Best restaurants: Leo, Carmen Medellin, Mesa Franca, Mondongo’s, Mar Y Zielo
The high: Colombia has unique ingredients and multiple restaurants are able to beautifully present these ingredients in elevated cuisine.
The low: The everyday food, whether at a typical restaurant or at a street stall are often deep fried and bland.
Mathieu recently returned from a six-week trip to Colombia in which he traveled to a number of destinations where he ate at a wide range of restaurants from small stalls on the street to family-run eateries, and all the way to a seven-course dining experience at Leo. This is a high-end restaurant in Bogota whose Chef Leonor Espinosa earned herself the accolade of the “Top Female Chef of the World” in 2022. Another notable restaurant that he visited was Carmen in Medellin for yet another seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings.
The ingredients in Colombia are fantastic, with a super wide range of plants, fruits and everyday ingredients that cannot be found in Canada. I really enjoyed learning about the cuisine, trying new flavours and seeking out the best restaurants in each city. In addition to the discovery of some fantastic restaurant I also partook in a street food crawl, as well as a cooking class in Medellin which we started the evening with a Colombian fruit tasting and learnt how to cook Colombian empanadas, arepas, patacones (fried green plantains), and Cartagena style shrimp ceviche.
One of the most common proteins in Colombia is Chicharron, which is fried pork belly (rind) that has a crispy layer on the outside with a moist chunk of meat inside. Combine that with sausage, ground beef, rice, beans, arepa, plantain, and a fried egg, and you’ll be bursting at the seams and in serious need of a nap. Such a decadent dish is called Bandeja Paisa – the national dish of the Paisa’s, which is the region including and surrounding Medellin.
Ajiaco is another popular dish across the country, despite Bogota claiming it as their own. Think of an improved version of the classic chicken soup served alongside creme, capers, avocado, corn, and the occasional banana if you’re lucky. Some diners opt for the banana after the meal is complete, but when in Colombia, do as the locals do, and add the fruit to the rotation of spoonfuls. Best part of Ajiaco is that each bite can contain a different combination of toppings.
Arepas are also a staple in the Colombian diet. This circular corn-cake can be eaten plain or with mixed ingredients such as cheese, meat, legumes, and vegetables. Arepas are found in many neighbouring countries, but each nation adds their own flair. A Colombian arepa blends the ingredients into the dough rather than slicing the bread open and stuffing it between the corn. Arepa de Choclo is another way that they transform the classic arepa by adding in a sweet component into the dough then topping it with a big chunk of soft cheese to add a salty element, some opt for a drizzle of condensed milk while others eat it as is.
Empanadas are everywhere in South America, so it’s no surprise that Colombia has its own version of this snack. The Colombian variety is made with yellow corn dough stuffed with chicken, beef, pork, or a vegetable then fried. Another common South American treat are tamales, but Colonians refer to them as “tamal”. The Colombian tamal is made with yellow masa then wrapped in leaves, and they often include ingredients such as carrots, potatoes, and meat.
A last dinner in Colombia was in Bogota at Mesa Franca, a chic restaurant that combines traditional and inventive dishes with locally sourced ingredients.The restaurant is owned by Maria Paula Amador, Tom Hydzik, and Ivan Cadena and together they have created a restaurant worth flying back to Bogota for. A favoruite dish was the Envuelto de Mazorca (wrapped on the cob) and a take on the Colombian Tamal. Instead of wrapping it in a banana leaf, it waa wrapped on a corn husk and the yellow masa was stuffed with braised lamb and sheep cheese. If only it was a larger portion!
***I had a spectacular time eating my way through Colombia, but I do have one complaint – the everyday food I ate was bland and often deep fried. When I found a restaurant that served up elevated traditional cuisine, I returned to continue to sample the rest of the menu. Although I was able to find restaurants and dishes that I enjoyed at some of the more traditional restaurants, the high-end places that pride themselves on using Colombian ingredients and developing dishes that highlight their beautiful flavours always won over my pallate.
Travel with you soon,