Quick Take: Virgilio Martinez of Central opened MIL restaurant in a remote spot of the Sacred Valley to showcase high altitude ingredients and preparations while supporting local communities.
If you know me – or have spent more than a few seconds on this blog – you know I like to eat and drink good stuff. That means I spend a lot of time with some pretty hilarious, adventurous and smart friends who like to do the same. For this year’s NYE trip, four of us headed south to Peru, a destination chosen by Wendy who was celebrating a big birthday and wanted to get in on some of its stand out gastro-scene.
Wendy is not only a super fun BFF, but one of my favorite fellow trouble makers and the person with whom I’ve probably done the most travelling. We take our holiday planning seriously and both dove into food and drinks research. Wendy’s friend Meg of Apu winery helped us out a lot, and I also pumped my friend Sara Lieberman for tips as she had just returned from her own once in a lifetime Peruvian adventure.
Over the course of nearly two weeks, we drank a lot of pisco sours and had some fantastic fare from street food to Michelin starred meals. Some that particularly stood out in Lima were: La Mar, Isolina, Astrid y Gaston and Mayo. I also really enjoyed our Cusco lunch at Rucola. But, one of the most unusual and outstanding was our visit to MIL for the lunch menu with drinks pairing.
MIL was opened early last year by Virgilio Martinez, the chef behind the Peruvian restaurant Central, which is currently at No. 5 on the world’s best fifty restaurants list. Located in Lima, Central isn’t so difficult to get to. However, perched at over 11,700 feet altitude above the Moray Inca ruins in the much more remote Sacred Valley, MIL is a major destination restaurant for dedicated foodies and drinkies.
An arrival tour of the complex includes different research and lab stations where indigenous plants and veggies are being tested, prepared, preserved and considered. The concept behind the MIL experience: Chef Martinez and his team work with nearby communities to both learn about the high altitude ingredients and their preparation, buy their crops for the restaurant and provide infrastructure like investment in a local irrigation system. So far it’s working nicely for both MIL and the nearby communities. And, turns out, what’s good for the MIL project and good for the local farmers is also pretty great experience for anyone else willing to make the trek to try it out.
This concept of putting ancient products and preparations into the spotlight with modern twists and touches carries through to their eight course lunch pairing (165 USD). An alcoholic drinks pairing is available for an additional $90. Non-alcoholic pairings or a la carte drinks options are possible as well. I loved seeing a drinks pairing option that included more than just wine, too. (don’t get me wrong…wine is more than fine, but as we’re going so far from our usual tastes and expectations, I feel like somehow it warrants even bigger explorations and variations from the norm).
This experience is a culinary and gastronomic tour of the highest altitudes of the Andes. We started with their version of chips and dip, but turned up to 11 with a freeze dried potato chuno – this was the menu segment that represented Preservation. The following menu stages took us through various geographical elements from Andean Forest to Extreme Altitude. A table favorite was the course Diversity of Corn, bringing this Peruvian staple to the table in multiple forms.
Each plate was paired with a different drink, including cocktails, local craft IPA’s, digestive spirits and potato wine. The Matacuy kind of kicked my ass. It’s a local sugar cane based spirit and when served straight digestive style, it’s pretty strong stuff. The wine, Cara Sur Bonarda, was from Argentina. Not too surprising since more than one local encountered on this trip told us that while Peruvians know how to do Pisco, it’s best to look beyond their borders for wine to Argentina or Chile. The pairing was interesting and allowed newbies like us to easily experiment with different drinks and products from the area that we might not have tried otherwise. If I were to go back, I might go with a full on cocktail pairing to try and experience more of those many, many bottles of home distilled spirits being infused with everything from fresh fruit to little fishies.
Even their very sparkly and flat water is local and coffee service comes with a full presentation and preparation by a rep from Cusco based Three Monkeys Coffee. It was interesting enough to keep the attention of even a non-coffee drinker like myself – who went with their homegrown version of a negroni instead.
Here, nothing is overlooked. The beautifully zen-like cutlery and ceramic dishware are locally made. As the temperature drops and rises in the high ceilinged space, they bring out light locally woven woolen blankets. If necessary, they even bring your table a tiny oxygen level tester, which (surprise to me) is just a little plastic piece that they slip over the tip of your finger so see if you’re getting enough air to your brain and body. (I know this because, of course, I had to try it.) But, it’s no joke – on our visit a gentleman was in the shop/lab area being administered oxygen from a tank. This sh*t is high up, folks!
After lunch, you can visit the little shop and take home some excellent chocolate or the various spirits made onsite. Or some of that sleek ceramic and stone dishware. You can even buy one of those beautiful blankets – guess which three girls did just that? Finally, you can walk off all the consuming and consumerism through the nearby ruins.
This was one of the highlights of my trip. Having eaten in a fair few of the world’s “best” restaurants, sometimes it’s easy to succumb to a culinary ennui. But MIL feels particularly unique with its high altitude focus and local community involvement. It’s special.
If you can’t make it to the Sacred Valley or want to sample Virgilio Martinez’s culinary and cocktail skills but at a more accessible price point, hit up his Lima based cocktail bar, Mayo, for small plates and cocktails. We found one “small plate” was plenty to make a light meal.
What’s that?! You still want even more Peru? Then pop over to my full instagram story highlight of the trip.