At La Perla, Peruvian chef Carlos Accinelli who learned his trade in the kitchens of Lima and Spain at the Michelin-starred Basque restaurant, Arzak, works closely with owner and manager Roberto Carrascal to ensure the menu gets a facelift as regularly as the petite diner’s stylish interiors. There’s no shifting the stars of the show though. Neither the classic Ceviche Corvina (sea bass ceviche) or the Lomo La Perla, a sirloin steak served with a Roquefort-laced sauce served on a bed of creamy mushroom rice, are showing signs of going out of fashion any time soon.
I imagine that wherever someone like Gabriel Garcia Marquez lives, the neighborhood gets better. Sitting down at a table at La Cevicheria in Cartagena’s old walled center, just beside the famed Santa Clara monastery (now a Sofitel), a clown comes by making squeaking noises. He squeaks when a van drives by as he acts like he is keying the side of it. He squeaks wedding music to a couple dining at the table next to mine, then sprays a string of fake ketchup from a red bottle on the girlfriend as she screams…then laughs. Soon three kids, no more than ten years old, rap for two minutes about Colombia. Then a neatly dressed maid walks by with a Dalmatian. She smiles. So does the dog it seems.
Outside Medellin’s MAMM (Museo de Arte Modern de Medellin) it begins to rain. First, a light rain. Then, a downpour. People are rushing across the brick plaza in front, ducking for cover anywhere they can. At Bonuar, the bar and restaurant on the side of the museum, patrons are arriving on the patio with a flurry, closing umbrellas and shaking the water off of their heads. One man takes off his jacket and reveals a t-shirt that asks “Que es arte?” I have been to Bonuar twice now and this sequence of events has happened both times. Well, most of it anyway.
A glossary. That does it for me on a restaurant’s menu, such as that of Leo Cocina y Cava in Bogota. Particularly when the ingredients being defined are of the food of that place. Many Latin American countries only vaguely know what is edible outside of their region of birth. You learn that name is a Caribbean tuber, that guayusa is a highly caffeinated Amazonian plant, and that cabeza de mico is a mix of shredded coconut and green banana that is common in the Afro-Colombian communities of Cordoba. The glossary tells me immediately that this chef, Leonor Espinosaa one time ecponomist and publicist, is a sort of culinary explorer, testing which ingredients work together, and which do not. In a place with the level of biodiversity of Colombia, this is important.
Cartagena’s dining scene is more impressive than Bogotá’s, if not more so. The atmosphere is definitely better. Vera is one of the most anticipated restaurants to open in the walled city in a long, long time. Part of the reason is the setting. Vera sits on the ground level, partly poolside, of the most anticipated boutique hotel to open in Cartagena ever, fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi’s seven suite Tcherassi Hotel + Spa. The breezy open air dining area is all white, like much of the hotel, and fronts the courtyard, pool, and an amazing vertical garden that features 3,000 plants native to Colombia. Mirrors line one wall. A second, air-conditioned dining room is equally as sleek.
In Bogotá’s historic La Candelaria district, home of grand cathedrals and fine museums like the Museo Botero, you wouldn’t expect a fine dining, Southern – that’s US Southern – style restaurant. Yet Anderson’s is just that. It sits amidst a small strip of several other restaurants on Avenida 6, not far from La Candelaria’s Hotel de la Opera and major tourist attractions like the Garcia-Marquez Cultural Center. The chef of Anderson’s is a Nebraska native who came to Bogotá to study English, married a local girl, and never left.
Formerly just a roadside steak stand, this restaurant outside of Bogotá has become a gluttonous Wonka like maze of Colombian curios where you feast on Argentine beef and chorizo and drink handles of aguardiente mixed and then boogie on the tables until dawn. Soap stars, models, and politicians all flock here even though it is 40 minutes outside the center in the tiny town of Chia. Some see Andrés as one of the emerging symbols of everything Colombia is and could become.
Ceviche, as it is taking off in Colombia, combines elements of both Peruvian and general Latin American preparations. In general, it is closer in resemblance to Peruvian ceviche with large chunks of fish flesh as opposed to finely diced pieces of fish. Flavors tend to represent the entire region though and are considerably more varied than in Peru. In Bogota, one of the best outlets is 80 Sillas in Usaquen in the north of the city.