We were in Bogotá, Colombia for the parties and talks leading up to the ceremony announcing the restaurants named on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. It was an exciting time with lots of chefs from around Latin America enjoying the hospitality of Colombia’s capital. The release of the 2018 list means we’ve got even more restaurants to explore as we continue eating our way through Latin America’s 50 Best restaurants. Here, we tell you about five more epic meals including eating at the highest new entry on the 2018 list and one of the best tasting menu meals we’ve ever had (and that’s saying something).
Epic meals in Colombia, Chile, and Argentina
Chila – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Chef Pedro Bargero and his staff are creating tasting menus full of dishes that are sophisticated (a pre-meal snack includes what looks like a sweet alfajora but is actually blood sausage rolled in dehydrated llama), playful (one course was served in hollowed out ostrich egg shell), delicious (we’re still thinking about the succulent and perfectly formed shrimp-filled tortellini swimming in a mussel reduction broth), daring (bark is served as part of one dish – and it’s fantastic), and irreverent (a cocktail of yerba mate, gin, and kombucha came in a mate cup made from a cow’s hoof with a handful of unruly dried herbs sticking out of it). The restaurant, which is #19 on 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best restaurants and part of Relais & Chateaux, was renovated in 2017 and now features an open kitchen, muted natural tones, and an elegant hushed look and feel. It’s a reserved setting for a meal that’s this much yummy fun. There is no ala carte menu at Chila and while a 3-course tasting menu is offered, we strongly urge you to go whole hog with the full tasting menu (which changes every 45 days or so). It was one of the best tasting menu meals we’ve ever had. Staff members are extremely knowledgeable and fluent in English. Dinner only. Reservations required.
El Chato – Bogotá, Colombia
Everyone knew that El Chato would be debuting on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2018, but nobody knew where the restaurant would land on the list. At the announcement ceremony, restaurants are announced starting at number 50 and working up toward the number one position. As more and more restaurants were announced, many people in the audience (including us) started to wonder just exactly how high El Chato was going to place. Finally, the restaurant was announced way up in the #21 position, making it the highest debut on the 2018 list. We may have been surprised by the high placement, but we were not shocked. Chef Alvaro Clavijo’s dishes, including standouts like sweet crab with squid ink crackers, tender and mild chicken hearts with grated egg yolk, sour cream, and native potatoes, and a grilled hearts of palm salad with tender celery leaves, avocado, and a zingy citrus dressing are absolutely worthy of such high praise.
Gran Dabbang – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Chart-topping restaurants are rarely casual or affordable. Gran Dabbang (#38 on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants) is both. Chef Mariano Ramon worked with Argentinean food luminaries like Frances Mallmann and Narda Lepes before opening his own place on his own path. His space is strictly no-frills (simple tables packed into what looks like it used to be a small shop), service is friendly (and fast), you’ll mostly eat with your hands (no one-of-a-kind cutlery here), and you can BYOB (though there is small wine list as well as beer available). Ramon saves the fireworks for his food which is inspired by his favorite East Asian dishes and flavors, but with savvy twists. His take on chaat, a beloved Indian street food, is made with plantains, yucca, split peas, tahini, mustard seeds, thinly-sliced red onion, and herbs. It’s a creamy, slightly sweet, crunchy, fresh, sour, and spicy wonder. Ramon’s cloudlike pakoras are made with swiss chard and topped with sweet carrot chutney and a drizzle of zingy sriracha and cooling house-made yogurt. Portions are moderately-sized and prices are low, so we recommend wrangling a group and ordering everything on the small menu to share around the table. You can’t make a reservation, so get there a bit before opening time and line up on the street.
Don Julio Parrilla – Buenos Aires, Argentina
There’s a simple formula that all parrilla restaurants in Argentina follow: quality meat cooked simply and served with plenty of local wine. Technically speaking, Don Julio Parilla doesn’t really deviate from that formula. So what sets Don Julio apart from the hundreds of other great parrillas and how does it manage to hold its own (Don Julio is #6 on the 2018 list of Latin America’s Best Restaurants and was also named the Best Restaurant in Argentina) among chefs offering far more ambitious concepts? Yes, your meat and sausage will be delicious, but at Don Julio it’s all in the details. Opened in 1999, they’ve had decades to perfect those details including raising their own cattle, amassing a wine cellar with more than 14,000 bottles from around Argentina (including an orange wine made for Don Julio with Zuccardi winery near Mendoza), and having their steak knives made by an iconic local craftsman (and sharpening them daily). There’s also a separate prep kitchen in a nearby building where sausage is made, meat is aged, and bread is baked.
A bucket of chilled Argentinean sparkling wine is also always at the ready to soothe people waiting for their tables (even with a reservation a wait is likely).
99 Restaurante – Santiago, Chile
One of our favorite restaurants of the year is also one of the hardest to sum up because there were outstanding moments at every turn. I doubt we’ll ever forget the dessert orb, created by pastry chef Gustavo Saez (who was named Latin America’s Best Pastry Chef in 2018), filled with creamy yogurt and beet ice cream that sparkled like a cranberry-colored Christmas tree ornament (picture bottom row far right). And I know we’ll never forget chef Kurt Schmidt’s take on traditional pantrucas soup in which he replaces beef or chicken for rabbit which is simmered down to an insanely rich stock laced with rabbit meat, an egg, and sweet peas (pictured bottom row far left). Then there’s a tender guanaco rib (from the 600 that are culled every April from wild herds) with creamed chestnuts and tart pickled fig. And a sophisticated take on traditional Chilean sandwiches featuring hallulla bread topped with a glistening warm prawn on a pillow of creamy avocado mashed with mussel juice that’s bursting with umami (pictured top row far right). The restaurant, which is #28 on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, offers a 6-course and a 9-course tasting menu for dinner and you can’t go wrong with either. Whichever menu you choose, do not skip the wine pairings. You may not love everything that sommelier Alvaro pours, but each choice makes sense and makes you think. We had the most eye-opening and challenging wine pairings we’ve had in a very, very long time (many of them super-small-batch natural wines) during our dinner here. Make a reservation (no kids allowed) and come casual. The reclaimed wood furniture and working turntable do not demand dressing up.
Don’t miss part 1 of our efforts to eat our way through Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants including meals at Central, Isolina, Restaurante Leo, and many more winners in Colombia and Peru. And check out part 2 of our efforts to eat our way through Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants to learn about meals in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru at A Casa do Porco, Gustu, Maido, and more.