from their source.
Martinez is pursuing an idea, allowing us into that idea by running an elegant restaurant, but also performing ethno-botany that may have reverberations for Peru’s culture, economy, and menus.
If eating at Central is like reading an explorer’s journals, a meal at Astrid y Gaston is familiarity, wit, and surprise. Courses are served balanced on little tripods or arrayed on rocks. Savory alfahores are served on a ceramic bed, when you open the little wooden drawer below you’ll find two neatly folded empanadas.
The restaurant is in a renovated San Isidro mansion that has been decorated in the most elegant way. The wall of the bar is lined with modern interpretations of the Incan breastplates that you saw earlier at the Museo Larco.
The wine pairing is its own kind of culinary education, ranging from fine French to local Peruvian, and including sherry and beer. It is all generous and charming, from the art on the walls, through the truly explanatory wine explanations, to the final dessert course–a massive candy box from which you can choose among Astrid’s inspired bonbons and truffles–or choose them all.