There’s something I like about Laguna’s newest restaurant – Centrál Coastal Peruvian – even better than their food. I now know more about Peru and its people’s passion for great food than I’ve learned in an entire lifetime.
Anna Driggs loves-loves-loves her Peruvian roots. Fifteen years ago, after growing up with a grandmother and mother who loved cooking, she joined forces with her sister and mom to open their first restaurant, Inka’s in Irvine.
Small wonder that the restaurant became an overnight success – Mom wisely chose to put Anna in charge of educating customers on their Peruvian menu. The girl’s enthusiasm is simply contagious. You want to order everything on the menu immediately; you just can’t help yourself.
Recently, when the threesome decided to open a second restaurant in their hometown of Laguna Beach, Peruvian-born Chef George Ayala asked if he could help consult on establishing their new menu, which is focused on gourmet Peruvian food.
Consulting Chef is “Embassy Official”
As it turns out, Chef George possesses the same passion and enthusiasm as Anna does. He is out-of-his-mind in love with Peruvian cuisine. Between the two of them, I suspect they’ll have every Laguna Beach resident and visitor knocking down their doors.
“I wanted to consult on this foundational menu because it’s important to me to introduce people to our great cuisine and its mecca of flavors,” says Chef George. “Centrál is like an embassy, really.”
Adds Anna, “We’re introducing gourmet Peruvian cuisine to Laguna Beach, which is something even Peruvian people here in the U.S. don’t normally get to enjoy. I guess you could say we’ve created this special menu for our people and all the people we’re adopting into the family!”
A Cornucopia of Flavors
Peru sits on the western outcropping of South America with its own borders touching five neighboring countries. If that weren’t enough cultural influence, its unique cuisine has also enjoyed a centuries-old melting pot of food favorites from Spain, Asia, Africa, Italy and Middle Eastern countries (especially Saudi Arabia).
As different cultures settled in Peru, certain food items (like basil or saffron) weren’t readily available, but items such as potatoes (3,000 different types) and chiles (250 known types) were plentiful. This is how Peruvian cuisine developed with food ingredients and preparation styles melding together.
On the Centrál Coastal Peruvian menu, you’ll find Spanish influence in the Empanadas, Asian in the Loma Saltado and Quinoa Chaufa, Middle Eastern in the Anticuchos (skewers), African in the Tacu Tacus and Italian in the Tallarines Verdes Con Pollo.
The Ceviche, though … that was born and bred Peruvian from the start.
“There’s nothing like Peruvian ceviche or rotisserie chicken anywhere in the world … well, except now and here in this restaurant,” she says with a grin.
A Memorable Menu, Assuredly
As the opening crews buzz around me in training sessions, and vendors traipse in and out with boxes, tables and bags, Chef George unflappingly prepares two sampler dishes for me – the first two that he and Chef de Cuisine Cupertino Cantoran have properly plated for an outsider.
He emerges first with the Lamb Shank dish, which is beautifully deconstructed rather than served in more traditional stew-like fashion.
“We love what Chef George is teaching our chefs,” says Anna. “It’s important that we remain absolutely authentic to Peruvian cuisine, but he’s added a contemporary take on the presentation that really shows off the beauty of our dishes.”
Braised for eight hours, the shank is plated next to a Peruvian bean purée that houses a dab of cilantro purée as well. Then, local farmers’ market produce is carefully laid in – spring peas, cipollini onions, shaved radishes and artichoke hearts. The Chef serves lamb jus tableside.
The lamb is so tender it falls from the bone and the first bite is so good, I actually shiver. The veggies are super-fresh and cooked al dente – perfect.
A few minutes later, it’s the Lomo Saltado. Grass-fed beef is the name of the game here at Centrál, and this filet mignon might be the game winner. Marinated and grilled, the Lomo Saltado is plated with stir-fried cherry tomatoes and red onions and served with both French fries and steamed rice.
“In Peru, Lomo Saltado was commonly served to the workers in the fields, so they were given double the starches to keep their energy up,” explains Chef George.
“Over the years, chefs would try to take the starch down to just one item, but everyone complained. We figured we’d better stick with tradition, too,” he says.
Although I’m served lamb and beef, the menu boasts a number of seafood and fish dishes as well as vegetarian and gluten free offerings.
“We can easily make just about any dish a vegetarian dish,” says Anna. “Whether you’re vegetarian, pescatarian or a meat eater, I want you to come to my restaurant knowing that your healthy eating lifestyle doesn’t have to change.
“Aside from the fact that we’re serving farm-fresh, organic foods and grass-fed beef, you won’t have to compromise any aspect of your diet here at Centrál.
New Culture For Our Laguna Beach Palate
While the menu beckons for more taste tries, I’m not going to bother these people further on the day before their soft opening party. The menu, though, is so enticing and interesting that I’m sure to be one of the first in line when Centrál opens this Friday evening.
Centrál is at 361 Forest Avenue. (949) 715-0801
Hours: Mon – Wed, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Thurs – Sat, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.