Move over, Buenos Aires: South America’s newest culinary darling is Colombia’s comeback capital. Crime is down, business is booming, and the restaurant scene is so hot that the food world’s biggest names are flying in for a taste. Frank Bruni follows the buzz.
Photos by Peter Frank Edwards
Dinnertime is upon us, stars are all around us, and what’s before us on this blissfully balmy night in Colombia is no mere restaurant. It’s a whirling, twinkling dream, a wonderland of colored lights—on the steadily rotating blades of the decorative windmills that line the street in front of the place; on the gently swaying branches of the trees skirting it; alongside the paths that lattice the parking lot, which is as vast as any amusement park’s. As we shimmy into a spot, I catch my reflection in one of the car’s windows. When do I ever smile this widely?
I was prepped. I was stoked. At least half a dozen globe-trotting friends, savvy diners all, told me that Andrés Carne de Res, this steak house cum fun house about forty minutes (without traffic) from the center of Bogotá, was unlike anywhere they’d ever eaten, and that they couldn’t fathom why it wasn’t known and chattered about the world over. Already I can’t fathom that either.
My companions and I step giddily through the front door, and it’s like passing through the looking glass. Two hosts wearing sombreros and Mexican-style ponchos hand us hollowed-out lime halves with pools of golden tequila inside. Another host leads us to our table, through a labyrinth of rooms that aren’t so much designed as deluged with sculptures made from scrap metal and kitchen castoffs, including a giant crucifix of bottle caps. Shelves along the walls are stuffed with religious icons, masks, and oddball objets d’art. The ceiling, where illuminated red hearts and other ornaments dangle, looks like the world’s largest, most hectic mobile. If the ghost of Salvador Dalí did the stage set for Hoarders: Restaurant Edition, he’d come up with something like this.
Its demented glory was decades in the making. Back in 1982, Andrés Jaramillo, a Colombian hippie with a Jimi Hendrix fixation and an old Fiat, decided that it was time to stop roaming aimlessly around the country and start a business. He opened a roadside grill with ten tables. At first, customers were hard to come by.
"I’d be in the middle of the street with a red napkin, waving people down," recalls Jaramillo, now fifty-seven. "It was very lonely."
Then it wasn’t. The ten tables filled, so he added more, and then more, and then more after that. He’s still adding them. Andrés Carne de Res now accommodates about two thousand diners at a time, along with another thousand or so revelers who just jam the spaces between and near the tables to dance and maybe sing and most definitely drink. It’s a gargantuan frat party with fried plantains, a rave with empanadas. The party goes on in Bogotá’s city center too, where, in 2009, Jaramillo opened a scaled-down version of Andrés Carne de Res called Andrés D.C. (Another, La Plaza de Andrés, is a mall food court extraordinaire, done to Jaramillo’s grand, gaudy specifications.)
But nothing compares with the mothership: Spread out over at least four football fields’ worth of space, Andrés Carne de Res is a small city unto itself. There’s on-site child care, with a kiddie soccer field, a kiddie dance studio, and a kiddie climbing wall, as well as workshops that provide nearly all the furniture and dishes the restaurant needs. The staff of seven hundred include not just cooks and servers but also disc jockeys, jesters, a marching band, and “angels” who will relieve you of your car keys so that you can have as much tequila as you like. At night’s end, which means three or four or even six in the morning, they’ll take you back to Bogotá in your own car, so you don’t have to retrieve it the next day.
One of my companions volunteers to be our group’s designated driver, and we get down to meaty business, ordering sausages, lamb chops, salt-crusted sirloin. The food should take forever to arrive, given the acrobatic slalom that servers must perform to carry sizzling platters through the tangle of bodies everywhere. But it shows up without any delay. And it’s not the forgettable grub that you brace for in an operation this massive and frenetic. It’s first-rate: beef of robust flavor and uncommon juiciness; roasted, marble-size criolla potatoes that pop in my mouth like grapes. I’m floored, delightedly, by the restaurant’s ability to pull this off. But then I’m floored, delightedly, by all of Bogotá and its dining scene—one of unexpected dynamism and uncommon joys.
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Over the last five years, while the United States and Europe sputtered economically, several countries in Latin America were taking off, and Colombia was one of them. It took better control of the political turmoil and pervasive crime that have long prevented it from realizing the full potential of its rich natural resources. It implemented free-trade agreements. Foreign investment poured in; buildings rose. All around the Bogotá metropolitan area, which is home to some nine million people, you see cranes, construction crews, and recently opened stores and businesses. The main airport added a gleaming terminal last year, which it’s still expanding. Boutique hotels are joining those run by the usual chains.
And while much of Bogotá still has a Third World capital’s slapdash structures and generic sprawl, it’s a more topographically impressive city than is often mentioned, with peaks and ridges all around it. The main ridge, tall and long and green, traces central Bogotá’s eastern edge in much the way that the less verdant Santa Monica Mountains form a spine for Los Angeles, and the nicest neighborhoods on the slope that looks west to the center of the city are affluent enough to bring to mind Brentwood, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood. You move through them as you would through that enchanted Southern California corridor, on a long artery that curves and rises and dips like Sunset Boulevard, marveling at the spiffy apartments and residences, the busy restaurants, the sharp grade of the land, the beautifully manicured vegetation, the views.
This surprises me more than it should, given all the buzz about the city that I began hearing late last year from people I know in the restaurant business. Michael White, venerated for his Italian cooking at Marea and Osteria Morini in Manhattan, had been to Bogotá. So had Laurent Tourondel, who is the L and the T in the BLT restaurant group, and Jordan Salcito, the wine director for the Momofuku empire in New York.
Their interest in Colombia is attributable in large part to the Bogotá Wine & Food Festival, which was inaugurated in 2011 and will be staged for a third time in August, bringing international culinary stars to the city in order to expose local restaurateurs to the world’s best cooking and to show the culinary world the remarkable strides these restaurateurs have already made. The festival perfectly exemplifies the eager outreach that Colombia, determinedly shedding its image as a dangerous haven for drug lords, is doing. It also expresses the welling confidence of both the country and its capital.
Salcito encouraged me to meet Laura Cahnspeyer, who runs a local tea shop, so that’s where I head on my first morning. As my taxi moves through the shopping district around my hotel and then up and across those posh neighborhoods on the slope, I’m struck again by how lush the city is: by how many buildings have balconies and patios and gardens. This reflects the gentle weather, where the usual daytime high throughout the year is in the sixties.
Cahnspeyer’s tea shop, called Taller de Té, is in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood, whose rapid, ongoing gentrification it embodies. She’s taken the lower floor of a humdrum limestone house on a largely residential street and turned it into an adorable refuge where she makes, sells, and serves custom blends with tea leaves imported from other countries, but most of the herbs, spices, and flowers are grown in Colombia. In fact, some of the English mint, lemongrass, and lemon verbena she uses comes from flowerpots in Taller de Té’s backyard.
She serves me a sensationally fragrant tea seasoned with cloves, nutmeg, and marigold.
"I hope it’s caffeinated," I say, explaining that I’m feeling strangely depleted, though I can’t figure out why, since Bogotá and New York are in the same time zone and I shouldn’t have jet lag.
She laughs: “Maybe the altitude?” I forgot somehow that Bogotá is, at 8,500 feet, the third-highest capital in South America, after Quito and La Paz. And here in Chapinero Alto, maybe a third of the way up the main ridge, we’re another several hundred feet higher than that.
The two of us walk to lunch, and along the way she points to restaurant after restaurant that has sprung up in the last year or two. We pass La Fama, which opened in November with the help of a pit master from New York and specializes in American-style barbecue—smoked brisket, baby back ribs, sweet corn. Then we pass Gordo, which opened around the same time and promises its diners the excitement and food not of a region of Italy or France but of Brooklyn. Yes, Brooklyn.
We cross into Quinta Camacho, where the sidewalks are crowded with nattily dressed bankers heading out for a midday meal, and arrive at our destination, Bruto, yet another new restaurant, this one serving Spanish food in high-ceilinged, brick-walled, handsome rooms. It’s bustling, an obvious favorite of those bankers, and for good reason. Everything I sample—in particular the salads and the squid croquetas, which are crisp orbs with an oozing center of béchamel and squid ink—is superb. I send my compliments to the chef, Felipe Arizabaleta, who knows Cahnspeyer and drops by our table to say hello.
Arizabaleta, thirty-six, grew up in Colombia but left in 2003, sickened by the violence, discouraged by the economy, and convinced that the country was no place for him and his wife to raise their newborn daughter. They started over in Spain, where he trained and worked as a chef. But by 2009, when he hungered for a restaurant of his own, Colombia seemed a better bet than anywhere in Europe. “It’s incredible the way things turned around here,” he tells me. He returned and soon joined forces with other investors to open two places in Bogotá, a hugely popular French bistro named El Bandido and, late last year, Bruto.
The migration back to Colombia of young entrepreneurs who thought they’d have to make their fortune elsewhere explains the country’s culinary coming-of-age as well as anything else. Cahnspeyer, thirty-two, opened Taller de Té in 2012, after eight years outside her country on a hunt for a better education and jobs in the United States, England, Germany, and Spain.
A stunning new pastry shop and café named Grazia, in the tony Rosales neighborhood of Bogotá, belongs to a husband-and-wife team in their early thirties—she’s Colombian, he’s French—who recently moved here from New York, where he was in charge of desserts at two of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants. One block away from Grazia is a fantastic bakery and sandwich spot, Masa, that was started in late 2011 by yet another returning Colombian, Silvana Villegas, twenty-eight, who worked in New York for Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
And the reason that Daniel Castaño, the thirty-five-year-old chef at Gordo, can summon Brooklyn is because he lived there, in the Williamsburg neighborhood, until 2009 and in Manhattan until just last year. All told, he spent more than a decade cooking in New York–part of that time in several of Mario Batali’s restaurants—before moving back to Bogotá, which was suddenly the city with the brighter opportunities.
I’m dying to experience Brooklyn in Bogotá but decide to wait until my friend John Magazino, a New York specialty-food importer, joins me. He’s been to the city twice over the last year, and those trips have converted him into a bona fide evangelist for the place, intent on flying in to show me around.
Shortly after he arrives, we grab lunch at Club Colombia, one of Bogotá’s most beloved shrines to such traditional Colombian dishes as chicharrones, which are fried pork rinds with some meat and fat attached; empanadas de pipián, envelopes of fried cornmeal stuffed with potato and served with a peanut sauce; and ajiaco, a shepherd’s pie of a soup with chicken, potatoes, corn, sour cream, and avocado. But what John wants me to focus on is the twenty-odd types of common and uncommon fruits that Club Colombia will turn into fresh juices or smoothies. Fruits both familiar and exotic thrive in Colombia, with its equatorial climate and vast patches of Amazonian forest. On my weeklong eating expedition, I try many of them. We have one smoothie, for example, made with feijoa, also known as guavasteen, which has notes of cucumber and basil. Another spotlights guanábana, or soursop, which strikes me as the love child of a coconut and a banana. The last and best showcases mora, a purplish berry with a sweetness and tartness all its own. When I later find mora jam in a store, I buy three jars and squirrel them away in my suitcase.
Afterward, John insists we take a thirty-minute drive north to walk off all those smoothies in Bogotá’s old historic center, La Candelaria. It’s not so central anymore, and it’s poorer and scruffier than the areas of the city that tourists favor, but it has a special look and magic, with a maze of narrow streets flanked by red-roofed houses painted in a kaleidoscope of colors. We linger in the main square, admiring the tableau of the neoclassical cathedral and other colonial-era buildings against a backdrop of green mountain: Europe meets the Andes. Then we dip into the nearby Botero Museum, housing a collection of about two hundred paintings, drawings, and sculptures that were either done by, or belonged to, one of the country’s most renowned artists, Fernando Botero. It’s nearly empty, and that, coupled with its size, makes it unusually manageable and peaceful, not to mention a prudent breather before the commotion of Gordo.
We go that night, and it’s packed with fashionably dressed young Colombians. Although the restaurant is named for Castaño’s dog, the rest of it pays tribute to America. The tin ceiling is made of tiles imported from Brooklyn. On the far end of the packed bar is an enormous sign, almost two stories tall, listing some of the borough’s best-known thoroughfares and neighborhoods: Coney Island, Brighton Beach, DeKalb Avenue, Bushwick Avenue. Near that is a display of condiments either classically American or in vogue in Brooklyn kitchens, including Heinz ketchup, Gulden’s mustard, and Kewpie mayonnaise, a Japanese import that discerning New Yorkers relish.
And the menu reads like a love letter to Castaño’s favorite Brooklyn haunts (DuMont, Marlow & Sons, Prime Meats) and American dishes (chicken wings, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese). His fried chicken in particular impresses me. It’s juicy and crunchy in just the right combination and could hold its own in any of New York’s five boroughs.
Gordo illustrates the variety and ingenuity of Bogotá’s burgeoning crop of restaurants. Another night, John and I eat at one of the three locations of the two-year-old Burger Market, a chain of eateries that has ratcheted up the American and European obsession with local sourcing: It makes its pricey steaks and hamburgers with kosher beef from a local university’s own crossbreed of Angus and wagyu cattle, and its lettuce is grown hydroponically inside the restaurants themselves, on walls that turn roughage into leafy decor. The newest Burger Market, which opened in February and is the one we visit, has cherry tomatoes dangling like ornaments from vines that crawl up a fence hemming the outdoor patio. They’re used in salads, though patrons have been known to furtively pluck two or three and eat them on their juicy own. (Well, this patron has.)
Without John I poke my head into Harry Sasson, one of the most gorgeous restaurants I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s named for its internationally celebrated chef, and a prior version of it existed for many years in a different spot a few miles away. But in mid-2011, as Bogotá’s fortunes improved, Sasson relocated to a sprawling, regal manse built in the 1930s. The driveway in front curves around massive trees more than a hundred years old. The patio in back, which has space for scores of diners, is floored in gray marble and dazzlingly roofed by what brings to mind a gargantuan modernist glass sculpture. Inside and upstairs is a bar made from more of that signature marble, with three ornate glass chandeliers from Turkey and stools upholstered in calfskin. Rarely has a martini had such a sumptuous stage to preen upon.
"I get travelers from the United States, and they say to me, ‘This is the best-kept secret,’" Sasson tells me, and he’s referring not so much to the restaurant, whose international menu has a more Continental than Colombian bent, as to Bogotá itself. "It’s the nueva Colombia, we call it."
One of its greatest beneficiaries and promoters is also one of the country’s food-television stars, Leonor Espinosa, nicknamed Leo. Since June of last year, she has opened two follow-ups to the Bogotá restaurant Leo Cocina y Cava, which initially brought her international attention. The frillier and more expensive of these sequels is La Leo Cocina Mestiza, in the sleek new B.O.G. Hotel in El Lago. Cocina mestiza means mixed cuisine, and that phrase evokes the menu’s mingling of various influences that have shaped the country’s cooking—Arabic, African, Caribbean, and of course European. La Leo’s hummus, for example, is made with guandul, a less aggressively starchy Colombian bean that yields a silkier paste than chickpeas, and it’s scooped up not with triangles of pita but with rice crackers that evoke arepas.
Her other new restaurant, Mercado—on Parque de la 93, a modest urban green amid Bogatá’s bustle—is a more casual showcase for her outspoken advocacy of cooking with Colombian ingredients. The restaurant’s signature braised chicken, served in an enormous porcelain pot with four dipping sauces on the side, uses plump birds from a nearby farm. Skewered cubes of opulent bison meat are also locally sourced and are indicative of the quickly improving quality of what Colombian farmers and ranchers are producing. Since it’s lunchtime and John and I are trying to pace ourselves, we forgo wine or beer and instead order two of Mercado’s house-made sodas, one with strawberry and passion fruit, the other with watermelon and basil. They’re further affirmation of the country’s fruity blessings.
That night we head to Usaquén, which, like La Candelaria, is one of the few neighborhoods in modern Bogotá with the architecture of the city’s past. Unlike La Candelaria, it has been transformed over the last five years into a stylish playground for the increasing number of Colombians with money to burn on restaurants and bars. There’s a branch of the ever-expanding Bogotá Beer Company, which makes its own brews; three splashy mega-restaurants (one Peruvian, one Italian, one steak house) by the prolific Bogotá restaurateur Leo Katz; and Bistronomy, which belongs to the brothers Mark and Jorge Rausch, celebrity chefs in Colombia whose flagship restaurant, Criterión, is considered one of a handful on a sumptuous par with Harry Sasson.
But we’re having dinner at Abasto, an Usaquén pioneer that took root just before the area’s transformation, helping to nudge it along. I’ve been told that Abasto demonstrates a special commitment to Colombia’s delicious natural bounty, and that’s instantly clear from the devotion of about a quarter of the space inside the two-story restaurant to a grocery store that showcases the Colombian produce, grains, and meat being used in the kitchen. “All of this has been here all the time,” Abasto’s chef, Luz Beatriz Vélez, says as she shows me around the store. Vélez is referring to her country’s indigenous ingredients, which she tells me were overlooked and underappreciated for too long. “We weren’t really aware of what we had. We weren’t aware of its richness, its diversity. But that’s changing fast.” Vélez then takes me on a hike up the steep hill above the restaurant to its spin-off, La Bodega de Abasto, which opened about two years ago in a warehouse-like space initially intended to be an artist’s studio. La Bodega specializes in rotisserie chicken and has equipment for roasting coffee beans, which Vélez does herself.
Back at Abasto, John joins me. The dinner menu leans hard on seafood from Colombia’s long coastline, which has both Pacific and Caribbean stretches, and on terrific vegetables. She slices fresh hearts of palm into strands of what looks like fettuccine, then dresses a loose braid of them lightly with vinegar and pink pepper. She accessorizes seared octopus with cooked red and yellow peppers of exquisite sweetness. We can see her toiling in the open kitchen with three helpers. It’s an all-women team.
Later she appears at our table to check on us and to apologize: She can’t work a full shift tonight and has to leave, because she has foreign friends in town and the restaurant she wants to show them is a bit of a drive away.
"It’s called Andrés Carne de Res," she tells us, then asks us if by chance we’ve heard of it.
John and I look at each other and smile. Oh yes, we have. And the way Bogotá is buzzing, we’re betting that plenty more people will be hearing about it soon enough.
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