Central Restaurante [Lima, Peru]

[Note: This post is a little out of order.  It took me a while to write, but it should have been the first one from Peru.]

In most Masters programs, students write a thesis.  In my Business School program, we do an international consulting project instead. After hundreds of hours of meetings and research, five of my colleagues and I flew to Lima this week to present our recommendations to our client.  Afterwards we celebrated with the most memorable meal of my life at Central Restaurante.

You might not have heard of it, but in the food world, Central is famous.  This year it was ranked 5th in the world (#1 in Latin America) and it was also featured in an episode of the Netflix series, Chef’s Table.  We enjoyed the famous Mater Elevations menu, which features 17 courses representing different elevations from around Peru.

Before I dive into the first course, I’ll give you a little background.  Chef Virgilio Martinez Veliz and his sister, who has a science background, source their ingredients from all over the country.  From the Netflix episode, I remember him saying that they use about 150 ingredients from around Peru but only half of them are known food items. This means that some of the courses are a bit weird, making the meal an adventure.  Each course came with an explanation, and we required instructions on what to eat (and how…. and in some cases, in which order).  In addition to unique ingredients and creative preparation, the presentation was bar none.  The food, and the dishes they were served on, were unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before.

It was a bit dark, so apologies for the photo quality, but I think you’ll be able to appreciate the effort and precision that went into the presentation of each bite.

I’ll spare you in-depth coverage of each course, and just cover my favorites instead.  We started off strong with Rock Mullucs  – Elevation: -10.  The menu describes it as “Sea snail, Mussel, Sargassum, and Limpet”. This is one of the ones where we needed instruction most. The wooden sticks on the barnacle (barnacle for decoration only) were intended to be used as spoons so that we could scoop the dark jam-textured concoction onto a puffed algae crisp.  The flavors and the mouth feel were both incredible, leaving us in anxious anticipation of the next course.

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This eager anticipation was part of the defining experience of this meal.  I always look forward to dessert, but this meal was so much more than food.  The second course was one of the weirder ones. This is a crisp leaf covered in some kind of green powder.  It wasn’t delicious, but it wasn’t bad either.  The little red bite at the top were one of my favorites from the evening.  They were cold and melted on the tongue.

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Another stand-out course was the piranha.  The course consisted of two different things using different parts of the fish.  One was crispy slivers of the skin, served atop a plate made of the aggressive fish’s dismembered head.

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FullSizeRender 7Perhaps my favorite course was the sea urchin.  I tried sea urchin a couple of years ago at a sushi restaurant in San Diego.  At the time, I wasn’t crazy about it.  Both the texture and the flavor turned me off so I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much this time around.  The flavors of the sea urchin (the orange part of the picture above) paired perfectly with the thin slices of melon.

FullSizeRenderThis beautiful dish was also one of the most delicious.  It’s a massive river fish that we enjoyed prepared several different ways while in Lima. They called it, Colors of Amazonia and described it as “Paiche, Yacon, Bellaco, and Lemongrass”.

Below, you’ll see other courses including pork belly, scallops, and a colorful dish made almost entirely of different corns.

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Above: Low Andes Mountains, Elevation: 1800 M.  Menu described it as “Pork, Black Mashwa, Panca Chili Pepper, and Kiwicha”.

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Above: Land of Corn.  Menu described it as “Kculli, Purple, Chuli, Piscorunto”.

Part way through the meal, the Chef stopped by to say hello and see how we were enjoying everything.  Of course, we couldn’t resist asking for a photo.  He’s a young guy, 30ish, and surprisingly soft-spoken and humble for someone so highly lauded.  And no, Mom, he’s not single.

IMG_4827FullSizeRender 6Course 14 brought us to desserts.  The first was very popular among my friends – frozen algae and a refreshing green sorbet.

Below was my favorite of the desserts (the only one with chocolate).

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The meal took three hours, but with good company and the epicurean adventure, it passed quickly.

If you are going to be in Lima, I highly recommend a visit.  It books up fast, but reservations are made easily online.  I made mine several months in advance, and I’d recommend doing the same.  There are great restaurants all over Lima, but this one is truly a stand-out.

 

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Machu Picchu

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You know how, sometimes, you hear so much about something that when you actually see or experience it, there’s no way it can possibly live up to the hype? Well, Machu Picchu isn’t one of those things.  It’s every bit as spectacular as you’d expect it to be.

There are several ways to reach Machu Picchu, and none of them are easy.  The hardest way is a 4 day (3 night) hike on the Inca Trail.  My friend Jill and I opted for the easiest (and shortest) method, which meant a van picked us up from our hotel around 6:30 AM.  That took us to a bus, which took us to another bus, which took us to a train, which took us to a final bus.  And that’s just one way.  We finally arrived around noon, and the conditions were perfect.

Our guide, Jonathan, led us up some stairs, pausing periodically to educate us about Machu Picchu and the Inca as we caught our breath.  It wasn’t a challenging climb, but the altitude made us all get winded more easily than normal.  We learned that the civilization wasn’t actually called the Inca – there was only one Inca at a time (the ruler) and everyone else was Quechua.  Almost nothing is known about the first Incas since they didn’t write their history, but we know a fair amount about the later rulers thanks to the Spanish who chronicled the culture.

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Upon reaching the top of the stairs we were immediately rewarded with this spectacular view.  Our guide was extremely patient while we snapped photos to our hearts content.  I might have snapped a selfie or two (ok, there are like 50 on my phone).

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We learned that you can tell where the highest ranking people lived because the construction of those homes are superior.  The rocks are cut and shaped together perfectly without the need for mortar.  We saw this in the Inca’s dwelling, the temple, and also where the priest lived.  All the homes, even the Inca’s, are very small since they only used it for sleeping.  The other, less holy areas are still beautifully built but the stones are less perfect and there is mortar between them.

They chose the location for Machu Picchu for multiple reasons.  First, the elevation was appealing because it put them close to the gods.  It also provided some protection, since enemies would have to scale the surrounding mountains.  It would be easy to spot them as they did so.  However, it is situated between two major fault lines so it’s prone to earthquakes.  It’s also in an area with heavy rainfall much of the year.

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It’s incredible how smart the Quechua were.  Their architecture and astronomy were particularly impressive.  They utilized the large boulders in the landscape to stabilize the buildings and protect against tremors.  And they build in a system of aqueducts, channels, and fountains to deal with the heavy rains.  As you can see in the picture below, the roofs of each home were built at 65 degrees so that the rain would pour off easily. The terraced areas you see were used for agriculture.  They have several layers of dirt, sand, gravel, and larger rocks underneath to deal with the rain so that floods were nonexistent, even in the heaviest downpours.

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If you’re in touch with South American news, you might know that there are strikes and protests going on throughout Peru right now.  The notoriously corrupt government recently canceled plans to build a new airport in Cusco and the citizens are displeased about it.  On top of that, the teachers are fighting for higher wages.  In case the protests spread, police were sent to Machu Picchu with riot shields and machine guns.  I think they were just as psyched to be there as we were.

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In addition to being pretty darn funny, this picture is also a good example of the first construction style I mentioned with “pillow” shaped rocks that are cut so perfectly they don’t even need mortar.  Compare that with the picture above and you can really appreciate the difference.  However it’s important to keep in mind that all of the 700 people who lived there were considered high society, so there are no areas inside Machu Picchu where the lower castes lived.

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The place is huge; we spent almost three hours there and honestly it felt a bit rushed because we had to make our train.  I could have spent at least another hour or two exploring, petting the alpacas, et cetera.

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Guess I’ll just have to go back!  It’s a little expensive (I paid about $380 USD for admission, all transportation, and the tour guide), and it’s a very long day (about 15.5 hours), but it’s absolutely worth it.  I am still reeling in awe, and I don’t think it’s wearing off any time soon!

 

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Saqsaywaman [Cusco, Peru]

DSC_0032Yesterday I arrived in Cusco and immediately fell in love.  Your plane descends between steep but breathtaking mountains into a small airport, and before you even reach the baggage claim you’re offered free cocoa leaves to help you acclimate to the altitude.  The city, which was the capital of the Inca Empire, is over 11,000 feet above sea level and you definitely feel it when you walk off the plane.  But everywhere you turn they offer you cocoa leaves, tea, and candies to help and except a little lethargy and shortness of breath, none of my friends suffered too much.

Our first night in town we ate at a restaurant called Cicciolina, which is notoriously one of the best.  We tasted the local flavors like cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca.  I can’t say I’ll be ordering them again, but I was excited for the experience to try something local and exotic.  My pasta entree was delicious and after two glasses of wine (at altitude) I was ready to go straight to bed.

DSC_0037This morning we woke up and enjoyed breakfast in the courtyard of our spectacular hotel.  You can expect to see another post on it because I am totally smitten, but first I want to share photos from our morning expedition to Saqsaywaman (yes, it’s said like “sexy woman”).

DSC_0042Saqsaywaman was first created around 1100 by the Killke culture.  Later, in the 13th century, the Incas added to it.  What’s most impressive is that it’s constructed without mortar.  The boulders are carefully cut and pieced together so perfectly that they have withstood thousands of years (and countless earthquakes).

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DSC_0049My favorite part was the slides that were created naturally in the smooth, arched stone.  Sliding down them was incredibly fun!

DSC_0056DSC_0052There’s a big grassy area in between the fortress walls where we met some grazing alpaca.

DSC_0069DSC_0070DSC_0081The back side provides spectacular views of Cusco and the mountains in the background.

DSC_0071DSC_0086If you’re ever in Cusco, it’s well worth a trip.  We took an Uber there, which cost a little under $5 USD.  Considering that it’s perched high above the city (elevation over 12,000 ft), it was well worth the fare.  Expect to pay 70 Soles (about $22 USD) for admission and spend about 2 hours exploring there.  We chose to walk back to town afterwards, which was enjoyable because it was a direct and downhill path.  It’s hands down my favorite thing we’ve done or seen so far in Peru.

Tomorrow I head to Machu Picchu!

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So you need to buy new luggage…

Recently a friend of mine invested in new luggage, and since I travel a lot, she asked me for recommendations.  As someone who takes dozens of trips a year, I’ve gotten my packing and luggage situation pretty stream-lined.  I know some people have circumstances that will require them to do things differently, but I’ve noticed that my other friends who travel a lot tend to have similar habits to mine.  Here’s what works for us, and why.

Rules of Thumb

  • Go for four spinning wheels.  Buying 4-wheeled luggage was a game-changer for me.  It is so much easier to maneuver, I don’t know why people carried suitcases for as long as they did.
  • Carry-on whenever possible.  This is one I learned from my dad, and it’s a must for frequent travelers.  I even carry-on when I go to Europe for a week.  The benefits are huge: you can arrive at the airport later since you don’t have to drop off a bag at the luggage counter; your luggage stays safer (have you seen the way airlines treat suitcases!?); you eliminate the risk of lost luggage; you don’t have to wait for the bag at your destination; and you get extra flexibility in case you want to do something like give up your seat on an over-sold flight.  To me, these benefits greatly outweigh the benefit of having my whole closet with me.  I’ve learned that I don’t wear or use most of that stuff anyway! Plus, everywhere I’ve ever traveled has had stores where I could buy something I desperately needed.
  • Expanding luggage is a plus.  It seems like no matter how nicely I fold things, they always take up more space on the way home.  My suitcase has a zipper that gives my an extra inch or so of space, and I end up using it almost every trip.
  • Pick your color carefully.  My last set of luggage was green and my current set is gray. Both have gotten quite stained – especially in the rare instances where I checked them.  Black luggage can be hard to distinguish from other bags, but at least it ages well.  I think a deep red is also a good choice.
  • Where to shop: I have found great deals on brand name luggage at discount stores like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Ross, etc.
  • In addition to my carry-on suitcase, I always have a shoulder bag that goes under the seat in front of me on flights.  Longchamp bags are perfect for this.  They fit a lot, are lightweight, a pocket keeps valuables easy-to-access, and they zip shut so your items don’t go flying if you hit a patch of turbulence. I usually put my toiletries, computer, purse, and in-flight entertainment in this bag.  Having the toiletries and computer handy makes getting through security a breeze.
  • Buy a la carte.  My last set of luggage was a gift and  it came with three pieces (similar).  I used the big one a few times, the carry-on sized one a ton (until it broke), and I never even took the tags off the smallest piece.  When I purchased new luggage, I only bought the pieces I wanted or needed.  Why buy pieces I’ll never use!?

Brands

  • If you don’t travel a ton and you care more about price than quality, you might want to check out the Amazon Basics line.  The pieces are nice-looking and priced affordably, but I don’t know how they’ll hold up over time. I’ve had issues with cheap luggage in the past – especially the telescoping handle.
  • My luggage is Samsonite and I’ve been really happy with it.  The carry-on that I use all the time is at least three years old and I haven’t had any trouble with it yet.  I got a pretty good deal at one of the stores I mentioned above, and it came with a 10 year warranty.  I made sure to save that paperwork – with the amount of use my bags get, I expect to need it someday.
  • If you’re willing to spend a few hundred bucks on top-of-the-line luggage, Tumi is the way to go.

I hope you find this advice useful.  Good luck shopping and happy travels!

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Miami

One of the best things about Business School is the amazing friends I’ve made.  This past weekend three of us headed to south Florida to celebrate finishing the semester.  Laura, who splits her time between D.C. and Boca, flew down on Thursday and on Friday, Sloane, Zoya and I flew down to join her.  She picked us up at the Fort Lauderdale airport and took us to dinner at a restaurant called El Camino in Delray.

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Laura always knows the best restaurants, bars, and bakeries so it’s no surprise that the place was great.  It had a fun atmosphere, good service, delicious food, and amazing margaritas.  Delray has great nightlife with people spilling out of bars.  We caught a little live music, had another drink, and headed over to Laura’s beach house for the night.  She gave us a tour of the house and the private beach, then we all headed to bed.

IMG_4142We woke leisurely the next morning and went to enjoy breakfast at a beachfront golf course.  The restaurant, Al Fresco, was a gorgeous yellow house with double wrap-around porches.  We sat on the upper level, facing the ocean, and enjoyed a mimosa and breakfast.  If you’re ever in the Palm Beach area, I highly recommend this place. The breakfast buffet, including an omelet station, was only $15 and as you can see the view alone is worth that.  Plus, the waiters are really good photographers.

IMG_4139After breakfast, Laura took us to Worth Avenue for some shopping and then to The Breakers Hotel.  As you can see in the photo above, The Breakers is absolutely stunning.  It sits right on the water and has beautiful architecture with exquisite detail. The ceilings in particular took my breath away.  She showed us around a bit and then we stopped for a drink at one of the bars there. You can’t really tell from the picture below, but the bar was an aquarium with live fish in it. It was fun to watch the clown fish play under our drinks.

IMG_0020That afternoon we said goodbye to Laura and headed down to Miami.   We checked into the Loews Hotel in South Beach and changed into bikinis.  Before anything else, we needed some lunch.  Sloane had the perfect spot- Taquiza – a taco stand that was practically across the street.  We walked up and I immediately spotted a woman kneading blue tortilla dough in the back.  Handmade tortillas are always a good sign.  I ordered a few tacos, and they were all simple and delicious. They were ready in minutes, and gone in a few bites.

With some food in our bellies, we spent the next couple of hours partying in the sun.  Eventually the sun started to set and it was time for dinner.  I won’t recommend the dinner restaurant, since it made Sloane and I sick and put us out of commission for the night.

IMG_4176Fortunately, we woke up feeling much, much better so we were able to take advantage of the complementary banana boat ride offered by the hotel.  They gave us silly helmets, but it was an amazing time.  It was a real challenge to hold on as we bounced across the waves.  By the end, my eyes stung from the salt water and my knuckles were white, but I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

We spent the rest of the day lounging by the pool and drinking pina coladas, until we had to finally call and Uber and head to the airport.

IMG_4170It was such a fun and refreshing weekend, I feel like a new woman.  We’ve all solemnly sworn to do this trip again when the weather here in D.C. turns cold.

 

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Seafood 101

67590E6B-2F0A-4857-84F3-5D2A464296B3Last Friday night I took a cooking class called Spring Seafood 101 at L’Academie de Cuisine.  I’ve enjoyed almost every cooking class I’ve ever taken, but this chef was particularly impressive for her vast knowledge.  The author of several books, she closed the class with a fascinating mini-lecture about olive oil, delving into the significance of acidity and the cultural customs surrounding the olive growing and cultivation.  She really knew her stuff, and she taught us how to make four simple but impressive and delicious seafood recipes.

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The first thing we made was a seafood stew.  The chef made the dish at the front of the classroom, talking us through each step. There was a big mirror above her so that we could see what she was doing on the counter.  Then we got into groups of three and made our own at a station in front of us.  It was the first time I’d ever cooked squid before and I was surprised how easy it was.  This was a great, practical recipe to learn because it was simple, delicious, and it’s the kind of thing that can be altered based on what seafood you have available.

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The next thing we made was the branzino. I think I will replicate this at home sometime when I am having guests over. It looks elegant but is so easy. We just chopped up some herbs, mixed in olive oil, coated the inside and top of the fish with it, and baked it in the oven with some chopped fennel and tomatoes. It was delicious and also very healthy.

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IMG_3961The third thing we made was monkfish in parchment. We used the same herb mix and I didn’t love this one as much, but I was glad that she taught me the technique because I used it to cook salmon this week and it was really easy and turned out delicious.

IMG_3954IMG_3956IMG_3957The last thing that we made was my favorite – a shrimp tartini. A tartini is basically an open-faced sandwich.  I’ve already made this recipe several times since the class because it was so easy and delicious.  It’s just some french country bread, herbed cream cheese (Boursin), sliced cucumbers, and shrimp. We sautéed the shrimp in olive oil with herbs de Provance and a squeeze of lemon.  Based on the simplicity of it, my expectations were low but it really impressed me. I am not exaggerating when I say I have made it three times since then.

IMG_3959IMG_3969IMG_3970The class had some amazing helpers to pour us wine and clear dirty dishes.  It was a really lovely night and would be fun for a date or a family with older children. I heard about this class through CourseHorse.com.  They have a TON of classes in cities around the country, and they’re not all about cooking. They also offer them for languages, beauty, fitness, IT, and more.  Don’t you think learning new things adds a certain richness to life? I certainly do.

 

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Arlington National Cemetery

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Tulips, with the Lincoln Memorial, National Monument, and Capitol building in the background.

I’ve lived in the DC area for a year and a half now and I’ve barely shared anything about the city.  It’s time for that to change! So this morning I walked over to one of my favorite DC sights, Arlington National Cemetery.  Perhaps it sounds a bit morbid to call this place a favorite, but more than most of the monuments it fills me sentiments of pride, gratitude, and patriotism.  It’s also just really beautiful.

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It’s incredibly large, filled with tombstones aligned neatly in perfect rows and meticulously maintained.  Each one representing a man or woman who’s life is woven into the fabric of our nation.  If you aren’t comfortable walking for miles, or if you want to learn about the rich history of the cemetery, there’s a tour where they take you around in the shuttle. I would probably really enjoy it, but I haven’t done it yet. I just wander over every now and then when I have some free time.

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There are several buildings and monuments within the cemetery.  To me, the most interesting one is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  It’s been guarded by a soldier 24/7 since 1948 – through rain and sleet and snow.  Every hour (or half hour depending on season) they have a changing of the guard ceremony, which is very cool to watch (and free!).  I’ve been several times and I really recommend it.

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No matter how much time you have, it’s a nice place to visit if you find yourself in our capital anytime soon!  It’s also nice any time of year.  Trees are blooming now, it’s also gorgeous with a blanket of snow. Volunteers place wreaths at each tombstone at Christmastime and it’s equally brilliant in the fall.  Just go during daylight hours before the gates close.

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