For one of Colombia’s most revered restaurants, Leo Cocina y Cava, star chef Leonor Espinosa’s first and most popular eatery in Bogota, sure is difficult to find.
Yes, the elegant, envelope-pushing restaurant is in the heart of the capital’s downtown business district, making it a prime spot for local power lunches. But its precise location, on a nondescript sliver of a pedestrian mall called Calle 27B, seems to elude almost everyone I ask for directions, from a front-desk clerk at the nearby Crowne Plaza Tequendama to random passersby on the street, all of whom give me vague, contradictory instructions about where it is. When I finally do come upon its charming, whitewashed facade bearing a very discreet nameplate, there are few signs of life outside, despite it being early afternoon. Peering through the restaurant’s window grilles and seeing nothing, I almost give up and leave, hungry and disappointed.
But I don’t, and I’m glad I don’t. Since I’m there, I push against one of the heavy, rustic-looking front doors and step unexpectedly into a bright, bustling scene entirely unheralded on the street, much like Dorothy does when she emerges from her storm-tossed Kansas farmhouse into the wonderful world of Oz. In this case, however, Oz isn’t populated by Munchkins and witches, but by crisply attired waiters bearing trays of drinks in flutes, Bogota businessmen hashing out deals and soigné senoras sipping and nibbling the day away. Throughout the small, interconnected rooms that make up the place, a bouncy jazz soundtrack fills the air, as if a South American Woody Allen was directing offstage. In a flash, I am whisked to a prime table in the centre of the main room, where a glass of chilled chardonnay is produced almost immediately after I order it. The modern-tropical meal that follows – mouthwatering ceviche with dollops of fresh puréed mango and minty yerba buena sorbet, filet of sea bass steamed in a banana leaf with wild rice, coconut milk and raisins, a tiny pair of frozen coconut flans resembling miniscule breasts – erases all memories of the effort it took to get there.
In many ways, the restaurant (and my experience finding it) mirrors Bogota’s culinary scene as a whole: welcoming yet uncelebrated except by a knowledgeable few, a secret in plain sight. Like all juicy secrets, though, this one is getting around, the sprawling city’s varied food and restaurant culture riding the positive-PR wave that has accompanied once-violent Colombia’s social and economic revival. Last year, former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni was among the first to trumpet Bogota restos in a piece for Condé Nast Traveler. And more and more Canadians (unlike Americans, who still largely equate Colombia with kidnappings and cocaine, even though great strides have been made in recent years to eradicate the drug trade and come to terms with long-agitating leftist guerrillas) are savouring it for themselves, making up a large bulk of the tourists and business people who are coming to the country in droves. (In 2012, an estimated 400,000 Canucks visited Colombia, a 20 per cent increase over the year before.)
In his paean to Bogota, Bruni focused on the many Colombian-born chefs who have flocked back to the city after stints in New York and Europe, drawn by its improved stability and new sense of promise. But while their takes on, say, Basque cooking or American barbecue are attracting appreciative followers, that isn’t what I’m looking for during my culinary pilgrimage to the city. After all, I can get Brooklyn-style fare at home in Toronto. Rather, I am much more interested in its indigenous food culture, a cuisine defined by centuries of tradition and one of the world’s most diverse terroirs: fruits, vegetables, legumes, seafood and meat unrivaled almost anywhere. And so I find myself at Leo Cocina y Cava, my first real foodie stop in the city.
No one, it is agreed, has done more to promote a new Colombian food movement that embraces locality like Espinosa, a national food-TV personality who operates two other Bogota restaurants – La Leo Cocina Mestiza and Mercado – in addition to her signature eatery. To be sure, the passionate food-loving diva (La Leo, huh?) has embraced her growing celebrity, but her innovative dishes, incorporating everything from exotic tropical fruits to hormigas culonas (large-bottomed ants, a delicacy since the pre-Columbian era), are deserving of the acclaim. My ceviche, a tangy-sweet medley of whitefish topped with red onion and served with deep-fried plantain shards, is an edible microcosm of the country, combining the flavours and freshness of its Caribbean coast with Bogota’s urban flair. Those meal-capping flans, with their hardened-caramel crusts, are akin to Colombian crème brûlée, requiring a satisfying tap of my spoon to crack. They are served, predictably enough in this country, with coffee so smooth and flavourful that adding cream or sugar to it would be a crime.