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.


3 comments:

  1. Oh my gosh, I'm laughing so hard. Snail paste? Clay? Bacteria balls?! Your explanations are hilarious. I wish I could have gone with you so we could have sat there cackling. Yikes!

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  2. Hi Mara! Your blog was recommended by "Towels Packed, Will Travel"! I saw that you are a writer, and I hope to spend time developing my writing career once my husband and I are posted overseas later this year! I was hoping I could get some advice? I am compiling it all in a survey; thank you in advance for helping a new diplowife out! https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WGCC9YG

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    Replies
    1. Done! Welcome to the club and good luck :)

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