Thanks to an eclectic menu of cosmopolitan travelers, clever chefs and newfound culinary cachet, Bogota, Colombia, is bursting with fresh energy.
I was dreaming of cuy. The last time I had eaten this Andean delicacy was on my way to Otavalo, a market town in the mountains of Ecuador. The tiny, whole roasted guinea pig complete with a pepper in its mouth was served to me in a little plastic basket, the kind you get with hamburger and fries at a picnic. It had crispy skin and juicy meat and tasted, well, just like pork.
As I begin researching Bogotano cuisine, I wonder whether my food adventures will also include whale liver, turtle eggs and cow intestine. Before delving too far, I call my Colombian friend Alejandro Guarin, who is researching food retailing and mom-and-pop stores in Bogotá at the University of California, Berkeley.
“I’ve never heard about whale liver, and turtle eggs, once a delicacy, are now banned,” he tells me. “Fritanga, which includes innards and entrails, is popular, and so is guinea pig—if you’re in the Andean region,” he says, “and that includes Bogotá.”
Colombia doesn’t really have a national dish. Instead, region, climate and altitude determine what is considered traditional. There are only two seasons, dry and wet, and the amount of precipitation varies tremendously. The Pacific Coast is one of the rainiest zones in the world, while the north has the only desert along the Atlantic side of the Americas. So it’s no surprise that the diet in the steamy Amazon jungle along the equator is different from that on the snow-covered peaks of the Andean mountains.
International restaurants were practically nonexistent until a decade ago, and local ones served mainly regional specialties. But now, Colombia is building a new reputation as a dining destination that creatively blends the traditional with the modern.
Founded in 1538 by Spanish conquistadors, Bogotá sits two miles high on a plateau in the Andes. With nearly 8 million inhabitants, it is the largest and most populous city in Colombia.
Bogotanos like hearty, potato-based foods, without much spice. Classic dishes usually include a sauce made from tree tomatoes, corn and potatoes. Take out the tomatoes and add chicken and some guasca, an aromatic herb similar to oregano, and you have ajiaco. This rich soup topped with avocado, cream and capers and served with white rice is a meal unto itself. Arepa de choclo (sweet corn bread), tamales in plantain leaves and empanadas are still favorites, but a new generation of chefs is taking dining to the next level.
Although not yet 40, Harry Sasson is the founder of one of Bogotá’s most famous eateries, Harry’s Bar (Calle 70 #5-57; www.harrysasson.com). Here, successful young entrepreneurs and politicians, who were educated outside of Colombia where they grew fond of expense-account steakhouses, dine in luxury on perfectly grilled steaks with savory butters and sauces.
Sasson’s mother introduced him to the kitchen; his father taught him the life lessons that have made him a success. Today, this chef/owner is a mix of both old and new school. He abhors waste: “I use duck legs and breasts in my recipes, make consommé from the bones and add the fat to pâtés.” He taught himself to recognize hundreds of herbs and spices by taste and smell to better experiment with the colors and flavors of global cuisines.
In talking with him, I also find that Sasson is a man of sayings. One of his favorites explains why he became a chef: “To be happy in life, you have to do what you love.” Another is: “Don’t put a sandwich that doesn’t quite fit into your mouth.” In other words, be patient. It takes time to create an empire, and his includes five restaurants, a book, a line of sauces, a cooking column and cooking shows.
But if Harry’s is the future, then Colombia’s past can be found in Casa Vieja (Av. Jiménez #3-63; www.casavieja.com.co), an eatery that evokes an ambience reminiscent of the days when conquistadors reigned. The signature dishes are ajiaco and bandeja paisa, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink dish that includes grilled steak, fried pork rinds, red beans, rice, chorizo, fried egg, arepa, sweet fried plantains, avocado, tomatoes and sauce.
Finding Bogotá’s dining treasures requires some navigational skill. And where else should foodies start but the Gourmet Zone? Sprinkled in and around Calle 67 and 70 and Carreras 3 to 7 are elegant, romantic, national and international restaurants and nightclubs.
The tour of Zona G begins at Rafael’s (Calle 70 #4-63; www.rafaelosterling.com), where chef/owner Rafael Osterling describes food like a poet. His “olfactory memories,” imprinted with the “savory aromas and flavors of spices, stews and sweets prepared by his mother,” grew into a love for the “fusion of aromas, tastes and sensations, combined with the purity of every ingredient.” Food is adventure to Osterling. The journey begins with an experiment, travels toward balance and harmony and ends with a “small explosion.”
His restaurant is a modern setting where wood, leather, crystal and stone combine to create an atmosphere that’s perfect for a business meal. The menu teases as it alternates between classic and experimental dishes. Even ceviche gets the fusion treatment; the Coast to Coast is shrimp, octopus, Dover sole and baby squid marinated in yuzu and Peruvian chili mix.
The real dilemma is choosing a main course: red beetroot ravioli with buffalo mozzarella, mascarpone cheese, artichokes and tomatoes in an almond milk broth; crispy suckling pig with ancienne mustard, apricot almond bubbling juice and apple foamy purée; or Argentine rib-eye with roast juice of port and truffles. The dessert menu is so beautifully worded as to be sinful—trembling sponge, fruit fool, martini of textures, Nutella fantasy. The ultimate choice is the chocolaterie, four tastes of exquisite delight.
Darpapaya (Calle 69 #4-78; www.darpapaya.com) is slang for “leaving yourself open to being tricked,” and the restaurant plays with this concept. The simple, but chic space is a study in orange, in deference to the other translation, “give papaya.” The fusion of Asian and Criollo (local) food shines in the ceviche and tiradito (marinated and sliced fish). Sometimes referred to as ceviche’s little brother, tiradito is actually closer to carpaccio. Darpapaya stretches boundaries by using salmon, calamari, shrimp and spicy pepper sauces and accompanying them with innovative martinis made with passion fruit and cholupa, the love fruit.
New York City’s Meatpacking District meets Soho at Zona Rosa. This vibrant restaurant, nightclub and boutique district lies between Calles 79 to 83 and Carreras 13 to 15 and 79th to 83rd Calles and includes Zona T, a brick-paved pedestrian walkway (Calles 81 and 82, Carreras 11 to 13). The restaurants, nightclubs and shopping malls are crowded on weekends with tourists and locals wearing Colombian designers whose boutiques line nearby Fashion Street.
La Macarena is an up-and-coming zone nestled in the hills. Originally home to the aristocracy of La Candelaria, the city’s historic center, the area is now a quiet, gentrified neighborhood. Families wander through the Museum of Modern Art (Calle 24 #6-00; +57 1 286 0466; www.mambogota.com), the National Museum (Carrera 7 #28-66; +57 1 334 8366; www.museonacional.gov.co) and the Santamaría Bullring (Carrera 7 at Calle 26), a Moorish structure that has hosted bullfights since 1931.
The restaurants in and around the Bosque Izquierdo are a mix of the traditional and the modern. One of the newest is Leo Cocina y Cava (Calle 27b #6-75; +57 1 286 7091), whose owner, Leonor Espinosa, is also an economist and a publicist. This groundbreaking chef describes her food in lyrical phrases, alternately calling it “flirty, colorful and flavorful” and “innovative and authentic.” The restaurant is warm and sophisticated, with Colombian food made from the freshest local ingredients. But not everything is by-the-book traditional. If the sea bass in banana leaf with black coconut rice is not exciting enough, try the raw tuna encrusted with crushed hormigas culonas, or big-bottomed ants. And if you’re truly daring, go for the crunchy “caviar of Santander,” in which the bottom third of the ant is toasted and served as the perfect accompaniment to a pre-dinner cocktail.
On the outskirts of Bogotá, about an hour away, is Andrés Carne de Res (Calle 3 #11a -56; +57 1 863 7880; www.andrescarnederes.com). This Sanford-and-Son-meets-Alice-in-Wonderland fantasyland evolved in the mind of Andrés Jaramillo. The entrepreneur/artist spent his childhood riding buses and hoarding memories. He transformed his experiences into a food bacchanal. One hundred waiters serving a thousand diners translates into mayhem and a not-to-be-missed experience. Bring a group of friends to keep from being overwhelmed. Order meat. The tender steaks are flavorful and cooked to perfection on open grills, and the delicious extras (sweetbreads, intestine, blood sausage and kidney) are so tasty you’ll have no idea you’re eating innards.
A Cathedral of Salt or a cup of coffee? Less than an hour from Bogotá in the town of Zipaquirá, the cathedral is a functioning, underground church that holds 8,000 people 600 feet inside an active salt mine. But after wining and dining around Bogotá, I need coffee. This is Colombia, after all, and coffee has defined the cuisine for generations. I head to Café Oma (Av. 19 #118-79; +57 1 620 7968; www.cafeoma.com) and while sipping the fragrant, bold coffee and reminiscing about my food adventures, I have only one thought: When can I return?
Where to Stay
The Hotel de la Opera (Calle 10, #5-72; +57 1 336 2066; www.hotelopera.com
; standard doubles, $178) is on a cobblestone street in La Candelaria, next to the Teatro Colon. The elegant hotel rambles across two 19th- century townhouses that were once home to Sim�n Bol�var�s guards. The Italian d�cor includes antique furnishings, but the recently refurbished hotel also has a full-service spa, pool, Jacuzzi and sauna.
The Casa Medina (Carrera 7, #70A-22; +57 1 217 0288; www.hotelcharlestoncasamedina.com; standard doubles, $230) is a five-star Relais & Ch�teaux property in the financial district. Built in 1945, the building was declared a monument of cultural interest for its unique Spanish- and French-inspired architecture. The 58 rooms combine comfort and elegance and include all modern amenities, including Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Dine in the intimate restaurant or on the beautiful rooftop terrace. The suites, in particular the presidential suite, are a wonderful treat.
The Sofitel Victoria Regia (Carrera 13, #85-80; +57 1 621 2666; www.sofitel.com; standard doubles, $213�$329) is a warm and welcoming hotel about 30 minutes north of the city center. The small lobby has a warm, European feel. The Basilic Restaurant features Mediterranean and Colombian cuisine. The adjacent bar is minimalist in concept, with optional sidewalk caf� seating. Guests can relax by the Roman whirlpool or use the workout room.
El Nuevo Dorado International Airport is about eight miles from the city center and authorized taxis take about 20 minutes and cost about 18,000 pesos. Buses to urban areas near the airport leave every 30 minutes. The local currency is the Colombian peso (2,603.27 to every $1).
Nonstop flights to Bogot�, Colombia, are available five times a week on Avianca Airlines from Washington Dulles International Airport.
Find authentic South American cuisine right here in D.C.:
- Mate (3101 K St., NW; 202/333-2006; www.latinconcepts.com/mate) is decadent, lush and entirely unexpected in historic Georgetown. A unique Latin-inspired sushi menu and a fantastic cocktail list draws a sophisticated crowd.
- Ceiba (701 14th St., NW; 202/393-3983; www.ceibarestaurant.com) serves contemporary Latin American cuisine, from the Yucatan, Brazil, Peru and Cuba. Popular for its extended happy hour, pre-theater menu and weekend brunch.
- Inti (1825 18th St., NW; 202/797-0744; www.intirestaurant.com) serves authentic and flavorful Peruvian food with delicious, traditional dishes, including rotisserie chicken, ceviche and Pisco Sours. Friendly service makes you feel as if you�re eating at your grandmother�s.
- Yaku (2001 N. 15th St., Arlington, Va.; 703/248-0844; www.latinconcepts.com/yaku) is a dynamic two-floor space serving a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese cuisine, and featuring a spacious outdoor patio and self-serve wine machine.
- Ceviche (921 J Ellsworth Dr., Silver Spring, Md.; 301/608-0081; www.latinconcepts.com/ceviche) is an inviting fusion of the rustic and the sophisticated. The menu features a variety of fish, shrimp and mixed seafood ceviche. Ceviche�s design draws from the menu, with a Latin rustic-modern style combining raw timber, iron and glass tile into a unique palette of color and texture.