Sunday, March 13, 2016

Restaurant Review: Central AKA The Emperor's New Food

For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, John made a reservation at what is considered by many to be the top restaurant in Latin America, Central. It's #4 on The World's 50 Best website and was voted #1 in Latin America by San Pellegrino. I hadn't researched the restaurant much, but I knew it was going to be a 12-course tasting menu. Disclaimer: I am not adventurous when it comes to food. As it is, I only started eating fish because I needed more to eat in Russia. Before that, I'd been a vegetarian for 15 years. But after a very positive experience with a set menu at a restaurant in Toronto a couple of years ago, and knowing Central's reputation, I tried to go into this meal with an open mind. Unfortunately, sometimes that's just not enough.

I'll start off with what I did like about Central, because it certainly had some good points. The restaurant is located in an unassuming building with no sign, and we managed to get there in about 35 minutes on a Saturday night, which is a small miracle coming from where we live in Sol de la Molina. We met a really sweet American couple outside while we waited for it to open. It was their first day in Lima, and I thought it was adorable that they were staying in a hostel but were coming to Central for dinner. They'd made reservations months in advance (I sure hope their experience was better than ours!). We chatted for a few minutes before going in, where we were escorted to our table in the center of the dining room.

Enjoying my champagne and trying not to freak out about the menu.

I really liked that we could see into the kitchen, and the head chef, Virgilio Martinez, was there the whole time, when he wasn't presenting dishes to the guests himself (to be honest I had no idea who he was until John told me - he looks like a 35-year-old hipster and was completely unpretentious, which was odd because his restaurant kind of is). I actually hate to give a negative review because I watched these people cooking and could see the pride and passion that went into their work. Everything was presented in a very unusual and creative manner, and each course was brought out by a chef or waiter and explained to us (in English, which was also nice).

The open kitchen. Martinez is hidden by the woman in the checkered shirt.
The wine list was excellent. John was thrilled to find some of his favorite wines on there, and while it was as overpriced as one would expect, he was genuinely happy with his drinks. Alas, a quick glance at the menu told me I was in trouble - I don't eat things like snails by choice, and while the dishes aren't exactly explained, the ingredient list was scaring me. Be warned: on Saturday nights there is no option to order a la carte, which I think may have been part of the problem with this meal for me. If I could have chosen foods that were recognizable and appetizing (to me), I would probably have had a much better experience.

The menu

From the first course on I had a hard time eating the food. In addition to the strange ingredients (and I don't just mean exotic, but strange, ranging from "bark" to "clay" to "bacteria"), the food didn't taste good. And at the end of the day, that's what matters to me. Unique presentation and "experience" be damned, it's food, and I want it to be delicious! Most of the dishes were too salty, so I didn't get any nuance of flavor. The bread that Martinez presented to us smelled and tasted like marijuana. I think it was cooked with smoked coca leaves, which may explain it, but again, it just wasn't good to eat. Even Martinez admitted that the flour they used wasn't the best, but that it was native, which I think is what really matters to him as a chef. The butters that came with it were probably the highlight of the meal for me. John really liked the octopus course, and one of the meat courses. I had two potato dishes to replace the meats, but both were so salty I couldn't taste the potato (the little bacteria balls on one of the dishes were also rather unappetizing).

The leaf covered with snail paste was probably the low point, or maybe it was the smoked tuber that tasted like what I imagine licking a hearth would be like. John had a gluten free menu, and I didn't have meat, so a few of our dishes varied. But John's dessert was inedible (some kind of cocoa ice cream topped with a crispy herb cracker - and whatever the herb was, it was extremely bitter). When the waiter could see he didn't enjoy it, he brought us both another course, and by that point I was just ready for the meal to be over. We did appreciate the gesture, however.

Leaf, fish (I think), and snails. Nope.

The tuber was another major miss for me.

Somewhere around the fifth or sixth course, I started to pay attention to the diners around us. They all seemed awed and impressed by the food. I could tell they considered Martinez a celebrity, asking him to take a photo with them and gushing over their meals. And I couldn't help but feel a little like this was the emperor's new food, that everyone believed they were *supposed* to love the food, so they did. While I can't deny that it was an impressive meal in many ways, I left wishing I'd gone out for pizza instead. I wasn't full, but I could barely stomach the "solar mucilage" - a drink that tastes pretty much exactly how it sounds - and chamomile gelatin that came with the last course. I understand that this kind of cuisine isn't for everyone, but John is a foodie, and even he was incredibly disappointed. Part of me wishes we'd gone with friends. We probably would have laughed about it and enjoyed the experience more. But I couldn't keep a straight face while eating some of the food, which made John feel guilty about choosing the restaurant, which made the entire experience an unpleasant one for both of us.

If you go to Central, I suggest you go with more than an open mind; a sense of humor (and a large snack beforehand) might serve you better in the end.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Getting to Know More of Peru: Arequipa and Colca

Hello all! Now that I've finished drafting my new novel, I'm taking a couple of weeks off to wait for feedback from critique partners and hoping that means I can catch up a bit on blogging! It's been a hell of a couple of months. In January and February, we had family visiting for four weeks total. It was awesome and kind of exhausting, especially because the plague descended on our house in the form of a stomach...thing. I can't say exactly what happened, because I'm pretty sure the local lab screwed up my results, but John had both a bacterial infection AND a parasite at the same time. I think I had the bacteria. My poor parents were both sick for a couple of days while they were here. My sister, Amy, and her husband both had mild stomach issues (and so did I, even after I thought the plague had left). John and I both lost a significant amount of weight (which was NOT the plan) while we were ill, and now I'm once again struggling to get healthy. It was a very effective reminder that this is still a developing country in many ways, and even though we think we're careful about what we eat, our systems still haven't adjusted to being here. All I can say is I'm going to Vegas for a writers conference in April and I plan on making the most of the all-you-can-eat buffets!

But despite all that, we've done some great traveling this year, and I wanted to share some photos and travel tips for other families who might be looking to explore areas outside of Lima.

I knew my sister and her husband wanted to go to Cuzco and Machu Picchu when they came, so I researched other trips for my parents' visit. I had heard that Arequipa is a beautiful city with great food, and that Colca Canyon was a side trip not to be missed. One challenging thing about traveling within Peru is that many places are at a high altitude. Arequipa is only around 8,000 feet, but Colca Canyon is at 12,000, and the road there goes over 16,000 feet. Let me tell you, when you live at sea level, that's a BIG change. Huaraz was also tough, going straight to 12,000 feet, and we all felt the altitude there, even though I was on Diamox (a medication that helps prevent altitude sickness). After taking the kids to Cuzco last year and then Huaraz, I was well aware that Will does not like high altitudes, so we decided to leave him in Lima with our nanny. Jack has done great on all our trips within Peru, fortunately.

Arequipa has a lovely city center, but I'll say up front it's not as beautiful as Cuzco. The terrain is much drier than in the Sacred Valley, but we were lucky to have great weather while we were there, with only the occasional passing rainstorm. We had a few things working against us on this trip. First, John and I were both still quite sick at that point, and it made it very difficult to appreciate the food and the sightseeing. And then John had to return to Lima for one night and ended up having his return flight canceled, so he missed all of Colca Canyon, which was the real highlight of the trip. I'll tell you one thing, we have NOT been impressed with the Peruvian airlines. Almost all of our flights have been delayed or canceled. Ugh.

On a bus tour of Arequipa (John and Jack recommend the "queso helado")

Colca Canyon is beautiful. We stayed at Colca Lodge, which has wonderful grounds, thermal springs, and the cutest alpaca farm in the world. Jack and I had a blast there, and the trip out to see the Andean condors flying in the canyons was truly special (we were lucky to see any condors, because we went during the rainy season - I'd say to avoid traveling to Arequipa/Colca from January to March because of this, although as I said, we got lucky).

Colca Canyon - it's like a golf course in Jurassic Park, or something.

A random woman's finger helpfully pointing to the condor.

On the way back to Arequipa, I did come close to passing out going over the pass. The Med Unit here gives out enough Diamox for four days, the logic being that you should be acclimated at that point, so I hadn't taken it for a day when we hit 16,000 feet. If you go and have any sensitivity to altitude, I'd suggest staying on the meds. But that's just my two cents.


Escaped baby alpaca!

A village in Colca - I love the colors!
Due to illness/general tiredness, we missed seeing the Inca Ice Maiden (who, by the way, is not on display from January to April, although a different mummy is apparently displayed). We did go to the Santa Catalina Monastery (what we would call a convent), which was very beautiful and interesting. Definitely a highlight of the trip.

Santa Catalina Monastery

Overall, this was a fun trip, though a challenging one. I wouldn't recommend more than two nights in Arequipa, and I wish we'd had three nights in Colca instead of two, just because it was so beautiful and peaceful there. It would be the perfect spot for a writers retreat. Next time, I'll write about my second trip to the Sacred Valley and Cuzco, and my first time to Machu Picchu!