Doing the trifecta in Medellín and Cartagena
Over the holidays my friend and I visited Colombia. The trip was booked last spring, not anticipating a peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC. Hence we beat almost all the lists of “where to go to in 2017”. However, since several European airlines are now offering direct connections to Bogota, the Colombian capital, the number of tourists was not exactly low. For good reasons, the northernmost country of South America is a gem, also from a gastronomic perspective. The culinary stars are many, but some shine brighter than others.
Most of the restaurants have one thing in common. Their names refer to one of their owners. Or to their cat…
Carmen Angel (Colombian father) and Rob Pevitts got their education at the Le Cordon Bleu academy in San Francisco (“foodie heaven,” Carmen and I exclaimed simultaneously), after which they decided to set up shop in Colombia. Their first restaurant (yes, named Carmen) and their so to speak headquarters are in Medellín, the second city of Colombia that is undergoing a much lauded urban regeneration. After they turned Carmen into a success, they expanded to Cartagena, the attractive colonial walled city on the Caribbean coast. Their second restaurant, also named Carmen, opened in the Ananda hotel four years ago. Soon they grew out of the intimate dining room facing a pretty courtyard. Early December 2016 they reopened in a characterful old building that offered enough space to also fulfill another dream: running a restaurant, under the name Moshi (yes, Carmen’s cat), where they can express their love for Asian food.
The owners of the new building in Cartagena from which Carmen and Rob are renting the ground floor space insisted on two things: the humongous mango tree in the open-air courtyard and the original floor tiles must remain. No problem, you’d say. Indeed the tiles are gorgeous. But God forbid what happens when ripe mangos start dropping down on the tables, or worse, on the al fresco diners. But don’t worry, these mangos will sooner end up on the kitchen counter and in one of the outstanding dishes, than on your head.
We visited both Carmens and Moshi. “They did the trifecta”, Carmen enthusiastically said to Rob. This post will focus on the Carmens.
Appetizers at Carmen Medellín
Were I to typify Carmen Medellín, I would say Andean with a Colombian touch; terrestrial with bits and pieces from the vast Amazonian part of the country. Carmen Cartagena presents a more tropical, maritime, Caribbean cuisine. As Rob told us, it is much easier to get supplies from all over the country in Medellín. “In Cartagena I am more dependent on local providers.” This clearly reflects itself on what is served on our plates.
In Medellin we had, for example, an exquisite croquette of Pirarucu (a large Amazonian fish) next to a ceviche of organic tilapia in a marinade (locally called Leche de Tigre) of fermented coconut and a mildly smoky coconut-aioli. Small chunks of pineapple and some twinkling red caviar didn’t only liven up the presentation, they also were little sweet and salty taste bombs.
One of the mains was a piece of Chicharon (pork belly, a classic Colombian dish) with camote (a Peruvian sweet potato, pureed and roasted), crowned with a crunchy piece of pork skin. A sweet-and-sour marinade of tamarind and panela, the much beloved Colombian raw cane sugar, gave the pork a classic yet Colombian character.
Chicharron at Carmen Medellín
The second main consisted of beef, so soft it almost fell apart, in a velvety cream of tiny Andean potatoes (papas criollas) with bright red dollops of liquefied hogao. (Hogao, a condiment served in many homes in Colombia, is a mixture of tomatoes, onion, garlic and other ingredients.) A risotto of barley provided texture, while the beef’s own gravy pulled the entire dish together.
The Caribbean Sea was in the lead at Carmen Cartagena, most notably in a dish called La Playa, inspired by Heston Blumenthal’s The Beach.
A ceviche of shrimp, white fish and squid was draped on the waterline where surf (coconut rice foam) and emerald sea (bonito dashi in coriander water) met. A ground mixture of yucca (a root), panko (breadcrumbs) and nori (seaweed) formed the culinary embodiment of damp sand. This was beyond doubt visibly the most striking dish. But make no mistake; it was also a rich and complex tasting experience.
Dining room seen from the courtyard at Carmen Cartagena
Sea bass sautéed in black olive oil with a sweet chili and ginger romesco, Colombian sour cream and ravioli of preserved mango was our first main course. Although delicious, this dish exemplified my only criticism of having perhaps a flavor too many on my plate. Rationally, I could see it as a gastronomic expression of the abundance of the tropics, but I could have done without the mango or the mildly cheese-like flavor of the local sour cream, without taking anything away from my general urge to lick the plate clean.
This certainly applied to the second main course. A piece of very slowly (seven days!) cooked suckling pig, glazed in chocolate, bacon and cognac, served with Swiss chard and rice blood sausage and white beans, may come across as a wintery European dish, but felt most of all as top level, soothing home-cooking with the chocolate giving the dish not only a Colombian twist, but also a lavish and bittersweet depth.
Beef, papas criollas and hogao
For dessert we got two scoops of homemade ice cream each, altogether four different flavors, an explosion of fragrances. Just try to imagine the following combinations: mandarine, lime and açai berry; or coconut, lime and copoasu, a rainforest fruit faintly tasting like (and related to) chocolate with overtones of pineapple. And my favorite, and so South American: condensed milk with corozo (just like açai a palm fruit), fruity acidity cutting milky sweetness.
Of all our dinners in Colombia, we most enjoyed our times at Carmen. (More about the others, including Moshi in later posts). As Carmen said to us, and I couldn’t agree more, a great dining experience requires not only the food to be excellent, but also the service and the ambience. (Another trifecta, I assume.) Both restaurants are not only buzzing, they are also tastefully yet warmly decorated with a good amount of urban sophistication. And Carmen and her team are great hosts: approachable, friendly, knowledgeable and fun. To top the bill, their staff gets English lessons to facilitate communication with the clientele, which is needed and appreciated when you get served so many delicious and interesting indigenous and exotic ingredients you have never tasted before.
Carmen Restaurante Medellín
Carrera 36 # 10A-27 El Poblado – Medellín (Colombia)
T: +57 4 311 9625
Five-course tasting menu: COP 149.000 (~ € 48,-)
A la carte main courses: COP 42.000 – 57.000 (~ € 14 – 19,-)
Carmen Restaurante Cartagena
Calle 38 # 8-19, Calle Del Santísimo – Cartagena de Indias (Colombia)
T: +57 5 664 5116
Five-course tasting menu: COP 178.000 (~ € 57,-)
A la carte main courses: COP 51.000 – 69.000 (~ € 17 – 22,-)