When I learned that Jet Blue recently added service from New York to Bogotá, I decided to extend my Colombian adventure and spend 36 hours in the capital. I was amazed by how much I could pack in thanks to insider advice from super-friendly locals, chefs and mixologists.
I met Patrick Enste, founder of Luxury Travel Services, an agency offering Colombia’s most fabulous rental and hotel options, while in Cartagena. He suggested I book a room at Bogotá's 104 Arts Suites, a funky boutique hotel in the northern part of the city. Each of the 20 rooms was designed by a local Colombian artist. (I was in #201, Camilo Monsalve’s masterpiece). In addition to the fab design, the service was exceptional, and though I felt completely safe my entire trip, the staff always insisted I take their car service rather than hop in a taxi alone (“Just for precaution Mrs. Jennifer,” they assured me).
Saturday afternoon: I fueled up with a perfect pisco sour and a small plate of baby grilled octopus with a chimichurri of braised peppers and olives at star Peruvian chef Rafael Osterling’s eponymous Bogotá outpost in Zona G (Bogotá’s hot food ’hood), then wandered around Zona Rosa, a two-mile plaza of bars, restaurants and dangerously enticing shops ranging from tiny boutiques to enormous malls like Andino Center, Atlantis and El Retira. I splurged on hip Latin American–inspired bangles from jewelry designer Mercedes Salazar and restrained myself from buying colorful, beachy-chic dresses from Colombia’s hottest fashion designer, Silvia Tcherassi (who is also designing a boutique hotel in Cartagena).
Early evening: People eat late here so I grabbed a pre-dinner snack at Clos, a just-opened wine bar in Zona G, that has a diverse wine list spanning France, Spain, Italy and Australia as well as the usual Argentinean and Chilean offerings on every other list in the city. Regulars can by a kind of prepaid debit card so they can pour themselves a taste or a glass from one six enomatic machines. And the food is terrific too, with a nice selection of meats and cheese.
Late night: Everyone I met told me I must go to Andrés Carne de Res, located 40 minutes outside of Bogotá in the tiny town of Chia, and that I had to go with locals. Luckily, a friend of a friend lives in Bogotá and offered to take me. The only way to describe this enormous restaurant-bar is to think of a Latin American–version of Alice’s rabbit hole or Hunter Thompson’s dream restaurant. Originally a roadside steak stand opened by the hippie-artist owner Andrés, the place has evolved into a maze of bars and dining rooms spilling over with locals dancing on tables and drinking handles of aguardente, a potent firewater that I preferred mixed with fresh fruit juices. Colombians start lining up (and pay for parking as well as a cover charge to eat and party) around 10 p.m. and stay until the sun comes up. Despite the many distractions—the DJ booth, the wacky decorations falling from the ceiling, the masks they hand out—the food is actually quite good. I had a pork revelation eating addictive chicharrones (David Chang would have been smitten). Even after we paid (the check is delivered with a magnifying glass, flashlight and goodie bags of sweets) freebies like bowls of uchuvas (a sweet and tangy yellow fruit) and slices of green mango keep coming. The highlight of my night: learning that my new Venezuelan friends who were dancing next to me were all huge Top Chef and Ray Isle devotees!
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.
My instructions to get to dinner last Saturday night in Berlin were a bit sketchy. F&W's always-in-the-know Berlin-based correspondent Gisela Williams had told me to turn down an alley next to the Westin Grand hotel, then look for the garbage dumpsters and an enormous, baroque chandelier illuminating what looked like a warehouse space. Then, I was to look for a cluster of lightbulbs hanging above a nondescript door, climb three stairs, ring the buzzer and announce myself. I felt slightly ridiculous in my hunt for the alley (I must have walked by five times, and in my head, I could hear my mom chastising me for walking down a dark lane alone at night in an unfamiliar city), but there was no missing the chandelier, and once buzzed in I entered a grimy-looking nightclub that I was told would be packed come 3 a.m. I wandered around, following the music upstairs to what is one of Berlin’s coolest new restaurants, Cookies Cream. The rough, cement-walled space felt like a Manhattan loft with its high ceilings, bold red chairs and funky lighting. Morcheeba and Bob Marley set the mellow tone, and by 9 p.m., the room was packed with artsy-looking groups who’d all come to eat deliciously satisfying vegetarian food—pumpkin-lime soup with chutney, roasted cashews and curry; parmesan dumplings with Amalfi-lemon sauce; polenta with a liquid garlic–rocket filling and roasted ceps. Michael Kempf, the Michelin-starred chef from Facil, collaborated on the menu. Guests can walk around the enormous open kitchen and ask the boyish-looking executive chef, Stephan Hentsch, questions. At just 28 euros for three courses, this was another great deal.
The restaurant within a nightclub scene is a growing trend here, according to Gisela. Bar Tausend is also rumored to be opening a restaurant behind its bar this week. The über-hot bar is another hidden gem, located under a railway along a river with no sign, not even a light, at its door. The Foodists will be offering a menu (to those savvy enough to get a reservation) of modern German food to go with the excellent cocktails.
What happens when you put six star chefs in the same kitchen? In the case of Seattle's Thierry Rautureau (Rover's), Maria Hines (Tilth), Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez (The Harvest Vine), Johnathan Sundstrom (Lark), Jason Wilson (Crush) and Holly Smith (Cafe Juanita), you get an ingenious musical-chairs-like dinner series called Seattle Chefs Table 2009. "The idea—six chefs and six courses at six restaurants—was born in the face of this horrible economy," says Rautureau, who hosted the first dinner a few weeks ago at Rover's, taking care of the hors d'oeuvres, while the other five chefs handled the remaining courses. This evening, the chefs are convening at Tilth, where the menu includes dishes like vanilla-scented lobster by Jiménez de Jiménez, handmade garganelli with uni by Sundstrom and almond financiers with Meyer lemon preserve by Hines. The dinner series ($90 per meal) have been such a hit that the chefs have just announced a second night of dinners. Here, the remaining dinners:
The Harvest Vine: April 13 (2701 E. Madison St.; 206-320-9771 or harvestvine.com)
Lark: May 19 (926 12th Ave.; 206-323-5275 or larkseattle.com)
Cafe Juanita: September 22 (9702 NE 120th Pl., Kirkland; 425-823-1505 or cafejuanita.com)
Crush: October 19 (2319 E Madison St.; 206-302-7874 or chefjasonwilson.com)
Undisclosed location: mid-November for a "Holiday Feast" celebrating six different holiday themes.
For those unable to make it to Seattle for one of the dinners, create your own with these superb recipes:
Hines's Salmon with Oyster Mushrooms and Peppers
Wilson's Herb-and-Spice Lamb Chops
Sundstrom's Herb-Grilled Chicken with Goat Cheese Ravioli
By day three in Berlin I’d already had my fill of bratwurst and wiener schnitzel and was directed to a superhip sushi restaurant on the ground floor of the chic Lux 11 hotel called Shiro I Shiro. The name is Japanese for “white castle” and refers to the amazing white interiors accented with pops of bright blue and pink neo-baroque-style furniture. If Louis XIV were still alive, this is what his modern-day dining room would look like. French-trained chef Eduard Dimant recently took over the kitchen and prepares French-accented Japanese food and exquisite sushi. I also noticed some South American influences on the menu, like a section devoted to tiradito, a Peruvian-style ceviche. I tried the yellowtail tiradito (superfresh yellowtail marinated in citrus and olive oil) and had an excellent rice-paper roll filled with tuna, tobiko (flying fish roe), cucumber and tamago (egg). I always ask what the server recommends and he gushed over the miso cod. I hesitated before ordering something so obvious, but it was superb. The lightest touch of my chopstick broke off tender flakes of black cod marinated in ginger and soy. Nobu would’ve been proud.
Today, I met Wolfgang Nitschke, the fabulous general manager at the Regent Berlin, for lunch at his hotel’s two-Michelin-star restaurant, Fischers Fritz (the name stems from a German tongue twister). Chef Christian Lohse is definitely one of Berlin’s rising stars, creating stunning seafood dishes that get served on gorgeous French china in the elegant dining room. In my mind, this is Germany’s Le Bernardin. Wolfgang and I split an unusual, yet delicious, tartare of smoked eel and foie gras with pepper caramel and eggplant puree (usually only offered on the dinner menu). The wild char was amazing, roasted and served with Lombard-style cabbage and red chicory. All of the fish comes from France. The orange-leather-bound wine list is quite thorough and wide-ranging with depth in the German and French bottles. Dessert was among my favorites of the year: three tiny Persian figs lightly drizzled with honey and olive oil. I’m usually a chocolate lover but this was so interesting and flavorful that I wasn’t even tempted by Wolfgang’s decadent-looking chocolate-caramel fondant. In this economy, the meal felt indulgent and luxurious—and it was—but it reminded me what fine dining should aspire to and why I don't think it will ever die.
I usually spend as little time as possible in my hotel when I travel, particularly when I’m anxious to explore a new city. But it’s been hard to pull myself away from the food at Hotel Adlon Kempinski, where I’m staying this week in Berlin: It has three Michelin-starred restaurants all under one roof.
Lorenz Adlon restaurant, the hotel’s elegant, one-Michelin-star French spot, serves classic haute-French food. I was still full from an early bratwurst lunch, so I skipped the frog’s legs and Iranian-caviar blini and instead snacked on the fabulous cheese plate (with luscious raw-milk cheeses) paired with a glass of rosé Champagne.
At Restaurant Gabriele (another one-star), I had out-of-this-world Italian, including a near-perfect bowl of conchiglie vongole (pasta with clams).
Restaurant Quattré may not be Michelin-rated, but it has a super-value, 16 euro business lunch. The menu has both traditional and modern German dishes, including a monster-size plate of Wiener schnitzel, which I devoured as part of my German-dining initiation.
Chef Tim Raue is generating tons of buzz right now in the city with the spectacular Asian-fusion dishes he’s cooking at the hotel’s Michelin-starred MA. Locals had been raving about his tamarind-stock lobster soup (amazing), and I adored the pig chin with ginseng beurre blanc served in the more casual dining room, Uma. Even more impressive is that chef Raue uses no white flour or refined sugar in his cooking (a bit of a relief after eating pig in butter sauce, bratwurst and Wiener schnitzel all in one day!).
Even cooler, Raue hosts special wine dinners next door in Hotel Adlon’s year-old wine store. (Lorenz Adlon, the hotel’s founder, ran the world’s largest wine store in Berlin more than 100 years ago.)
More hotel-restaurant updates tomorrow, including details on last night’s dinner at Shiro i Shiro, the hot sushi restaurant in the chic Lux 11 hotel and lunch at Fischers Fritz, the city’s only two-Michelin-star restaurant, located in the Regent Berlin.
Last night, I met Food & Wine’s super-plugged-in Berlin-based correspondent Gisela Williams for dinner at Weinschenke Weinstein in Berlin. Gisela, among others, had told me that this rustic-looking wine bar in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood was a must-try. The smallish, super-casual room, low-lit and lined with shelves of empty wine bottles, was a bit of a local secret. Gisela thought it would be a good first introduction to traditional German food. It also turned out to be my first lesson in why Berlin is such a cool food city: It is unbelievably affordable!
In addition to an intriguing wine-bar menu, with dishes like goulash made from necks of organic Mangalitza pigs with Bohemian dumplings, there were two seasonal tasting menus. Gisela and I opted for a fourth option: the “Less Is More” tasting menu, an eight-course feast of market specials that included marinated lamb on a bed of fennel couscous and fried vendaceon (a small white fish) over potato and mustard-gherkin salad, all for just 38 euros per person. Most wine by the glass on the stellar, Germany-focused list was around 5 to 7 euros. Weinstein, I learned, operates on the Chez Panisse philosophy of highlighting excellent local produce in straightforward, delicious (and super-traditional) preparations.
By the time course number four—an incredible roasted fish called Zander (kind of like perch or pike) that was caught by fisherman Wilhelm Gehrt in the pristine waters of Lake Zechlin in Brandenberg—was served, we were joined by Telse Bus, the creative director of an innovative catering company/art group known as the Foodists. Telse was there to fill us in on her latest food/art project, a collaboration with Mario Grünfelder, the star mixologist at Berlin’s coolest bar, Tausend. The idea was to open a secret restaurant behind the bar at Tausend that will serve modern riffs on traditional German food (“Cool German food,” according to Telse) in an interactive, thought-provoking, artistic manner. She wouldn’t spill more details except to say that it opens next Wednesday. I’m heading to Bar Tausend tomorrow night, so I’ll have to see if I can get Mario to illuminate me more on the new project.