One of the starters on the tasting menu at Central consists of delicate wedges of baked cornmeal with carob and honey, set beside a shot glass of liquefied corn “milk” blended with the sharp, citric juice of tumbo, a kind of passion fruit that was around in Peru long before the Spaniards arrived. The effect is refreshing, appetising and revelatory: a post-modern take on a staple that underlaid the great civilisations of the Andes as well as those of Mexico. It is a prelude to a menu that moves from intense mouthfuls of shellfish (limpets and sea snails as well as octopus, squid and crab) to shavings of obscure tubers and exotic fruits.
Virgilio Martínez (top right), Central’s slim 38-year-old chef-proprietor, is the brightest star in Lima’s gastronomic firmament, delivering food that is creative, original and marked by obsessive attention to ingredients and detail. Last year, Central was voted the world’s fourth-best restaurant in the annual San Pellegrino list, and Martínez has recently opened two restaurants in London. But unlike many successful chefs, he can still be found in the kitchen. He was there the night in December that I ate at Central, popping next door to his house from time to time to check on his new-born child.
Tucked away in a quiet street in the district of Miraflores, Central is at the pinnacle of an extraordinary culinary cluster. Lima boasts three restaurants in San Pellegrino’s top 50 – the same as New York and more than London – and nine of the top 50 in Latin America. It is the breadth of good eating available that has brought gastronomic tourists flocking to Peru’s capital. More than a million a year are said to come mainly for food; most are from elsewhere in Latin America, but many North Americans come too.
Two things make Lima’s restaurant scene unique. The first is the range of ingredients. Thanks to the Andes, Peru has many microclimates, as well as the rich waters of the cold Humboldt current. For the past couple of years, Lima has been my base, from which I rove around Latin America. When at home I go to the Producers’ Market in San Isidro. Its fish stalls are loaded with giant Pacific sole, plump corvina (sea bass) and mero (grouper), as well as sweet queen scallops and freshwater crayfish, the orange tongues of sea urchins, and slippery octopuses. Gastro-tourists, issued with white aprons, queue at fruit stalls laden with cacao pods, tart aguaymanto berries, cactus fruits and custard apples, as well as staples such as papaya and pineapple.
Secondly, Lima’s restaurants are a fusion of many influences. Pre-Inca traditions, including ceviche, survive; fishermen used tumbo to marinate their catch. For 250 years Lima was the capital of Spanish South America, home of the vice-regal court and a string of convents and monasteries. Slavery and later waves of migration brought African, Italian and Oriental influences.
The result is an extraordinary variety of good places to eat, some grand but many unassuming and inexpensive. Apart from Central, one of my favourites towards the top end is Fiesta, which offers food from Peru’s north coast: first-rate ceviche of thick cubes of the freshest mero, fragrant duck with rice, and piquant roasted goat. Brujas de Cachiche puts on a blow-out buffet of traditional comida criolla, or home cooking, featuring spicy stews. Then there are countless everyday cevicherias. I often go to Punta Sal, perched on the cliff top in Miraflores, where, for $60, two can have a good ceviche or tiradito (raw fish in a sauce of yellow ají, Peru’s subtle, perfumed chilli) and jalea – a Peruvian version of an Italian frito misto of fish and shellfish, garlanded with seaweed, maize and purple onion.
If you can’t make it to Peru, try its food here
London: Lima, Rathbone Place
São Paulo: La Mar, Rua Tabapuã
Madrid: Viru, Claudio Coello