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Morgan Golumbuk Shares a Week of Eating in Peru

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“I will say about Central what I said about Noma, my 2023 Michelin pilgrimage: it was an entirely magical and worthy experience measured not only by the food, but also by the warm and wonderful service, the curated atmosphere, and the buzz of being in that place.”

 

In the style of New York Magazine’s “The Grub Street Diet” series, Morgan takes us through a week of eating in Lima, Cusco, and Aguas Calientes, Peru.


Wednesday, May 1st

It feels both celebratory and ceremonial to travel on the first of the month, ushering in a new period of discovery as the calendar page turns. Traveling to Lima for the wedding of a sweet, lovely pair of friends afforded me an incredible opportunity to explore a country that had long been on my “to visit” list. While I would love to say that my trip began steeped in Peru’s gastronomic opulence, I regret to report that my first “meal” was in my hotel room, an 11:30pm snarfing of the chickpea chips I bought at the Newark airport. Onward and upward!


Thursday, May 2nd

On my way out to our half day tour of Lima, I popped down to the hotel’s restaurant for a crispy little vegetable omelet, a cappuccino, a green juice, and a side of fresh fruit, the last of which went untouched but was quickly made up as we entered the stalls of Mercado Santa Rosita.

 

Our guide, Cesar, led us through the market, cracking open aguaymanto (Peruvian groundcherry), chirimoya, mango, and three types of passion fruit (standard maracuyá, “sweet” granadilla, and “banana” tumbo) for us to taste and pass between us. Wandering further into the market, we perused some of the country’s thousands of varieties of potatoes (4,000+!), patted our pinkie fingers on the pungent insides of hot peppers, and sat to enjoy sweet, creamy lúcuma smoothies. Cesar emphatically gestured between photos of a live guinea pig and its cooked counterpart on a “for sale” sign; unfortunately, I was not in the market – per se – for a cuy roast at the time.

 

After meandering through Parque Kennedy and Parque del Amor in Miraflores and visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier atop a headland in Chorrillos, we ended the tour in Barranco, where we stopped at Restaurante Javier to try picarones (Peruvian squash and sweet potato doughnuts with chancaca syrup) and take in a fantastic view of Lima’s coastline.

 

Our next stop – after a brief respite in our neatly pressed hotel bed – was a long, indulgent family-style lunch at the pioneering Astrid y Gastón with more of our friends. We had our first pisco sours of the trip – “Salud!” – and an array of sumptuous dishes including oxtail gyoza in green curry, octopus carpaccio, lúcuma tortellini with scallops, creamy loche pumpkin rice with oxtail ragout and bone marrow, whole Huachana-style sole meunière, and a fantastic variety of multihued bread and butter. I was drawn to the menu’s “Cute Devil Pasta” – (naturally) – but it didn’t make the shortlist; I’ll have to return to try it.

 

Back at the hotel, we took a solid nap before getting ready for – you guessed it – our next meal. The cool breeze of the night greeted us as we walked through Miraflores to Maido, the number six restaurant in the world renowned for its mastery in combining Japanese techniques with Peruvian ingredients. The 14-course Nikkei tasting menu and private dining room awaited our group of seven, and we delighted not only in the incredibly rich and delicious dishes, but also the volume and artistry of the tableside touches. A dropper of leche de tigre butter over a paiche ham and native potato cylinder, Nikkei sauce flowing out of a sea snail shell onto a bed of snails and aji amarillo foam, a gorgeous block of toro carved before us and draped over uni; the team’s thoughtful creativity and care elevated each dish to an organic spectacle. The night concluded with petits fours – luscious lúcuma mochi and a delicate but bold pod of Awajún cacao – tea, and a visit from the coming weekend’s bride and groom, who were dining just downstairs of us.

Friday, May 3rd

I walked to nearby coffee shop SOL first thing this morning for a few bites of a delicious focaccia sandwich, a cappuccino, and a chance to stretch my legs between two elaborate meals. Trotting back to the hotel with a cortado in hand for my friend, I was twittering with excitement, a goofy smile plastered on my face as we started our preparations for Central.

 

Eating at Central has been on my bucket list for years. The date that May reservations opened was marked on my calendar months in advance, and the frantic texts I sent when the website crashed at midnight were only a shade of the sinking disappointment in my stomach. I soon realized that I – and everyone else clamoring for a spring slot – had rushed to the page for nothing; it had not yet been updated with new dates. I solidified my reservation just shy of 9:00am the next day with a sigh of relief and the buzz of overjoyed adrenaline – whew!

 

We arrived a touch early for our 13:00 reservation and were greeted enthusiastically by security guards and hosts who led us through the broad garden, invited us to peruse the signature table of ingredients, and pulled out our chairs as we sat adjacent to the glass wall fronting the kitchen. And so began our next 14-course meal, resplendent in its showcase of food as an expression of Peru’s vast landscape and history. The menu was printed with the measure of sea level where each course’s components could be found (for example, my favorite dish, “Black Rocks,” comprised of squid, clams, and sargassum seaweed, was listed at 10 meters below sea level) and we sprang for the juice pairing that corresponded with the journey.

 

I will say about Central what I said about Noma, my 2023 Michelin pilgrimage: it was an entirely magical and worthy experience measured not only by the food, but also by the warm and wonderful service, the curated atmosphere, and the buzz of being in that place. Menus of this style explore food as a concept, as a reflection of an identity, and as a method of pushing the boundaries of cuisine and its industry. Many of the dishes were absolutely incredible, some were great, and one I would never eat again (while I loved the parade of pacu heads that arrived to the table with a dish called “Amazonian Water,” the squishy texture of the fish blend almost put a nail in my coffin while I was still sitting upright). I could debate the merits of the price tag with you all day but, to me, going to the number one restaurant in the world during its tenure on top is in itself a priceless and unforgettable treasure.

 

Back at the hotel, we bemoaned the hubris of eating meals of such heft in succession, cradling bottles of water as we attempted to rest before our friends’ wedding weekend welcome dinner. The dinner was held at Huaca Pucllana, a site housing a famous ancient adobe and clay pyramid on which excavation began only as recently as 1967 (!). Before dinner, we took a tour of the grounds, traipsing through the dirt in our high heels and bright, silky dresses before retiring to the adjacent restaurant for pisco sours, chilcanos, and hors d’oeuvres. Plates of salad, filet, and beautiful custard-filled meringue were set before me over the course of the night, and I regret to say that I had only single digit bites of each course, as I still couldn’t breathe properly after the extravagance of lunch. I also had a pisco sour, a sip of white wine, & three sips of a chilcano – but who’s counting? Add one passion fruit pisco sour while I danced at the rooftop afterparty and a bushel of room service fries just after 1:00am and that brings us to the end of a marathon day.


Saturday, May 4th

I woke up late and went downstairs to get a cappuccino from the hotel bar and pick up the chifa (Cantonese-Peruvian fusion cuisine) I had delivered. After devouring a trio of pork buns, I got ready for the wedding, dancing around the hotel room, steaming my dress, curling my hair, doing my makeup, and eating some chicken fried rice with my little cappuccino spoon (you have to pay extra for disposable utensils on the delivery app – smart and sustainable!). I hustled down to the wedding shuttle with a minute to spare.

 

At the wedding: Champagne. Sushi. A decadent and delicious dinner spread with the creamiest potatoes au gratin. Some salad for balance. More champagne. An espresso martini. A tequila shot? Lots of water. Back at my hotel room: Leftover chicken fried rice using the chickpea chips from night one as spoons. More water. More water. Ibuprofen.


Sunday, May 5th

I had a few nibbles of fried rice to get me on the road to the airport for our flight to Cusco, heeding my Peruvian friend’s advice that your body can adjust to the altitude (over 11,000 feet!) or digest, but it has a hard time doing both. Another few bites of a mind-blowing lechón (roasted pork) sandwich from La Lucha Sangucheria Criolla in the Lima airport and we were on our way, flying amongst the mountains as we descended into Cusco.

 

As we settled into our Airbnb, we drank cups of coca tea prepared by our host and marveled at the stunning view, which overlooked the sprawl of the city and the renowned Plaza de Armas. After some downtime, we headed down the winding brick roads to the plaza in search of dinner, deciding on Campo Cocina Andina on a recommendation from the maître d’ of its sister restaurant, Morena. There we shared choclo (Peruvian corn) con queso, alpaca skewers, and oxtail croquettes, and each of us got our own soup: a pumpkin stew, a slow-cooked beef soup, and for me – at this point quite sick from the altitude and very flush in the face – “Dieta de la Abuela,” a chicken noodle soup with native potatoes, egg, toasted Peruvian corn, & herbs described as “perfect for altitude sickness.”

 

On the way home, we loaded up on giant bottles of water and I tucked myself into bed, marveling at the twinkling lights of the city stretching out from my window.

Monday, May 6th

I woke up with a splitting headache and a boisterous stomach, so I ate very sparingly at breakfast at Organika Bakery & Coffee, grazing on an incredibly simple and delicious egg and vegetable toast, a cappuccino, a tall pint of green juice, and a cup of coca tea. After returning to our Airbnb to pack backpacks, we headed out to a tour of the Inca Empire’s most important temple – Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun – and then on to the bus depot to begin our journey to Machu Picchu.

 

After stopping at a café for a beef empanada, a ham and cheese sandwich to take on the road, and two more giant bottles of water, we boarded the bus to Ollantaytambo, where we switched to a train that would take us to the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu. On the train, we were given little boxes containing a quinoa bar, quinoa cookies, and a coca candy, all of which I squirreled away for later as I sipped my chamomile tea. We arrived at our hotel just before 9:00pm, showered, chatted, and were early to bed in preparation for our 5:00am wakeup.


Tuesday, May 7th

The crown jewel of the trip: Machu Picchu! Our entry tickets were for the 6:00am sunrise, so we grabbed the breakfast bags provided by our hotel and headed out to the 5:30am busses. I took down two croissant-type pastries in the predawn dark, gazing into the fog as we wound up through the tropical mountain forest.

The fog continued to hold strong as we strolled through the grounds, making our way to the entrance to Waynapicchu, the mountain that dominates the classic postcard photo of Machu Picchu. On we climbed, the first guests of the day to hike up through the mist to the summit, planting ourselves on adjacent boulders and staring into the blankness in hopes of a clearing sky. I savored a coca candy my friend threw over from her rock, tossing the honey flavor around my mouth as we continued to wait, and wait, and wait. Eventually, we sullenly began our descent, warning passing hikers that they may not get the view they were toiling for. In what I consider a magical turn of events, the blue sky began to emerge in the last ten minutes of our hike, treating us to breathtaking views of the majestic peaks around us and entreating everyone around to stop for scores of photos and videos. It was an unparalleled moment of pure joy.

We headed back down to Aguas Calientes for lunch, treating ourselves to a selection of classic Peruvian fare: fresh trout ceviche, lomo saltado, ají de gallina, and lúcuma ice cream (with a great little aguaymanto garnish). As with most meals, I guzzled still water and sipped a cappuccino. Just a short while beyond the end of the meal, we were back on the train to Ollantaytambo sipping coca tea, gossiping, and picking through the hundreds of photos of the trip we had shared.

Another bus and an Uber later and we were back at our Cusco Airbnb, where we showered and hopped back outside to return to Tarwi, a boutique I had seen in transit on Monday that I had been desperate to return to. Armed with two new alpaca sweaters (a long-sleeved version and a short-sleeved version! For any season!), we stopped into the more formal restaurant version of Organika for a mix of “tapitas” and a very comforting crock of lasagna.

Wednesday, May 8th

Yet again, I awoke in the five o’clock hour, this time to catch my flight back to Lima in preparation for my much longer flight back to NYC. In the Cusco airport, I had a beef empanada and – you guessed it – a cappuccino before I began the deep dive into my hellacious email inbox.

 

Once landed in Lima, I Ubered to my remote office (Airbnb) and set up shop, ordering in chicken soup, ají de gallina, a bottle of mate, and more giant bottles of water. The rest of the day was a blurry flurry of emails, and I stepped out at the end of the workday to have my final meal in Peru: ceviche and a Cusqueña beer. On a whim, I went to the bar across the street for a chicha sour before woefully returning to the Airbnb to grab my bag and head back to the airport.

 

One very stressful passport control line, an overnight flight, and a long, sunny Uber ride later and I was back in my East Village apartment, completely and blissfully exhausted. As my coca candy stock diminishes and my tan fades, what has stayed with me is not only the fresh, pure, extraordinarily deep flavors of my Peruvian dining experiences but also the warmth, generosity, and care of those who shared them with me. Salud a todos, y muchas, muchas gracias por todo.