The 2019 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants will be announced in October. For now, we continue eating our way through the 2018 50 Best list by ticking off six more restaurants including Tegui, Narda Comedor, 040 Restaurante, Mishiguene, Elena, and Villanos en Bermudas. After all, we’ve got to clear our plates in time to tackle new stars that show up on the new list next month…
6 Epic meals in Chile, Argentina, and Colombia
Mishiguene – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Mishiguene, in the Palermo area of Buenos Aires, sits at #18 on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants after galloping up from #50 the year before – and for good reason. The restaurant looks like a French bistro with a mirror-backed bar, smart and tidy (and English-speaking) waitstaff, flattering lighting, and brown paper on the tables. Mini spotlights on runners across the ceiling add to the theater-like atmosphere. We are quickly handed a flute of champagne, then lead to a table. Chef Tomas Kalika works in the open kitchen (when he’s not working the room like a pro), where he turns humble ingredients, grandma’s recipes, and his own eclectic food memories into zingy yet respectful versions of Jewish and Middle Eastern favorites. A dignified mish-mash of glass plates and patterned ceramics, that seem to have come straight out of someone’s china cabinet, are the perfect vessels for dishes like an intensely fuschia foam of beets and horseradish served in a small stemmed glass along with an orb of goat cheese with a liquid center which is like Manishevitz bottled red horseradish but in cloud form. The famous baba ghanoush is a whole smoked and peeled eggplant on a bed of light tomato sauce and topped with an almond sauce, baby greens, herbs, and a wedge of lime (with homemade pita bread, of course). Light pirogis are topped with sweet reduced onions. Fork tender pastrami is smoked and slow-cooked for 13 hours. We could go on and on. But mostly, we could go back for more. Pro tip: Make a reservation even if you intend to order ala carte, and make it for late on a Friday night. That’s when a lively klezmer band briefly performs in the dining room to celebrate Shabbat. And remember that portions are huge and meant to be shared around the table, just like at your Jewish grandma’s house.
Narda Comedor – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Thanks to her time as a judge on Master Chef Argentina and her books about food and eating, Narda Lepes was already a culinary star before opening Narda Comedor in Buenos Aires in 2017 with partner Martin Sclippa. We saw Narda speak at one of the chef events before the 2018 50 Best awards in Bogotá, Colombia and we were very impressed with her pragmatic yet passionate advocacy for eating less meat. To be clear: she’s not pushing for everyone to become vegetarian and the menu at Narda Comedor, which is #46 on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, has some wonderful meat dishes on it (don’t miss the onion and potato dish in a succulent beef broth that’s reduced for three days). Narda’s approach is focused on proving to diners (even mega meat lovers like Argentineans) that a meat-free dish can be completely indulgent and satisfying (case in point: her crunchy, light tempura eggplant dish which perfectly mimics the texture and shape of shrimp). Pro tip: Narda Comedor offers wonderful set lunch meals on weekdays and Narda Comedor is also one of the few restaurants at this level in Buenos Aires that’s open all day long from breakfast through dinner with no afternoon break.
040 Restaurante – Santiago, Chile
Located beneath the Tinto Hotel in the Bellavista neighborhood of Santiago, Chile, the 040 Restaurante space is like the world’s chicest finished basement: bright lighting, lots of white, a wall of wine (including a bunch of empties configured to spell out 040), a closed kitchen with a mysterious black tiled pass-through bar into the dining room (where, exactly, did that dish just come from?), black napkins and black staff uniforms, and tables adorned with a metal French bulldog and a single rose petal in a black bowl of water (almost all of the dishes we were served were eaten with our hands). This is where Spanish chef Sergio Barroso, who worked at El Bulli, puts on a culinary show that’s earned the restaurant the #38 spot on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best restaurants. Chef Barroso tells us that the restaurant has “No history, no grandma’s recipes.” Instead, he’s focused on creating surprises using Asian influences from the cuisine he loves. Our 12-course tasting menu was certainly full of Asian-y surprises like tender and rich squid dumpling in supple black squid ink dough followed by a sip of hot squid broth with coconut milk and the supple curry gyoza filled with toothsome (not mushy) lentils that managed to encapsulate India in one flavor-bomb bite. The wine pairings were a vibrant tour around Chilean wine regions and after the meal diners are ushered through a false refrigerator door and into an elevator for a visit to Room 9, the semi-speakeasy craft cocktail bar on the roof of the hotel.
Villanos en Bermudas – Bogotá, Colombia
The 10-course tasting menu at this restaurant in the Chapinero neighborhood of the Colombian capital changes weekly. The best dish we had during our meal at the #15 restaurant on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best was a crunchy, tart, gooey, crisp salad of apple and beet rounds, caramelized sunflower seeds, and a praline made from goat cheese whey which was grainy and umami and not sweet. The homemade sourdough bread course with a swoosh of fermented black garlic butter is famous for a reason (this dish is always on the menu). On the other hand, the shrimp tartare with miso paste and tart lulo fruit had excellent flavor, but it was such an uncomfortable raw texture that Karen couldn’t finish it. The suckling pig course was weirdly tasteless. And a large ravioli was so undercooked that the edges were almost too hard to chew. Reservations required and here’s a pro tip: don’t opt for the last seating of the night. Staff members were scouring the kitchen and spraying cleaning fluid all over the place before we’d even finished our meal.
Tegui – Buenos Aires, Argentina
No sign out front? Check. Multi-lingual waiters with man buns and complicated facial hair? Check. A no photos policy? Check (we broke it). A seasonal pop-up version (in wine country near Mendoza)? Check. A chef who’s worked with Argentina’s most famous cook (Francis Mallmann) and is also an author and celebrity? Check. One of the highest price tags in the city? Check. Obscure regional ingredients? Check. So why didn’t we love Tegui more? The restaurant, at #11 on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, is famous for its style and the creativity of its tasting menu and there was certainly style and creativity to spare in our 10-course (plus 3 appetizers) meal. The second course, simply called “Tomato,” showcased a baked and confit organic tomato in the middle of a parmesan broth dotted with thyme oil. It was like a liquid pizza and the Federico Lopez sherry it was paired with hit all the right notes. Course number eight, called “Goat Grape Leaves” delivered tender slow-cooked baby goat inside a grape leaf like a sandwich along with a cup of fermented herb sauce for dipping (pictured above in the middle of the bottom row of photos). The dish wasn’t pretty, but it was delicious. A dish of kiwi and oysters with a minerally Sauvignon Blanc from the Patagonia region was great as well. Sadly, a slab of rare duck (pictured above to the far right in the bottom row of photos) was to tough to cut or chew even after a waiter brought us more robust knives. And it’s too bad that Tegui seems to have a slavish devotion to sophisticated perfection that trumps the sometimes messy and unpredictable business of hospitality. Yes, they hand you a glass of lovely Alma Cuatro sparkling wine from the Uco Valley the moment you walk through the door, but it comes with a sense that it was done for effect, not to make you feel welcome. More than at any other restaurant we’ve been to, diners are expected to play their part in the theater of Tegui and that ultimately felt hollow to us.
Elena – Buenos Aires, Argentina
There are very few hotel restaurants on the 50 Best list. One exception is Elena, the #32 restaurant on the 2018 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, which is in the Four Seasons Hotel in Buenos Aires. The restaurant is huge and appetizing with an open kitchen, extremely high ceilings, a mezzanine level, lots of wood and leather and a glassed-in dry-aging cabinet for meat. The wine list and menu, designed to please the hotel’s international guests, are equally huge and appetizing with seafood, grilled Argentinean beef (much of it aged in-house), duck, goat, lamb, pastas, and much more. Our grilled octopus appetizer (pictured above top right) was tender and bold. The bitter leaves salad was huge and balanced with fennel, radish, perfectly sliced grapefruit, and creamy feta. Black rice with mixed seafood (pictures above bottom left) came steaming and fragrant in a cast-iron skillet straight out of the oven. The tender lamb shoulder fell apart under a fork. Pro tip: be sure to save space to try some of the many amazing ice cream options including roasted quince, passion fruit with candied cucumber, salted and smoked peanut (pictured above) and more.
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. Part 2 includes Maido, A Casa do Porco, Astrid y Gaston, and more and Part 3 which includes El Chato, Don Julio, Chila, and more.