Chef Virgilio Martínez needs no introduction. Best known for his revered Lima-based restaurant, Central (#2 on World’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2022), Martínez has been a driving force in showcasing Peru’s unique flavors and immense biodiversity, which he executes through creating sensory-forward experiences at each of his establishments. While snagging a res in Lima may not be in the cards, visiting Martínez’s latest brainchild, Riviera Maya-based Estero, offers an equally delightful solution for Mexico-bound Americans headed to Cancún, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen.
At Estero, Martínez brings his signature Peruvian techniques and ingredients to the table, while beautifully meshing them with native Caribbean and Mexican flavors. Inspired by the flavors and natural beauty of the Amazon, Andes, and Caribbean, Martínez thoughtfully highlights local produce, seafood, and meat in creative-yet-respectful ways, honoring the traditions, flavors, and cultures of both Mexico and Peru. The restaurant officially opened its doors on December 19th, 2022; both hotel guests and non-staying visitors are welcome to make a reservation.
Martínez states that he is honored to be more connected with the “fascinating country” that is Mexico, and that he believes that Latin American gastronomy is truly living its highest moment. “These connections and exchanges only bring us closer, helping to value and preserve our identities,” he says. At La Casa de la Playa, Martínez’s offerings at Estero are complemented by the likes of revered chef Martha Ortiz at Tuch de Luna, as well as the famed chef brothers Daniel and Patricio Rivera-Río at Lumbre and Centli.
The 8-course meal at Estero begins with a presentation of each course’s base ingredients, which arrive on small cards laid out in front of each place setting (perhaps the only thing more eye-catching than the cards themselves were the stunning, paint-splattered slabs that the food was to arrive on). As a vegetarian—a dietary restriction of which was happily accommodated—I was curious as to which types of substitutions would be made. While my partner’s swatches depicted various shellfish and meats, mine boasted colorful, watercolor pictures surrounded by root vegetables and legumes—chickpeas, cauliflower, jicama, mango.
While I preferred some dishes more than the others—corn and wild mushrooms were my two favorite bases—each dish revealed a whirlwind of complex flavors, as well as a variety of textures that truly made me think about the preparation, as well as presentation, aspects of it all. I was surprised numerous times when seemingly hot dishes were served cold (and vice versa); at other moments, seemingly cream-based sauces jumped with added bits of added crunchy texture. The meal offered a multi-sensory experience, which continued to captivate guests around the room, despite the numerous hours spent at the same table setting.
Although the food immediately captivated me, if I’m being honest, I was a bit skeptical as to the wines that would be served, regardless of the restaurant having an on-site sommelier. Part of me worried that the restaurant would cater to its international (mostly American) clientele, and execute the wine pairings as such—overly extracted, often too-bold wines that tend to regularly captivate the American palate. To my surprise, thoughtful selections ranged from Grower Champagne to Lauer Riesling to locally-produced Mexican bottles, each of which paired impeccably with the base ingredient at hand.
Above all, beyond the meticulous attention to detail clearly put into each dish, what impressed me most was the perfectly rationed portions of each course. While tasting menus are generally meals that leave me feeling weighed down, I was pleased to leave the table only slightly full—in fact, we may or may not have even made a stop at the hotel’s 24-hour chocolate room to grab some sweets for the room. Although ‘50 Best’ (and other similar) designations don’t generally do it for me, the talent exuded by Martínez at Estero certainly merited every bit of his prestigious title.