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After trying some of Cartagena, Colombia’s well-known, classic restaurants I was curious to discover which chefs and restaurants were currently garnering buzz. To my surprise, there were quite a few—Cartagena is having a bit of a restaurant moment. Not only are these spots serving excellent food, but many are also set in distractingly beautiful spaces. Here, the short list of my favorites:
La Perla: Colombia’s top mixologist, Roberto Carrascal (he’s a partner in Bogota’s super hot Scirocco Bar and trained at London’s venerable cocktail lounge Eclipse), opened this stylish Peruvian-fusion spot last November near the Plaza Santo Domingo. Peruvian chef Gean Carlo Mayorga Macchiavello creates outstanding dishes like grouper served over squid ink risotto; a delicate corvina (similar to sea bass) carpaccio and a sinful suckling pig that gets roasted for four hours, so the skin is crackly, salty and perfect and the meat is juicy and moist (at $19, it’s the most pricey item on the menu). An impressive cocktail list includes the signature La Perla, an electric blue gin martini mixed with hypnotiq, basil, cucumber and lime juice). Ask to try Roberto’s homemade limoncello. He wouldn’t share the secret ingredient, but it was deceptively potent and way too delicious.
Mila: Colombia’s star pastry chef and caterer Camila Andrea Vargas (she supplies freshly baked bread to most of the city’s boutique hotels) opened this chic French-style bakery-restaurant eight months ago. Domaine Chandon Champagne is displayed on wooden shelves (and served at the Champagne bar on the rooftop terrace), and glass cases show off almost-too-perfect-to-eat desserts like torta porteña, a chocolate cake topped with a dollop of dulce de leche. This became my regular morning spot for their excellent café con leche, which is served with a tiny treat (usually a small square of banana bread) and a shot glass of mint water (for fresh breath afterward).
El Pulpito: This tiny, two-week-old casual cevicheria, opened by one of the chefs from Cartagena’s hip Palma restaurant, serves superfresh, ridiculously affordable ceviche. I tried the mixed seafood (octopus, shrimp, scallops, sea snails, fish) dressed in El Pulpito’s special sauce (a mix of ketchup, mayo, yellow chile sauce and lime juice). A small serving cost just $1.75 and was the perfect midday snack.
El Santisímo: French-trained chef-owner Frederico Vega recently moved his restaurant to classy new digs on Calle del Torno. The new two-level space feels like a home, with high ceilings and modern artwork on the walls. He’s kept the Caribbean-French menu mostly the same, right down to the wacky religious names for his dishes, like La Anunciacion, thinly sliced grilled beef tenderloin with a mustard sauce. The menu also includes some local staples, like cloyingly sweet plantains marinated in Kola Roman, a bubble-gum-pink version of Coca-Cola. It reminded me of a Latin American version of candied yams. Most of the desserts feature unique local fruits, like candied mamey, which tasted like maraschino cherries and was perfect on top of vanilla ice cream.