Bo­gotá: Mountain Grown

Taste & Travel - - Contents - by EL­YSE GLICKMAN

EL­YSE GLICKMAN dis­cov­ers a vi­brant culi­nary scene in the Colom­bian cap­i­tal.

BO­GOTÁ HAS AL­WAYS BEEN ONE OF SOUTH Amer­ica’s more colour­ful cap­i­tals. How­ever, the vi­brant colours now hit­ting the can­vas of the cap­i­tal city com­pose a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture than the tur­bu­lent place de­picted in the me­dia dur­ing the late 20th cen­tury.

Graf­fiti, for ex­am­ple, was once a marker of ur­ban blight. To­day, lo­cal graf­fiti artists are held in such high es­teem that they are of­fered com­mis­sions and give how-to classes for fans. The most care­fully thought-out mu­rals en­liven all cor­ners of the city, from the out­skirts to the trendi­est neigh­bour­hoods and the Cen­tral Busi­ness Dis­trict. They also bring visual con­text to Colom­bia’s rich eth­nic and cul­tural di­ver­sity, in­clud­ing indige­nous groups and descen­dants of for­mer African slaves. Restau­rants and mar­kets ac­com­plish the same thing for the vis­i­tor’s sense of taste and smell.

In fact, prac­ti­cally ev­ery Bo­gotá restau­rant’s in­te­rior de­sign is a can­vas with its own vis­ually ar­rest­ing el­e­ments, strik­ing colour pal­ette and in­ven­tive use of tex­ture. Ev­ery­thing’s a work of art, from the splashy multi-floor ex­trav­a­ganza of An­drès DC in Zona T to quirky cafés like La Bruja in La Can­de­laria (the city’s “Old Town”) and hid­den finds like El Ce­bollero Chap­inero, spe­cial­iz­ing in a ro­tat­ing se­lec­tion of meat and veg­e­tar­ian sausages ac­com­pa­nied by a “paint box” of zesty condi­ments.

As with art and ar­chi­tec­ture, if you want to gain a real ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the dishes in higher-end places, it’s best to start with the foun­da­tions and fun­da­men­tals. An ideal place to do that is at the Palo­que­mao Mar­ket, which stead­fastly re­tains its ev­ery­day char­ac­ter. At this mar­ket, es­tab­lished in 1946 and re­lo­cated to its cur­rent lo­cale in 1967, there are no bou­tique-y booths vend­ing in­ter­na­tional cheeses, de­signer dough­nuts or Etsy-ready sou­venirs.

Palo­que­mao Mar­ket’s fruits, veg­eta­bles, flow­ers, herbs, dairy, baked goods, meats and flow­ers (in­clud­ing marigold and marsh­mal­low blooms for medic­i­nal uses) are truly in their nat­u­ral el­e­ment. Trea­sures wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered in­clude lo­cal va­ri­eties of macaya (pas­sion fruit), granadilla (sim­i­lar to pas­sion fruit), wa­ter­melon, che­r­i­moya (cus­tard ap­ples), lulo (a sour, citrusy fruit in the tomato fam­ily), ma­m­on­cillo (a grape­like fruit that tastes like a cross of ly­chee and lime), gua­n­a­bana (ru­moured to have cancer cur­ing prop­er­ties), man­gos­teen, caram­bola (star fruit), pita­haya (yel­low drag­on­fruit), tree toma­toes and chon­taduro (a high-pro­tein palm fruit which could be the next su­per­fruit).

Al­though there is cur­rently an ex­plo­sion of mod­ern Colom­bian fare, there are plenty of restau­rants pre­par­ing tra­di­tional dishes. The Colom­bian tamal, as pre­sented by El Por­tico in La Ca­lan­daria (op­er­at­ing since 1816), is a prime ex­am­ple. In con­trast to its Mex­i­can cousin, this more rus­tic tamal is three times the size, but less dense and lighter in

tex­ture. Root veg­etable chunks are mixed into corn masa, as is a chicken leg (in­clud­ing bones) that is kept juicy and moist by the masa and ba­nana leaf it is cooked in. The flavour is mild and earthy, and salt is of­ten the only condi­ment used to en­hance the taste.

El Pór­tico, en route to the re­mark­able un­der­ground Cat­e­dral de Sal in Zi­paquirá, is known for its aji­aco Bo­gotáno, a hearty soup-stew made with chicken and three kinds of pota­toes, as well as its over­stuffed beef em­panadas of­fered with fresh lime, mild chimichurri oil and red salsa.

Other it­er­a­tions of tra­di­tional ap­pe­tiz­ers can be found in restau­rants of all de­scrip­tions, from ce­viche and pat­a­cones (fried green plan­tains), to arepas (corn cakes that may or may not be stuffed with dif­fer­ent fill­ings), boli­tas (akin to Span­ish cro­que­tas) and em­panadas stuffed with beans, beef, pork, pun­gent cheeses, yucca or pota­toes. There are also nu­mer­ous bean dips and spreads to add an ex­tra layer of flavour.

What sep­a­rates these stan­dards from one an­other is the way chefs at dif­fer­ent restau­rants adapt recipes and utilise what­ever is in sea­son at Palo­que­mao or their reg­u­lar sup­plier. Ho­tel Este­lar Par­que 93 fea­tures a ro­tat­ing se­lec­tion of these savoury bites and condi­ments on the break­fast buffet to ac­com­pany scram­bled eggs, egg white omelets, sea­sonal fruit and fresh-pressed juices. The wait­ers’ un­canny abil­ity to re­mem­ber in­di­vid­ual guests’ cof­fee pref­er­ences af­ter the first day is equally im­pres­sive.

At La Bruja (“The Witch”), crisp and but­tery em­panadas, boli­tas and pat­a­cones are small but flavour­ful com­ple­ments to the cock­tail magic the bar­tenders ap­ply to gin, rum and na­tional spirit aguar­di­ente (Colom­bia’s take on eau de vie, dis­tilled from sugar cane). Yucca, pre­pared like French fries, is pop­u­lar as an ap­pe­tizer or as a side with grilled steak and roasted chicken from An­drès Carne de Res, or the afore­men­tioned hand-crafted sausages at El Ce­bollero Chap­inero.

One of Bo­gotá’s big­gest sell­ing points as a culi­nary des­ti­na­tion is that one can find Colom­bia’s many re­gional cuisines rep­re­sented as well as some of its an­ces­tral cuisines and lo­cal twists on for­eign recipes. The menu of Cas­tany­oles at the Four Sea­sons Bo­gotá at first glance is rem­i­nis­cent of menus one may find at cafés in Bil­bao or San Se­bas­tian, espe­cially with the pre­sen­ta­tion of oval cro­que­tas, Span­ish tor­tilla wedges and pael­las. How­ever, a sea bass main course topped with lo­cal cit­rus fruit roots you in the flavours of what grows near Bo­gotá.

Res­tau­rante Rey Guer­erro’s menu and in­te­rior de­sign are shaped by the Cali-bred chef’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit, his mother’s cook­ing and his African an­ces­try. His niche, Colom­bian Pa­cific, evolved from tech­niques Colom­bia’s

for­mer slaves devel­oped when they formed com­mu­ni­ties in ar­eas such as Quibdó, Bue­naven­tura and Tu­maco and ab­sorbed in­flu­ences from the Span­ish, French and other groups com­ing through the Amer­i­cas.

“Our gas­tron­omy is based on typ­i­cal food of the Pa­cific,” Guer­erro says when pre­sent­ing a set menu heavy on ocean pro­teins. “What makes us unique is that we take the tra­di­tional prepa­ra­tions and in­gre­di­ents, such as sausage made by ar­ti­sans in Quibdo, and lo­cal seafood, to a gourmet level. In ad­di­tion, we give typ­i­cal names of the re­gion to the dishes, such as Ar­roz Pu­tiao, which is part of tonight’s menu.”

Along with the Ar­roz Pu­tiao, a zesty spin on paella, there are pat­a­cones topped with cheese, and shrimp-stuffed em­panadas with the right amount of pep­per, fol­lowed by an ex­cep­tional Pu­san­dao of red snap­per, plan­tains, pota­toes and yucca with a curry-like flavour and con­sis­tency. Colour­ful mu­rals and a live band pro­vide nour­ish­ment for the other senses.

Leonor Espinosa, mean­while, has gained in­ter­na­tional promi­nence through her fine-din­ing restau­rant, Leo Cocina y Cava, ranked as one of the top 82 restau­rants in the world by a Conde Nast pub­li­ca­tion in 2007, pro­filed by the New York Times in 2008, touted by Na­tional Geo­graphic Trav­eler as one of the world’s 105 best din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in 2010 and awarded hon­ors as one of the best restau­rants in Colom­bia by S. Pel­le­grino’s list of Latin Amer­i­can restau­rants in 2014 and 2015. On the heels those hon­ors, she de­buted her ca­sual din­ing out­let MISIA de Leonor Espinoza to bring her mod­ern vision of tra­di­tional Colom­bian recipes to a wider au­di­ence.

MISIA has the vi­brant look of a neigh­bour­hood café that could dou­ble as a back yard pa­tio with its sunny in­te­ri­ors, quirky art­work, mixed ce­ramic serv­ing pieces and pic­nic ta­ble seat­ing. Fresh, sweet-and-sour fruit juices and cock­tails are a high­light, and nicely wash down gen­er­ous home-style prepa­ra­tions of egg-stuffed arepas and em­panadas with cheese or chorizo. Beef ten­der­loin medal­lions and gravy and sir­loin steak with Caribbean black sauce may be a bit heavy for the lunch hour, but well worth the in­dul­gence, as are the bell jar por­tioned desserts with lush trop­i­cal fruits and cho­co­late.

If there’s any ar­gu­ment that restau­ra­teur An­drès Jaramillo is a Colom­bian an­swer to Wolf­gang Puck, a visit to An­drès Carne de Res DC in the trendy Zona T neigh­bour­hood set­tles it. The oft-crowded, multi-floor venue is a mer­chan­dise-ready mash-up of the House of Blues venues, Cirque de Soleil, Dolce & Gab­bana run­way

shows and Tim Bur­ton’s imag­i­na­tion. Not sur­pris­ingly, ser­vice can run a bit slow. How­ever, there’s no deny­ing the sim­ple meat and chicken dishes are su­perb, the pre­sen­ta­tion and menu charis­matic, the peo­ple watch­ing fas­ci­nat­ing, and the co­conut limeade and cock­tails in­sanely de­li­cious.

Live con­certs are the fo­cal point of Gaira Café by Car­los Vives, ev­i­denced by a se­lec­tion of Latin Amer­i­can posters, record al­bum cov­ers, gold al­bums, gui­tars and mem­o­ra­bilia such as Shakira’s skirt. It achieves an au­then­tic­ity the Hard Rock Café jug­ger­naut will never match. Part of that can be cred­ited to Car­los Vives, one of Colom­bia’s big­gest record­ing stars. His brother Guillo and their mother are the driv­ing force in the kitchen, com­pos­ing a se­lec­tion of up­dated Bar­ran­quilla-re­gion in­spired snacks. Small bites such as egg arepas, shell­fish-topped pat­a­cones, Pip­ián-style em­panadas, and cari­maño­las (yucca balls stuffed with meat or cheese) match up well with po­tent cock­tails and ice-cold Club Colom­bia beers (espe­cially the “Roja” brew).

Fans of craft beer will en­joy the Bo­gotá Beer Com­pany, not only be­cause of its ex­cel­lent beer, but also the in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter of its dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. Con­nois­seurs will want to take ad­van­tage of its three-US-dol­lar sam­pler, which not only in­cludes seven stan­dards al­ways on tap, but some­times sea­sonal spe­cials (such as the To­can­cipa Honey Brown Ale, brewed with honey from Colom­bia’s Na­tive Oak for­est). BBC’s beer cock­tails are a rev­e­la­tion — the gin cock­tail swaps out tonic with its win­ter white brew for a clean, crisp re­sult.

While Bo­gotá is also putting it­self on the map as a busi­ness and con­ven­tion hub for the Amer­i­cas, there’s no ques­tion there are many places one can go to chill out, re­lax, and let the senses take over.

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