Ode to the unusual at Chile’s top diner
Chile’s Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was fond of penning odes to commonplace foods but Santiago’s answer to Noma might have stood outside his culinary purview. The trailblazing Borago is regarded as Chile’s best restaurant. Owner and head chef Rodolfo Guzman directs a team of 200 foragers who scour this geographically diverse country for native ingredients, taking their cue from the indigenous Mapuche and Pehuenche people.
The restaurant is located in affluent Vitacura, the room is pared-back and Scandinavian in style with cement floors, bare timber tables and sheep skins; the crowd is chic and the suits sharp. There are attentive floor staff commanded by an eagle-eyed maître-d’ and a wall of glass looks into the busy kitchen, setting the scene for an evening of food theatre. For this is wild fare foraged from the very edge of the world and its presentation is rooted in nature, served on stone slabs, in flower pots or suspended in the branches of bonsai trees with sauces gathering in rocky wells. The table water is collected in Patagonia.
My first dish, wrapped in a hessian napkin, comprises wild mushrooms picked near Quintay south of Valparaiso, and served in almond milk. Then comes chef’s ode to the wild Chilean coast (and this is where I wish Neruda were my dinner companion), a so-called Rock Sequence beginning with a small fillet of Lisa fish (or mullet) resting on wild coastal sorrel and puree of native horseradish, wrapped in a skirt of foam rendered from the fish skin, the lot sprinkled with delicate sea star flowers, which pack a deliciously salty punch.
Next a medley of intertidal flavours — crab salad, a barnacle called picoroco that tastes a little like a gritty scallop, puree of sea kelp and a delicious wild sea chard. The sequence concludes with a hand-hewn stone bowl so hefty it appears to have been recently jettisoned from a volcano. In the centre is a satanic black eye encrusted with a baked-on puree of sea vegetables. Around this orb floats a thin ebony broth of kelp or kolof roots cooked for two days. Nothing is added, not a skerrick of salt, but it tastes like the most refined miso imaginable.
Now we head inland to Parral for veal cooked in its mother’s milk, with milk crisps and alfalfa. The paired wine is served in a cow horn. The unctuousness of this dish stands in counterpoint to our next destination, the Atacama Desert, where until 1971 it had not rained for 400 years. A selection of bitter bites flavoured with desert herbs and flowers is presented as a series of mini gardens, accompanied by a dark ale made using water trapped from fog in the Limari Valley. A tiny ball of ice cream in- fused with the flavour of the rica rica nestles in the plant’s branches in a tiny Japanese garden. I swiftly dip it in syrup, made from the chanar tree, pooled in a hole in a rock. Next comes a little desert garden cradling an apple cuchufli (a Chilean, cigar-shaped pastry) coated with the delicate pink petals of the “rose of the year”, a plant that flowers infrequently. The rose flavour is so intense it tastes of Turkish delight. Finally we have an extravagant flower fashioned from the newest super food, the maqui berry, a maqui sheep’s-milk ice cream coated in maqui jelly, sitting on a maqui cake.
A mushroom ice cream with walnut praline and pine candy is my final course, before a playful after-dinner mint wreathed in liquid nitrogen is whipped to the table. It’s has me breathing minty smoke from both nostrils.
Dinner at Borago is a six or 10-plate degustation affair and very reasonable by Australian standards. Chef Guzman oversees a large workroom and laboratory upstairs where complicated menus are scrawled on blackboards. “We have our own biodynamic farm 30km from the city and fresh milk is delivered daily for our ice creams,” he says. “I have large teams foraging in season in the Andes where we find fruit available only for two or three weeks a year. We pick mushrooms in the forests and experiment with ingredients commonly used by the Mapuche.”
He keeps prices down to make the restaurant accessible to Chileans. But since making San Pellegrino’s best restaurant list in 2013, business has exploded, Guzman says, and some 70 per cent of his clientele are now international. Guzman served a stint under Andoni Luis Aduriz at Spain’s Mugaritz and a scientific background brings a Blumenthal-like rigour to his cooking. His pioneering use of indigenous ingredients is catching on. “You’ll now find many of these things in restaurants across Santiago,” he says. But only Borago provides an immersive voyage across the dramatic Chilean landscape.
Christine McCabe was a guest of Qantas and Accor Hotels. • borago.cl • qantas.com.au • accorhotels.com
Borago chef Rodolfo Guzman, above; locally foraged ingredients feature in the restaurant’s dishes