My dinner at Central the next day was equally gratifying. The restaurant’s 17-course tasting menu was themed “elevations” and seemed designed to remind diners of Peru’s astonishingly diverse topography and the produce it yields, from a clam collected six meters underwater to potatoes grown at 4,000 meters in the Andes. The dishes were elemental and painstakingly composed, sometimes served on a piece of rock or nestled on a bed of flowers and plants plucked from the rooftop garden. The Dry Andes course—oca tuber covered in an edible clay that looked like fine, damp ash—comprised a couple of gray nuggets on a slate that sat on a round dish of tubers, to represent the landscape. Its texture and temperature surprised me—as cold, smooth, and intermittently crispy as the Indian ice cream kulfi, with a not dissimilar taste. Other revelations followed. A tiny, dense cube of cooked corn melted in my mouth like fudge; duck with coffee was aromatic and smoky; bread flecked with cocoa nibs was bitter but helped to reset the palate; octopus and sweet purple corn were tempered by tart airampo; sticky, intense mountain beef was paired with brussels-sprout flowers; olives from southern Peru accompanied charred lentils and grilled beans.
Intermittently, waiters brought by small display cases to elucidate on the more unfamiliar raw ingredients, like red achiote seeds and ungurahui. And sometimes Martínez himself appeared to introduce the next course, sliding from table to table in his blue apron and suede shoes and colorful socks. A young man with deep-set eyes that give him the brooding good looks of a misunderstood matinee idol, he would discuss and dissect a given dish in his soothing voice, occasionally crack a joke, rearrange anything on the plate that might have moved out of place with the tweezers he kept in his top pocket, then return to the kitchen to work alongside his fresh-faced, unfailingly upbeat cooking partner and wife Pia Leon.
Martínez’s unbridled love affair with his country’s food was astounding. But the greater revelation was that at the best restaurant in Latin America, there was no strong-arm door policy, and the chef was actually cooking, greeting, charming, with no drama or pretense. In fact, all the Peruvian chefs I met on my trip shared this lack of ego, a trait most purely distilled by Javier Wong, Peru’s ceviche guru, whom I met a few days earlier at his no-frills cebichería Chez Wong. “People say I make the best ceviche in Peru, but that is not important to me,” the 67-year-old told me, wearing his trademark tinted glasses and white flat cap. “Every Peruvian must have ceviche to live and each Peruvian has his favorite, for his own reasons. That is what’s important.” In a world obsessed with celebrity and fame, how refreshing it is to find chefs that believe that the food is more meaningful than the preparer.
From Hong Kong, the most efficient connection to Lima is Cathay Pacific’s codeshare flight with LAN Perú via LAX. For Singapore-based travelers, try KLM, which will get you there in 30 hours including a 4.5-hour layover in Amsterdam.
Where to Stay
A marble pile in Lima’s poshest neighborhood, Belmond MirafloresPark (Ave. Malecón de la Reserva, Miraflores; 51-1/610-4000; doubles from US$320) is newly renovated and comes with sensational Pacific views from its rooftop pool. For something more intimate, consider the 17-room Hotel B
(Sáenz Peña 204, Barranco; 51-1/206-0800; doubles from US$450).
Where to Eat
Amoramar (Garcia y Garcia 175, Barranco; 51-1/619-9595)
Astrid y Gastón (Casa Moreyra, Ave. Paz Soldán 290, San Isidro; 51-1/442-2775)
Central (Calle Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores; 51-1/242-8515)
Chez Wong (Calle Enrique León García 114, La Victoria; 51-1/470-6217)
La Picantería (Ave. Francisco Moreno 388, Surquillo; 51-1/241-6676)
This article originally appeared in the April/May print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Peru On A Plate”)