With Chefs across the globe handpicking techniques, ideas and ingredients in a bid to create something unique or highly sought after, it is becoming increasingly difficult to truly be wow-ed by any standalone dining experience.
However, many food obsessive tragics carry with them the one dining experience they hold dear. That special place: the restaurant closest to their heart, the Chef that opened their eyes wider than any that came before them. [Or something like that…]
For me, that place is Virgilio Martinez’s Central Restaurant in Lima, Peru.
Never before have I been so taken with a menu. Through the handiwork of a well-oiled kitchen machine, I was pulled into an all-encompassing journey across the Peruvian landscape. By the end of the eighteen-or-so courses, I had felt the breeze of the Pacific Coast, climbed to the highest reaches of the Andes, travelled across the altiplano and ventured into the deepest depths of the Amazon Basin.
I left the restaurant that night knowing that I had experienced new ingredients, tasted new flavours, felt new textures…and garnered a whole new appreciation for the world of food. Two years on, I can still recall every dish, every mouthful.
But that is what Virgilio Martinez and his right-hand woman, Pia Leon, do. Currently recognised at number 4 on The World’s 50 Best List, Central seeks to celebrate Peru’s biodiversity and ancient Andean heritage, affording diners a unique insight into native Peruvian ingredients sourced in vastly different environments and across various altitudes – many of which were previously unknown to Peruvian natives, let alone the rest of the world.
I mean, look at this! “Extreme Altitude”. Cushuro – an edible form of cyanobacteria found in the lagoons of Huaraz (!!) – served with frozen potato mash, mullaca root and piaco. Unexpected, surprising, unheard of…delicious.
So when I learned that Martinez had rooting in a little outpost in the heart of Fitzrovia, it automatically found itself on my ever-expanding London to-do list. And do it I did. In fact, it was one of the first places I pounced on when I touched down. And also one of the only places I find myself constantly returning to and consistently loving.
Lima is a slightly less adventurous, more scaled-down version of its Peruvian-based sister restaurant. Perhaps this comes down to the availability of ingredients, or even the taste of the clientele. Regardless, it invokes wonderful memories and has yet to fail when it comes to delivering a wonderfully tasty, innovative dining experience. For this reason, it remains to be a solid inclusion on my list of London favourites.
As I now work a mere stone’s throw away (yippee!), I find myself with minimal reason as to why I should not book myself in for a little post-work, pre-commute feed. Which is precisely why I found myself there bright and early for their first dinner sitting this Friday evening just passed.
Filled with deep, bold primary colours that succinctly remind me of Peru, I really love the main dining area of the restaurant. Scattered with throw pillows dressed in Andean textiles, leather banquettes line the panelled walls and a small window affords a sneak preview into the kitchen behind. The whole room culminates in a towering skylight that allows a wealth of much-needed natural brightness to flood through.
I settled in with a glass of Riesling and was brought a pretty little amuse bouche of sweet potato with black quinoa, asparagus and beetroot mayonnaise. A beautifully fresh mouthful, each individual element held its own and really shone through. I particularly appreciated the great amount of varying texture offered up by such a small bite.
Having spent ten minutes going back-and-forth over my starter option, I eventually forced myself to try something new and ordered the scallop causa with yellow potato, red quinoa and ají limo. Served cold, little pieces of the freshest raw scallop were mixed through perfectly seasoned potato bundles. Each of these sat atop a red Andean red pepper sauce and were topped with smooth avocado puree, a sliver of scallop sashimi, sea grapes – and crispy potato strings. Yum! I won’t be so reluctant to try something new on the menu next time.
For my main I chose the Amazonian paiche with seaweed brown butter, achiote, yuca root and cacao Amazonia. What seemed like a random collection of words and ingredients came together beautifully on the plate as though it had made sense all along. And suddenly it did.
Surprisingly heavy for a fish dish, the broth was deeply savoury with a pleasing underlying sweetness – it reminded me of the deliciously concentrated flavours found at the bottom of the pan when you slow-cook a shoulder of lamb. I was happy the yuca root mash was there to soak up every last bit of it. The fish was satisfyingly meaty, the pea shoots gave a much-needed lightness and the silken sheets of seaweed offered a salty kick. I could have gone without the chocolate though.
Never one to jump at the thought of sweets, I passed on dessert. Maybe next time!
I adore Lima and I really think it gives something a little different to London. Service is friendly and very helpful when it comes to explaining the [often unheard of] ingredients – and the food is excellent.
Does it live up to its famous sister restaurant? No. For me, it does not even come close to scraping the surface of experiencing the magic that goes on at Central. But then again, it is a concept of its own and I don’t think it is trying to.