A mind-blowing bar, the place for super sandwiches, a true farm to table lunch, a veggie standout, and 17 other top food and beverage moments in Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia. It’s a big list this year and it’s full of delicious options that travelers to South America will want to know about, so grab a snack and get started on part 3 of our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2018 series. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2018, part 2 covers the Best Hotels of the year and part 4 tells you all about our Top Travel Gear of the Year.
Best Food & Beverages of 2018
Best new entry on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants: Chef Alvaro Clavijo and his Restaurante El Chato in Bogotá, Colombia just debuted at an amazingly high #21 on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. But Alvaro is not resting on his laurels. He will continue to create and serve dishes like sweet crab with squid ink crackers, tender and mild chicken hearts with grated egg yolk, sour cream, and thin sliced native potatoes, and a grilled hearts of palm salad that we could eat every single day made with tender celery leaves, avocado, and a citrus dressing (pictured above middle left). After all, it’s dishes like that that helped get El Chato on that list in the first place. But this ambitious yet measured chef also has plans to introduce a tasting menu to be served in a small room just off the upstairs kitchen at El Chato. Stay tuned.
Best sure bet: Even in a seriously foodie city like Lima, Peru, Rafael was a stunning standout. Rafael in Bogotá, Colombia proved to be an equally impressive player with dishes like octopus and clam tiradito featuring three perfect sweet clams on thick-sliced tender octopus with a swoosh of creamy avocado to balance the miso and chili broth and mini raviolis with impossibly thin and tender skins filled with spinach puree and rabbit in a cremini mushroom sauce (there are two cooks in the kitchen devoted solely to pastas). Everything is served in a flawlessly cosmopolitan setting with great music and a bar menu equal to the food. In other words, if you’re near Rafael in Lima or in Bogotá, eat there. In fact, if you’re near anything helmed by chef Rafael Osterling, you’re looking at a sure bet.
Best one to watch: Mesa Franca is the only restaurant on this list that we visited twice this year. Here’s why. The food is great (that’s job one). There’s a very fairly-priced set menu lunch offered Monday through Friday. Thursday nights feature a salsa DJ, guest chefs, and specials like cochinita. There’s a secret menu including a good-looking burger made with beef that’s ground in-house and a homemade brioche bun. Cocktails are inventive and never too sweet (though on the pricey side). The space is arty but homey because it used to be a home (you can let them know which room you’d like to sit in when you make a reservation). The menu is petite but covers the bases including an encocado soup and a seafood pasta which are top sellers. But it really all boils down to the easy hospitality of the young owners, Maria and Tom, who bring just the right combination of considerable experience (they’ve worked with the likes of Jamie Oliver and Gaston Acurio) and the bravery to experiment.
Best bar that thinks like a restaurant: Forget what you think you know about bars or craft cocktails or booze creativity in general. This is Carnaval Bar, Aaron Diaz’s long-dreamed-about physical representation of his travels, influences, quirks (good and bad), and experiences (good and bad). He compares it to Cirque de Soleil because “it can blow your mind.” And he’s not wrong. Carnaval, in Lima’s San Isidro neighborhood, has more than 150 different styles of cocktail glasses and 60 different spirits behind a bar that was customized to work like a kitchen with distinct “stations” and Aaron acting as the expeditor. There’s an ice chef, bar food is spritzed with booze at your table, and there’s a cocktail tasting menu which is a good way to go if you’re overwhelmed by the long and sometimes obtuse cocktail menu. A rotating roster of classic cocktails is always available (and the creator is named along with the location and year). Or just go for it with Carnaval creations like the spicey and sweet El Dorado made with Johnny Walker Gold whiskey, Tahitian lemon, honey, and Perrier served over yellow ice in a heavy brown ceramic goblet with a metal stem and base. Or the Beso de Muerte (Kiss of Death), a frothy, viscous, salty, sour, VERY sea infused concoction of Porton pisco, black saki infused with nori, and squid ink served in a metal cup shaped like a poisonous pufferfish. You can see why Carnaval reached #68 on the 2018 list of the Top 100 Bars in the World in its first year of life. In 2019, the cocktail menu will get 12 new items, each inspired by carnival celebrations around the world.
Best re-invented ceviche: There are thousands of restaurants serving ceviche in Lima, Peru. Not one of them is like the Pesca del Dia Tartar coming out of the petite kitchen at Mérito. The primary difference is a crucial one: there’s no citrus at all. Instead, the often overlooked tomato de arbol fruit is used and it gives tender cubes of raw fish a tangy, tingly, slightly sour new lease on life. The dish is fired on top for random crispiness and sprinkled with crunchy toast quinoa instead of the traditional toasted corn. Like everything else on the menu here, the dish is delightful and unexpected.
Best fancy fake butter: Chef Andre Patasis worked at Central where he learned about that restaurant’s famous goal of celebrating the bounty of Peru by separating the products from each distinct ecosystem. At his new restaurant, Statera, Andrew says he’s more interested in mixing it all up. Take, for example, the butter. Or, rather, the not-butter. Made from an Amazonian fruit called aguaje, the spread looked like tar but it acted like butter. Even though there’s no dairy in it, it was easy melting, rich, satisfying and intense. And the mixing of ecosystems? It was served with house-baked bread made with freeze-dried Andean potatoes called chuños.
Best fancy real butter: We ate 10 courses of food during our tasting menu meal at Villanos en Bermudas in Bogotá, Colombia, which is #15 on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. What we can’t stop thinking about is the humble bread course. The crusty, chewy bread was baked in-house (of course), but the truly remarkable element was the giant schmear of fermented black garlic butter: creamy, rich, umami, roasty, and the color of caramel. This dish has been on the menu since day one and the chefs have no plans of removing it even though other dishes change regularly.
Best omakase: Yes, the inventive menu at Moshi in Cartagena, Colombia includes all sorts of tweaked Asian dishes (the result of deep research done by chef-owners Rob Pevitts and Carmen Angel) including sushi made with rice seasoned with plantain vinegar and panela instead of rice wine and sugar and ramen made with yuca flour noodles and tucupi (an intense sauce from the Amazon) instead of hoisin sauce. But if you want to do Moshi right, go for the omakase menu which includes stunners like marinated sea bass collars with brown butter ponzu and spiced radish and rock shrimp in cocktail sauce with Caribbean crème Fraiche, lime-pickled shallots, and cilantro served cold in a seaweed sheet. There’s now a second Moshi in Medellin.
Best no meat burger: The quinoa burger at Mercat in La Paz, Bolivia is out of this world: moist, toothsome, satisfying. And it should be. Chef/owner Marko Bonifaz is something of a quinoa ambassador, advocating for the royal quinoa found only in Bolivia.
Best dessert: It’s a tie and both winners are from Café Bar Universal in Bogotá. The Milhoja Caramelizada dessert (pictured above) is a fluffy cloud of super light whipped cream made with real vanilla which is topped with caramelized banana slices, a crispy, smoky, sticky cookie, and rum ice cream. It’s like a grown-up, deconstructed banana cream pie only lighter and much less cloying. The Lulo Marinado dessert is another fluffy pillow of super light whipped cream which is sprinkled with the succulent, tart, yellow flesh of the lulo fruit, then smothered in deeply green fruity ice. It’s creamy, icy, crunchy, smooth, tart, sweet, and super refreshing even after a big meal. According to chef Andrius Didziulis, the Lulo Marinado has always been on the menu and always will be. Bonus: both desserts are around US$4.
Best craft cocktail bar: Do yourself a favor and put the bartenders through their paces when you visit El Barón bar in Cartagena, Colombia. The menu is full of complex craft cocktails (around US$9 each) and an additional menu of themed seasonal offerings. But El Baron bartenders are always up for a challenge as well. We asked for a cocktail made with Barsol pisco (it’s rare to see Peruvian pisco in Colombia) that wasn’t sweet and was NOT a pisco sour and the bartender whipped up a delicious little tipple made with Aperol, Barsol pisco, apple, and mint (pictured above left).
Best set lunch menu: The 4-course set lunch menu at Prudencia, in the underserved La Candelaria area of Bogotá, changes weekly. Scratch that. The menu is reinvented weekly by owners Mario Rosero (a CIA trained chef) and his flawlessly hospitable wife Meghan Flanigan. Since 2016, they’ve been serving inventive, perfectly prepared food (lunch only, US$14 with veg choices and US$18 with meat choices) in a historic and elegant setting (thanks to famed Colombian architects Simon Velez and Marcelo Villegas). Throngs of grateful area workers, devoted locals, and clued-in travelers (reservations recommended) come for dishes like spicy and tender beef bavette with chile de arbol and oregano, juicy brined chicken sate, surprising and satisfying sunflower seed risotto with arugula, shitake compote, wood roasted asparagus, carrots, haricots verts, and asiago, Spanish mackerel with brown sugar, coriander, and turmeric, and cloud-like white chocolate pannacotta topped with dark chocolate sauce and a crunchy peanut butter wafer. They smoke, cure, pickle, and ferment their own ingredients, offer weekly cocktail specials plus a lovely wine list, and make their own fruit sodas. Even the bathrooms are special, decorated with recipes and cooking tips written backward on the wall so you can read them when you’re looking in the mirror.
Best new offering from a star chef: Chef Harry Sasson has been cooking in Colombia for decades and his namesake restaurant in Bogotá is an institution. In 2018, Sasson opened Nemo by Harry Sasson and, honestly, we were afraid it was just going to be a smaller, newer version of his flagship. It’s not. The place is named for Harry’s grandfather and it’s decorated with black and white family photos which give Nemo the welcoming look and feel of a slick, high-end Italian trattoria. The menu is meat and fish based and most items are cooked in a special oven and grill imported from Spain that cooks with live fire. Portions are huge and meant to be shared and prices are high but so is the quality. Appetizers like tender octopus tacos and a hummus trio, including hot pink beet hummus, pumpkin hummus, and heart of palm hummus, served with homemade pita bread, offer something for everyone. Mains shine too. The Angus NY strip steak was cooked perfectly rare and juicy and tender with crispy fat and the light, flaky, and flavorful grouper cooked in a skillet with pesto was the best fish we’ve had in years. Best of all, Nemo is much more energized than Harry’s flagship restaurant and so is the crowd of younger, stylish locals. Nemo also offers the best wine selection in Bogotá with dozens of bottles offered by the 1/4, 1/2, or full bottle at excellent prices.
Best food worth traveling for: This year we finally got to attend the annual Bogotá Wine & Food Festival. That’s where we met chef Julian Hoyos and ultimately ended up in Montenegro, in Colombia’s coffee triangle at Julian’s Restaurante El Silo. In 2014 Julian won a televised Colombian chef contest and then he was part of a restaurant called Tres Bastardos in Bogotá (since closed). A trained graphic artist, Julian studied cooking for six months in Argentina but says YouTube taught him the rest. “Four hours a day on YouTube and you become expert.” His cooking reimagines traditional local food (Julian grew up in the coffee region) with a focus on ingredients farmed and created within a few dozen miles of the restaurant including Brahma beef (which Julian tenderizes with enzymes before cooking sous vide) and chickens that weigh up to 19 pounds. Julian says he wants to “reveal” beloved dishes from his homeland. Examples include young mini trout fried in a light, crispy, salty batter that are so tender you can eat the bones after dipping them in thin spiced honey or cilantro aioli. His chicharron and beans uses porchetta which is dried for four days, brined, smoked, then pressure cooked. The juice from the porchetta is used to make the beans which are smoky, rich, and silky. In 2019 Julian will be debuting his first tasting menu and we’re already thinking about a return to Montenegro to see what that’s all about.
Best veg and vegan: Casa Lelyte is the brainchild of Colombian Angelica Bernal who studied at the Natural Gourmet Institute vegetarian cooking school in New York City and worked at Dirt Candy and ABC Kitchen in the city as well. She is vegetarian, but says she created Casa Lelyte to be a “veg restaurant for non-veg people”. And she’s succeeding. For example, we’re not vegetarian. However, the gyozas at Casa Lelyte, filled with rich chopped and cooked mixed mushrooms and sprinkled with Japanese seasoning and truffles, were so satisfying that we wanted a second plate and we never ever missed the pork. Around 70% of her ingredients are organic and are sourced from nearby farms and purveyors and her cocktail menu was developed by local bar superstar Ronnie Schneider. Due to popular demand, the new menu at Casa Lelyte will feature even more vegan options.
Best value gourmet lunch: Popular Cocina Boliviano, in downtown La Paz, Bolivia, is helmed by chefs Juan Pablo Reyes and Diego Rodas (who worked at La Paz’s celebrated Gustu). They offer a new set lunch menu each week and about US$9 gets you your choice of an appetizer, a main course, a dessert, and a juice (vegetarian options are available). Pretty normal so far. But at Popular, dishes are inspired by Bolivian favorites but made with higher quality ingredients and pro techniques and presented in a thoroughly modern and creative way. The lechon (suckling pig) was the standout, served in a basket inside a clear plastic bag along with tiny Andean potatoes and sauce in a separate plastic bag tube (bite and pour) in a nod to how you get this dish from street vendors (pictured above). However, the luscious chunk of pork belly bore no resemblance to its roadside siblings. Yes, you can get a cheaper lunch in La Paz, but we defy you to find thoughtful takes on Bolivian favorites at this level of quality for this price. For obvious reasons, the place gets packed and they don’t take reservations, so arrive by 12:15 to avoid a long wait for a table.
Best debut: When we ate at Mil Moray, from Peruvian superstar chefs Pia Leon and Virgilio Martinez (check them out at their renowned Central Restaurant in Lima on their episode of Chef’s Table), the place had only been open for a month but their act was already totally together. Located in the Sacred Valley on the edge of the Moray Incan archaeological site, which is thought to have been used as an agricultural research area, Mil is home to the team’s Mater investigation center which explores the products, foods, and food traditions of Peru, along with the polished restaurant (lunch only) which focuses on Andean ingredients. During our 8-course, 3-hour meal we had the best quinoa we’ve ever had (forget what you think you know), a lamb tartare that beats beef any day, a salad (salad!) worth flying to Peru for, and much more. Service was informed and polished, right down to the lush alpaca blankets on offer should you catch a chill at this altitude.
Best restaurant concept on a mission: Michelangelo Cestari has worked in some impressive kitchens, including Noma and Gustu. But he’s much more than a chef and his latest opening in Bogotá proves that. On the surface, Detaco, named for a Colombian colloquialism that means “quickly”, is a fast and economical taco joint with a focus on quality. But to Michelangelo, it’s also the first of what he hopes will be a small army of restaurants that can be opened using the Detaco template to enable emerging chefs to work without a massive investment and to enable cash-strapped locals to eat well on a budget.
Best classics only bar: There’s no sign and you need to check the bar’s Facebook page to get the password of the day in order to gain entry to Bitter Cocktail Club in Lima, Peru. Modeled on a members-only speakeasy, this is a moody haven for those who value perfectly prepared classic cocktails (and the correct glasses to serve it in) or a slightly tweaked classic made with surprising ingredients (Uruguayan vermouth, for example). As the name implies, there’s a general love for bitters of all sorts (the owner used to be the brand manager for Fernet). There are more than 130 craft bitters behind the bar and they claim to have sold more than 2,300 negronis since opening in early 2018.
Best sandwich: They make their own buns, which are toasted before serving for the right crispy/tender ratio, and the fillings, including burgers, schnitzel (chicken or tilapia), and rotating specials (don’t miss the best falafel balls we’ve had in years), are cooked to order. Add in fresh fried native potatoes, cold craft beer, indoor/outdoor seating, and very fair prices and Guerrero, Compañía de Sándwiches in Bogotá can’t be beaten.
Best farm lunch: Farmer Michel Pineda and his family run the organic and sustainable Deveras Farm, which supplies products to many of the chefs cited above, on 220 acres (90 hectares) in the small town of Rio Frio about two hours from Bogotá. The farm’s tractor shed has been converted into a welcoming country-chic space where lunch and farm tours are offered on Sundays (about US$19 per person). The goal is for the farm to produce at least 80% of the ingredients that are served for lunch which typically includes items like farm-raised lamb brined for two days and slow cooked for eight hours, mashed potatoes, grilled vegetable salad served cold with beets, zucchini, and squash, homemade bread, green salad with sweet radishes, and tart-sweet rhubarb crumble. At Deveras, it’s always just a few steps from farm to table.
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia
Here’s more about travel in Colombia
Here’s more about travel in Peru