Lima is a gorgeous city. It sits along the western coast of Peru, its beaches kissed by the Pacific Ocean.
It’s no surprise that Lima is known for ceviche – a dish that consists of fresh, raw seafood that’s cured in citrus juice, mixed with raw red onion, and bolstered by aji chilies (a spicy pepper similar to a Fresno chili).
It’s a dish that brings together much of what defines Peruvian cuisine.
Ceviche is a great representation of Peru’s vast ecological diversity. There’s the Andean region, which stretches above the clouds (and provides starchy potatoes); the coastal regions, teeming with fresh seafood; and vast stretches in between.
Central Restaurante, the No. 6 restaurant in the world according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, takes the concept of representing Peru’s bio-diversity to a far more serious extreme. Perhaps you saw the restaurant featured in the latest season of “Chef’s Table” on Netflix?
Whether you did or not doesn’t matter – I ate at Central in 2017 while on vacation in Peru, and I’m here to tell you what that bizarre experience was like.
Central is in one of the fanciest neighborhoods in Lima: Miraflores.
Miraflores is a gorgeous neighborhood that sits alongside the Pacific Ocean. Apartment buildings and corporate offices overlook the water, while tourists and locals shop and eat below.
Among the Brooks Brothers and Chili’s outlets (really!) is the subtle visage of Central, on a side street tucked a few blocks from the ocean. There’s no huge sign, no menu out front – you can only tell you’re in the right place because of an employee out front who’s looking for you.
Oh, and there was a ridiculously fancy car parked out front. That was another good sign.
It’s literally blocks from the Pacific Ocean.
I’d strongly suggest a jaunt along the waterfront before heading to Central. It’s a gorgeous view, and certainly part of the joy of visiting Central – you’re right there! It seems foolish not to enjoy the waterfront first.
When we entered Central and were seated, the first thing I noticed is how open and bright the dining room and kitchen are. I could see directly into the open kitchen whenever I wanted.
Even though Central is outrageously expensive, and even though it’s rated as one of the best restaurants in the world, there’s little pretension in the experience. Our waiter was friendly, happy to joke about the somewhat-ludicrous eating experience we were having. That’s a far cry from places like Masa and Eleven Madison Park, to say nothing of supper club steakhouses, which traffic in pretension and pomp.
There is no a la carte menu at Central. Instead, you’re paying a flat fee for what’s known as a “tasting menu.”
There are different variations of the tasting menu seen above. You can get a vegetarian version, for instance. Or you could do the eight course tasting menu instead of the seventeen course menu that I got.
But let’s not be silly: How many times are you going to one of the world’s best restaurants? How many times are you going to Lima, Peru? Exactly. So we splurged and got the insanely elaborate 17-course tasting menu, which costs about $US130 per person.
What’s a tasting menu? Simple: It’s the concept of paying a flat fee for a pre-determined menu, usually at a high-end restaurant. The idea derives from Japan, where the diners can choose the “omakase” option as a means of putting their trust in the chef. It’s like saying, “I’ll give you X dollars and you give me a great meal.”
Drinks cost extra, naturally, and you could also do a wine pairing with the entire menu. Given that my wife and I were already spending an absurd amount of money for a single meal, we opted out of the wine pairing. Each of us got a cocktail, though, and they were delicious. I say that as a cocktail snob who lives in New York City – they make a mean drink at Central.
Also of note: The menu is organized by elevation. Peru is a country of vast biodiversity, and Central’s menu celebrates that by offering a tour of those regions on its menu. Beyond being delicious, dishes at Central exist to demonstrate regions of Peru through ingredient choice and presentation. This is just the beginning of the “art exhibit as meal” experience.
Dishes at Central are often presented in unique ways — I don’t think I saw a plate once.
You’ll no doubt notice that, of the three dishes here, each is served with the intent of a single bite. That’s because this is early in the meal – beyond elevation and region, the 17-course tasting menu has a section of appetizer-like bites, a section of slightly larger main dishes, and a section of desserts.
Sometimes, those bizarre presentations serve the dish; in the case of the furthest left dish above, the stone below it was ice cold (which kept the dish above it cold by extension). Notably, what you see above isn’t three distinct dishes – that’s a single dish on the menu that comes as a trio.
Also, if you’re thinking, “Single bite dishes don’t seem very filling,” please be reminded that there are sixteen other dishes being served. I was outrageously full – overfull – by the time this meal ended.
Here’s a closer look at that one on the end in the last photo — these were crazy delicious and I have no real idea what they’re made from.
You’re probably wondering if this stuff tastes any good, right?
Good news: Pretty much everything I ate at Central Restaurante was delicious. The item above was especially tasty – crunchy and airy in structure, with subtle vegetal flavors that popped from the touch of sauce on top.
Platings got stranger as the meal progressed. In this instance, our dish was served on a bed of sea sponge. You <em>could</em> technically eat the sponge, but they don’t suggest you do it.
If you’re thinking this looks like a chip with some dip on it, you’re right – it totally does. While many dishes looked like nothing I’d ever seen before, a few took my expectations and flipped them with completely new flavors.
And that’s what stood out most from my meal at Central: all the new flavors. How do you describe flavors you’ve never before tried, that don’t compare to the palate you’ve developed across your life? I don’t know either.
And that’s the point: There’s a wealth of largely undiscovered flavor and texture in Peru. Sure, the locals know it – maybe they’ve even been eating it for generations, as is the case with many of the Amazonian ingredients on the menu – but the vast majority of people outside of Peru have never experienced, say, river shrimp (for just one example). That’s part of the joy of eating at Central.
Things got slightly larger, and became individual plates, as we moved through 17 courses.
Are those ants on this meal? They could totally be ants – Central is notorious for using ants in its dishes, which many diners have never tried before.
If they were ants, they were ants that came packed with a punch of umami flavor (that elusive “savory” flavor evoked by stuff like anchovy, fish sauce, and miso). Again, no matter how much I read through the menu from Central, I can’t place which dish this was.
Regardless, I distinctly remember this dish being an especially great example of contrasting textures – crispy, thin components overlaid on a creamy, salty dish underneath. The sauce was tangy and sharp, another delicious contrast in a dish unlike any I’ve eaten before.
A surprising number of dishes came in duos or trios, despite being a single “dish” on the menu.
Are you starting to get an idea of the art exhibit aspect of this meal? Beyond the gorgeous presentations, each dish appeared in a flurry of action as waiters danced around our table: Forks and knives were replaced for each dish (that’s 17 forks per person), and dishes arrived seemingly all at once.
There were no instances of waiting during our meal, though there were a few moments of much appreciated downtime. This is a crucial aspect to nail at a restaurant on the scale of Central: pacing. I was never wanting for more water, or a new drink, or the next dish in our seemingly endless procession of dishes. It’s in this one respect that places like Central perfectly match places like Eleven Madison Park – a level of hospitality and service that feels natural, yet runs like a computer.
I didn’t forget dessert — don’t worry!
If I’m being honest, I gotta say that I was knocked out by the time dessert happened. I’d eaten so many courses leading up to it!
Even still – despite the fact that I should’ve literally eaten nothing all day before this insane meal – the dessert section was a fascinating and delicious experience. What you see above looks sort of like an ice cream scoop with a bunch of stuff on top, right? It tasted a lot like that as well. There was one especially notable difference from what you might expect in a dessert item: cushuro.
Never heard of it, right? Me neither! They’re little balls of cyanobacteria that form in lakes, rivers, and shallow pools of water all over the world. In Peru, they’re used in cooking. And that’s a good thing, because they’re absolutely delicious. They’re like a cross between tapioca balls and caviar – which, I recognize, sounds not delicious. But rest assured, they are delicious and unique and something I’m looking forward to eating again in the future.
BONUS: We got this sweet book at the end of the meal, which describes the process that Central goes through to develop its menu.
Not too shabby, right? There are actual ingredients straight up embedded into the pages of the book. It also describes their elevation, their genus/species, and the process Central goes through to source its ingredients (a program called “Mater Iniciativa”). There’s even a sweet map that explains Peru through elevation and ecological climate.
For a meal that totaled over $US300 (for two people, each of whom got a drink), it didn’t hurt to walk away with a delightful memento of the experience.
Would I go to Central again? Not for a casual meal, that’s for sure. Central is an experience as much as it’s a meal, and that was entirely worthwhile for me – once, at least. I’d be more inclined to try it again in a few years, when the menu has changed and I’m a little removed from the experience. But then I feel that way about most tasting menus.
If you’re okay with a bit of theater, and are willing to trust a kitchen to choose the meal for you, and don’t mind paying a slightly insane amount of money for a single meal, I can’t suggest Central enough. It’s one of those rare meals that I’ll remember for the rest of my life (even if I can’t remember the dishes themselves).
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