Bogotá: Mountain Grown
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.