Santa Isabel 376.
Telephone: +5112428515 / 2428575 / 2416721
Overall rating: 6/10
Date of visit: February 2017
At the time of writing, April 2017, Central is placed as number 5 on Restaurant Magazine’s list of 50 best restaurants in the world 2017. In 2016 it was number 5, and it held the same spot in 2015. The year before it was placed as number 15, and in 2013 it was placed as number 50, so it has skyrocketed quickly. Obviously, there’s a lot of interest in this restaurant, and it wasn’t until I was in Peru for the third time that I managed to get a table. I suspect that the table we got was due to someone else canceling, as I “only” booked three weeks in advance. The two previous times the only availability were spots at the bar, where only snacks and not the tasting menu is available. So, third time’s the charm.
I won’t go into detail about each course, but instead run through the food and show the pictures and then give an overall assessment at the end. Many of the ingredients I had never heard of before, so I just go by what the menu said.
Along with the food we ordered a glass of white wine each. The sommelier was very good at explaining which wines would be most to our liking. I personally don’t like very acidic wines, but certain grapes I’ve enjoyed before, but the ones I inquired about he said would be more acidic than my go-to choice of grapes (chardonnay). My girlfriend had another glass of wine. I suppose both were to our liking, but we didn’t feel the wine were all that special.
The lengthy tasting menu, at 17 courses, came at a price of 427 sol (€121) per person. The restaurant also offer a shorter version of the same menu. The menu is called “Mater elevations” and next to each dish is mentioned the elevation in meters of the (main) ingredients.
The two glasses of white wine set us back 38 sol (€11) and 42 sol (€12) respectively. This is still a very good price for wine, especially considering that most wine in Peru is imported and it’s surprisingly expensive. Even Argentinian or Chilean cheap wine in a supermarket is even more expensive than in Denmark, where it has to be flown across the globe.
We also drank two bottles of water, priced at 32 sol (€9) each.
On to the food:
The first course was rock molluscs, sea snail, mussel, sargassum and limpet.
As I don’t like oysters, mussels and clams (save scallops) and sea urchin I had something else, which I recall as being pickled yuca rolled in ashes and with edible flowers on top.
Next course consisted of three elements and was called “Desert plants” and consisted of huarango, cactus, a sweet potato leaf and loche.
Up next was “Lofty Andes”, which was potato (the burnt potato in the picture), tree tomato, alpaca shavings (in the cream on the side) and muña mint.
“Thick stems” was olluco, chincho, onion and field mustard. The red fruits on the left were just a decoration, while the liquid on the side was like the marinade from ceviche, although, luckily, less acidic than what you often find.
“River scales” was an edible leaf with river shrimp, doncella (a fish), achiote (a spice) and, according to the menu, huampo, although I don’t know what that would be, as Huampo is the name of a mountain in Peru (?), so perhaps this is where they sourced the ingredients.
I forgot to take a picture of the dish called “Forrest cotton”, but the menu said it was churo (mussels), gamitana, pacae and llanten.
“High jungle” was bread that had a flavour of the burnt coca leaves underneath it, which was a flavour that I enjoyed, but my girlfriend didn’t, although she’s Peruvian. The menu also lists maambo, bassava, sachaculantro and air potato, which are the flat cylinders on the right. The butter was quite nice, but the cream next to it was too acidic for both of us.
Next up was “Marine soil”, which was sea urchin, pepino melon, razor clam and seaweed.
As I had asked for no sea urchin and clams, I had raw fish instead with a cream on top as well as some green crisps.
“Tree skins” meant avocado, huacatay, kañihua and macre. Peruvian avocados are actually very nice, and so were these, although the rest of the dish was, also, basically forgettable.
“Land of Corn” was stuffed balls, kind of similar in texture to potato croquettes (tater tots), just more sticky and made with corn, as well as sugary discs on top and heavily reduced, syrupy and sticky sauce underneath – so sticky that it became difficult to eat and it ruined the dish a bit, as the balls were fairly nice, but it all became too rich and sticky.
The dish called “Colors of Amazonia” was shavings of the fish paiche (the white and red slices), yacon, guanabana and lemongrass powder (the green dusting). Both of us enjoy lemongrass a lot, but I felt this dish could have used more of it, and something in this dish, I’m not sure exactly what it was, had a very unpleasant flavour for me – almost like old fish (but the fish slices themselves didn’t taste like that).
The dish “Coastal harvest” consisted of scallops, a sauce of yellow chili peppers (not spicy), borage and tumpo.
Fairly tender octopus and squid was mentioned on the menu to be accompanied by crab, but I didn’t find any crab flavour in here. The menu also lists sea lettuce, and the purple discs were made of chicha (the purple corn you often see in Peru, and which is used for a drink that tastes a bit like a berry mix). As mentioned, the octopus and squid were quite nice, but the chicha discs had a strange styrofoam-like texture that crumbled in the mouth and became very sticky.
The meat course was called “Low andes mountains” and consisted of pork, lack mashwa, panca chili pepper and kiwicha (the grain on the picture that looks a bit like quinoa).
The first dessert was called “Humid green” and was caigua, cushuro, sweet lemon and chaco clay.
The next dessert was called “Amazonian white” and consisted of cocoa ice cream, chirimoya, bahuaja nut and taperiba.
For the very last dessert I forgot to take a picture, but it was called “Medicinals and plant dyes” and consisted of congona, matico, malva and pilipili. It was basically a small chocolate cracker, a jelly candy and a small drink, which, if I recall correctly, was lemon flavoured.
All in all, this was a very long menu – and too long. Even before the pork dish we were completely stuffed and could barely eat anything more, but the dishes just kept coming. By the time the pork was served we started leaving food that we simply couldn’t eat.
So, the enjoyment of the end of the meal was cut short, but honestly it didn’t change much. As you have probably already guessed from my score at the top, we didn’t particularly enjoy the food.
Don’t get me wrong, there really were no mistakes, if you leave out the sticky sauce for the corn dish and the sticky chicha styrofam for the octopus dish. So, I’m convinced that the chef’s skills are in order. In a nutshell the problem at Central was this: The food was creative, different and “interesting”, but not particularly delicious. There weren’t any bad dishes here, although my girlfriend noted a few that she didn’t really like (I didn’t have any, except for the paicha dish in part), but there weren’t any spectacular dishes either – far from. A few dishes, such as “thick stems” (minus the drink) and the bread, were a bit better, but not much. I would probably rate those two around 6/10 or 7/10, while the rest I would rate around 5/10 or 6/10, mostly 5/10.
Dish after dish appeared that looked incredible and unlike most other food I have eaten in my life – much of it didn’t even look like food. But after almost every dish we looked at each other and asked “did you like it?”, and both of us responded with either “I suppose it was okay” or “meh!”. Although I wasn’t thrilled about Maido either, then at least Maido had several dishes that stood out and reached 7/10 or even 8/10. And despite perhaps a lack of stand-out dishes, the general level at Astrid y Gaston was the best among those three.
I’m writing this review around two weeks after my visit to Central, and when I looked at the pictures now, I could hardly remember the flavour of any of the dishes. Certain meals have lived on in my memory for a long time, and while Astrid y Gaston isn’t the the most vivid meal in my memory, looking at the pictures now brings back many more memories of the flavours, and that meal was more than two weeks before Central.
So the 6/10 rating is also an acknowledgment of how much work and creativity has been put into this menu at Central.
I understand that you can’t get anywhere near the top of a list of the best restaurants in the world, if you only serve a slab of beef with mashed potatoes and gravy on the side, and most of the restaurants that I have enjoyed have been at least moderately creative and modern. Certainly, one of my disappointments with some of the three-star restaurants in Italy was the lack of creativity and that the food simply seemed old-fashioned.
Could it be that I simply didn’t “understand” the food, since I’m not Peruvian? Perhaps. But my girlfriend, who’s Peruvian, seemed even less impressed than I did. When we went to Astrid y Gaston, I believe this was her first fancy restaurant, and she enjoyed that very much – probably even more so than me. My standards are of course high after having been to so many fancy restaurants, but I have enjoyed much less expensive, and much less creative, restaurants around the world much more than Central (see e.g. Cofoco, Tony’s, Rebel and Styggekrumpen in Denmark, and Orio & Sagardi, Samsha and Borda Berri in Spain).
Also, I see food as a universal language. As someone once told me, “good food has always been good food”, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that, no matter how much we have become used to expecting rocket science when we go into an expensive restaurant nowadays. Good food will speak to almost anyone, except certain things like oysters, clams, offal and so on. In other words: Almost anyone (we’ll leave out vegans) will enjoy a well-cooked piece of chicken with a nice sauce and well-made potato mash, perhaps with a few things added to spice it up a bit. And I would rather have simple, classic food that tastes good than crazy, creative food that isn’t a pleasure to eat.
Noma was a restaurant I enjoyed very much, partly due to everything else than the food, but some people don’t particularly care for that restaurant either, finding the food pretentious and bland. Central is in many ways just like Noma, except in a different setting. The food at Noma is all about using local, indigenous ingredients and either creating brand new dishes, or do modern takes on well-known traditional food from Denmark. The same can be said for Central. This particular attitude to food seems to have become a very popular trend around the world, and it plays in perfectly with the current attitude among most of the hip people around the world, that the world was a much better place back in the old days, so we should wear clothes from the 70s and 80s and decorate our houses like people back then did and pay gazillions for old, ugly orange lamps and brown carpets, as long as we get to keep our iPhones.
Personally, I’, fed up with that trend, but that’s just me. However, I did learn something, finally, at Central (although I suppose I already did at Mielcke & Hurtigkarl in Copenhagen), which is what my taste in food really is : Moderately creative classic food with a modern touch.
Super classical food? Preferably not. Super creative “different” food? Preferably not either. The most important thing in a meal should always be the flavour. One of the reasons I admire Gordon Ramsay, despite the decline in his restaurants that many people speak of (as well as his seemingly psychotic behaviour on TV), can be summed up in a quote from his cookbook “*** Chef”: “My first concern is always: ‘Are we delivering on flavour?'”. For the two of us, Central didn’t deliver.
Then there’s the service. As such there was nothing wrong with the service, but not much to applaud either. We both agreed that first of all the service at Astrid y Gaston was clearly better and more friendly, and secondly we felt that the service at Central was too rushed. Granted, we arrived at 21:15, as that was the only available table, but we weren’t even the last people to leave. But often the waiters put the food on the table, told us what it was and started walking away immediately, so sometimes I asked a question while the waiter had already started to walk away. There wasn’t any small-talk or “cozying up” to us – it seemed to be just pure business. Although this is a minor concern, then my girlfriend only speaks Spanish, and I mostly spoke English to the waiters, so most of the time the food was presented in both English and Spanish, but several times it was presented in only one language, and then the waiter quickly walked away before we could ask for the presentation in the other language. This is not a major issue, but if the waiters hadn’t seemed so rushed this could have been avoided. Staying just one or two seconds longer at the table and perhaps saying “enjoy” while giving a smile and a nod would do so much.
Topping up wasn’t exactly flawless either. I drink a lot of water in restaurants, and my glass was empty here several times. I think I asked for more water three or four times, and often I drank my girlfriend’s water. This is not the end of the world, but I’ve often seen this done flawlessly or close to flawless in lower-level restaurants. Funny thing is that the topping up issues didn’t start to occur until around halfway through the meal, and even close to the end waiters were often just stood around overlooking the room, which usually means they look for things like empty glasses.
Due to the rush, the pace was also high. I don’t like waiting a long time between each dish, especially not in a long menu like this. Although a shorter four-course menu, Morten’s Kro in Denmark takes the dubious honour of being the high-end restaurant where I’ve waited the longest between dishes, where the main course and dessert were served one hour apart! If the dishes are small, serving each dish at a ten minute interval is in my opinion perfect, which is something that Sant Pau in Spain mastered to perfection. I can see from my pictures that at Central there were a few deviations that meant that dishes were served at 10-15 minute intervals, but everything else was served at approx. 5 minute intervals. Granted, it was a very long menu, but it nevertheless felt a bit rushed and probably also was partly responsible for making us so full already around halfway through.
Lastly, there was the price. €121 won’t buy you this long a menu in any European high-end restaurant. In Spain I paid €135-€150 for 10-12 courses, which still is at least 5 courses less than Central. With all the interest in Central, they could probably charge double and still serve a full restaurant every night. Of course, for almost anybody in Peru, the price of a menu here is an astronomical amount of money when the average salary is €500 per month and an average salary for a high skilled person is €1100 (http://www.tradingeconomics.com/peru/wages). Nevertheless, for a European or American, the price of such a long tasting menu was very reasonable indeed, but as you can tell I wouldn’t go here again, unless someone else paid for me. The price for wine was also very reasonable.
The only thing I found expensive was water at 32 sol (€9) per bottle. At Sant Pau in Spain, the tasting menu was $149, whereas a large bottle of water was €5, a small bottle €4. And at Astrid y Gaston in Lima, the exact same bottle of water was around 1/3 less, at 22 sol.
I couldn’t have cared less if Central had served me the cheapest bottled water from the local supermarket, but I am of course aware that certain guests here would frown upon that.
So, all in all, a very creative and different meal, but not a memorable one at all, sadly.