Colombia – the name alone may put you off as you ask “Isn’t the country drug-ridden and dangerous? And isn’t the capital Bogota a no-go area?” The answer is no as things have moved on from the drug lord days. Backpackers and birdwatchers have been visiting Colombia for a while and the country is open for business. There are even tours of Medellin, although drug lord Pablo Escobar’s house has been razed.
Visitors are partly lured by the unbelievable food scene, with chefs rediscovering forgotten regional ingredients and salvaging traditional cooking techniques. Stop over for a few days, maybe on the way to a second Latin American country, and give your taste buds a treat.
In Bogota, El Chato was recently voted one of Latin America’s top fifty restaurants. The restaurant encompasses a youthful buzz with bench seats and tables that surround a glowing bar. Chef Alvaro Clavijo likes to ‘mix the best local ingredients in surprising ways’.
After a soft crab starter with squid-ink rice paper you can enjoy sea bass in a luxurious coconut cream sauce. Expect to pay about $52pp for a two-course dinner with wine.
Head to Market
Head to Paloquemao market where you’ll find everything from the tropical to the temperate fare like bananas, limes, figs, grapes, even apples and raspberries. Lose yourself amongst the stalls, finding dairy products from the Colombian highlands and sugar cane from the coast.
Fancy some snacks like pan de yuca (cheesy bread), almojabana (corn buns) and bunuelo (a deep-fried dough ball). You can also purchase an organized market tour for about $32pp.
Book a Culinary Course
Cooking courses are invariably fun, and you can find one at Krone, a small bistro owned by Ana Maria Mendez and Nicolas Rengifo. Nicolas adapts dishes, combining ingredients from Colombia’s different regions, to create something new.
For ceviche, you’ll ‘cook’ shrimp in lime juice, however instead of tomato ketchup you’ll flavor it with a fresh tomato and aioli sauce. In Cali, pork loin usually comes as Leche de Dolores, with tomato, red onion, garlic and coriander. Here, you’ll give the pork additional texture with a tempura batter and serve it with coconut rice from the Caribbean coast. The course costs about $85pp.
Head Behind Closed Doors
The cutting edge of culinary Bogota is driven by social media and you’ll notice several posts about ‘closed door’ dinners. Both El Chato restaurant and the Krone bistro provide them. At Krone, Ana Maria says: ‘Like in Italia, the best local food was always at your grandmother’s, therefore no one went out to eat. However folks are currently starting to experiment.’
According to the menu, guests can relish a Sanduche de Chicharron from Medellin (a pork-belly sandwich), then beef tongue cooked in coriander and cane juice, before a black pudding and seared scallop salad. Finish with the cocoa creme brulee originating from Tumaco on the Pacific coastline. It costs about $58pp with half a bottle of wine.
Go on a Food Safari
Go on a safari tour with Bogota Foodie for about $36pp. You’ll start at Paloquemao, with a hearty local fish sancoche (potato, plantain, yucca) then explored Colombia’s extraordinary produce, arranged in color coordinated stacks of yellow, orange and red peppers; ranks of purple and green avocados; and a few fruits you won’t recognize. Can we say mamoncillo, anyone?
Forage for Inspiration
Gridlocked traffic may be a drawback in Bogota, however, it’s well worth the drive to reach Canasto Picnic Bistro, the lunchtime restaurant of Chef Alejandro Cuellar, who is known for using edible flowers grown on his family hacienda just outside the city. His dishes are a riot of color. In an outdoor dining area, you can choose a plate of beetroot carpaccio, crumbled goat’s cheese, grapefruit and grilled artichoke, sprinkled with nasturtium, begonia and borage for about $13.
Coffee just got complicated
All of this food indulgence can make you sleepy, therefore a caffeinated jolt at Cafe San Alberto will probably be most welcome. It’s a ‘molecular coffee’ afternoon for about $45pp and it’s like stepping into a laboratory with miniature glass beakers and brass stills arranged on the tables. Sniff essential oils from phials and test the basic flavors of sour, sweet, bitter, salt, and the aromas of coffee; floral, earthy, herbal, woody, spicy.
Let the alchemy begin as coffee bubbles through tubes, thrown into nitrogen and calcium chloride, and even suspended in tonic water for a coffee cocktail. A popular experiment is creating coffee caviar with tiny pieces of jelly that explodes in your mouth like coffee grenades.
The Grand Finale
Enjoy a final dinner with an outstanding tasting menu including paired wines at Bogota’s most imaginative restaurant, Villanos en Bermudas.
The restaurant is extraordinarily polished, and courses embody a yogurt, roasted radicchio and dragon fruit salad, a pil-pil fish broth with an olive oil emulsion, and chocolate with a cantaloupe melon sorbet and a butter cracker which will dance on your tongue. Expect to pay about $52pp with a cocktail.