Eleven thousand feet and rising: Mil, Peru

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Part restaurant, part culinary laboratory, Mil is Peruvian wunderkind Virgilio Martínez’s high-wire, high-altitude new endeavour. The food is innovative, unique, highly experimental – but is it delicious? Neil Stewart visits a restaurant that brings new meaning to haute cuisine
Eleven thousand feet and rising: Mil, Peru

Chefs are restless people. Peruvian superstar Virgilio Martínez is, as I write, moving his multiply garlanded Lima restaurant Central – currently ranked fifth in the world in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best – from the Miraflores neighbourhood to Barranca, for reasons that boil down to his just wanting to shake things up a bit. He recently announced his first venture outwith his home country, a Peruvian restaurant to open in Hong Kong this summer. Meanwhile, on a plateau 11,500ft above sea level, stands Mil, a testing ground for some of his wildest culinary fantasies.

Mil comes with limitations. One comes as a consequence of its literally breathtaking location

Designed around an open-air plaza with a gnarled tree at its heart, Mil contains a restaurant, a food lab – on display are experiments in pickling and distillation, and a kind of exploded diagram of coffee-refining processes – and a chocolaterie (Martínez is obsessed with chocolate). On one side of the square, great varieties of herbs are clipped to drying lines, moving gently in the breeze as they dry. The restaurant is white walled, with reclaimed-wood tables, botanical illustrations on the walls. Even with searing sunshine outside, the altitude makes proceedings inside chilly (I had to ask for my jacket back). There are views across the mountains and valleys of Moray; from up here you can look down on three enormous circular hollows scooped into the landscape by the Incas, stepped terraces on which their farmers tested crops to determine what grew best at which elevation.

Mil, Sacred Valley, Peru

Mil comes with limitations. One comes as a consequence of its literally breathtaking location. As visitors to the high plateaux and mountains of Peru soon realise, one effect of the terrific altitude and the thin air is to slow digestion, making you full longer after eating. Your appetite declines correspondingly – that no-one has brought out The 5,000ft Diet Plan is a mystery to me – and so a menu on the scale of Central’s four-hour, 17-course extravaganza would not be appropriate. Other restrictions are philosophical in nature: Mil works hard to be environmentally unobtrusive, recycling as much as it can (leftover oil is turned into soap for laundering napkins; the restaurant has its own water plant for tending to its fields) and offering only a daytime seating – a long lunch – so as not to overwhelm the area with visitors.

The final self-imposed limitation is culinary, almost ideological: Mil makes use only of ingredients found at this altitude. The results are impressive, innovative, experimental and enjoyable – and seldom straightforwardly delicious. It’s food for the head, more than anything. Not for nothing its proximity to those centuries-old stepped circular terraces; it may be bricks-and-mortar rather than grass and stone, but Mil is as much a foundation for experiments in food as those terraces once were for agriculture.

Mil, Sacred Valley, Peru

Here are eight courses populated with native Peruvian foodstuffs mostly unheard of elsewhere. There’s a thrill in trying for the first time oca (a potato-like tuber that in its raw form resembles a large grub); a cracker made from a grain-like seed, kanihua, that could become “the new quinoa”; an edible clay called chaco. A central dish, “Diversity of Corn”, lives up to its name, with different colours, textures and refinements of this omnipresent Peruvian ingredient. Here are familiar proteins too, including a delicate, sweet tartare of lamb; a dish of pork belly and beans with a accompanying cornbread is a South American take on American South cowboy fuel. The centrepiece dish garnishes a dish of stewed duck and toasted salad leaves with what’s arguably Martínez’s most famous ingredient: spheres of chewy green algae skimmed from lake water, gleaming with trapped sunshine.

Striking in their variety of colour, shape and size, they’re too often undistinguished when it comes to the actual eating

Perhaps oddest of all is a selection of potatoes and potato-like roots, “Central Andes”. Peruvians are justifiably proud of the 4,000-plus different types of potatoes grown here, and of the ancient techniques employed to preserve and cook them, including a kind of freeze-drying pioneered by the Incas; those of us familiar with the mere half-dozen commonly found in British supermarkets and greengrocers may conclude that we’ve got the cream of the crop. Too often, the Peruvian tubers – and “Central Andes” doesn’t buck the trend – have a dry, floury texture and a flavour that hints at their being past their best. Striking in their variety of colour, shape and size, they’re too often undistinguished when it comes to the actual eating.

By contrast, the deliciousness that has sometimes been elusive in this meal appears full-force in a second dessert of dense dark-chocolate cream, topped with meringue-like fragments: like the other courses, it’s compact to the point of minimalist; unlike some of those, I could have eaten multiple servings. It’s something of a relief to conclude on something familiar; the preceding dessert, an ice cream made from the ashes of roasted potatoes and topped with a granite of munya, a local mint with a tongue-numbing quality, was Mil in a nutshell – weird, texturally innovative, unlike anything I’d eaten before, not necessarily anything I’d want to eat again.

Mil, Sacred Valley, Peru

Alcohol pairings, too, proved a mixed bag. Wines perfectly drinkable in their own right sometimes sat uneasily with the accompanying food; a strong Sacred Valley Brewery ale, served with the duck, spoke to the blackened toasted leaves in that dish, but an drink derived from sugar-syrup, fiery as aquavit, obliterated the subtler flavour of the lamb tartare dish. Much else is nigh on perfect: service is friendly but operates at the right kind of remove (no wiping of imaginary crumbs from the tabletop between courses, for instance), cutlery is presented in a handsome ceramic jar at the centre of the table rather than being reverentially laid out for you, and someone has heard my frequent declaration that the ideal soundtrack to fine dining is Brian Eno-esque ambient music of the sort that makes you feel slightly removed from the real world – as indeed one should here.

Heading to Mil from Cusco, the nearest city, I drove first to Maras, where the highly mineral water that streams off the mountains is diverted into a series of manmade “salt pans” from which farmers gather up the salt left behind when the water evaporates. In May, with the wet season only recently ended, it looks paradoxically like the most arid of landscapes, a patchwork of beige, tan and off-white rectangles that extend down into a valley cleft; by the end of summer these fields will be scorchingly, eye-wateringly white with salt. Further on, in Moray, are the Incas’ stepped terraces, whose scale and precision of construction continues to defy belief even after you’ve circumnavigated each. The Incas aren’t alone in having had a thing for threes. After Maras and Moray, Mil completes a trio of unforgettable, sometimes confounding and above all unmistakably Peruvian wonders. C

 

Mil, Moray, Peru
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