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.
Speaking of crime, I had read warnings while planning my trip in Canada against staying in La Candelaria, the historic cobblestoned neighbourhood south of downtown that is packed with students, government workers (the presidential palace and many ministries are located here) and tourists during the day, but has a reputation for being dodgy at night, when it largely empties out. I am glad that I didn't heed those warnings. Not only is my hotel, the colonial-style Hotel de la Opera, an architectural gem, but the district, which requires no more safety precautions than you'd take in many other world capitals (being alert to your surroundings, travelling by hotel-summoned cab after dark), is also home to some of Bogota's leading cultural sights, from the impressive Plaza Bolivar to the magnificent Gold Museum to the linked gallery complex that contains both the National Museum and one dedicated to the work of artist Francisco Botero, a national favourite son. And La Candelaria is where you'll find La Puerta Falsa, Bogota's oldest café and one of the best spots in the city to indulge in a pastry, a tamal or, tastiest of all, ajiaco, a ribsticking soup/stew that functions for Bogotanos as comfort food, hangover cure and much-debated delicacy in one.
"Did you add the cream? And the rice?" Juan Sabagalo, the seventh-generation proprietor of familyrun La Puerta, asks after I sample his establishment's version, which is served in a traditional clay bowl and includes the usual three kinds of potatoes and mounds of shredded chicken as well as side bowls of white rice, sour cream, sliced avocado and capers. When I tell him that I passed on the rice, he nods approvingly, saying: "Some people like to add rice, but I prefer it without." A handsome recent widower who worked for eight years in the financing department of a car dealership in Mississauga, Ont., Sabagalo has only recently moved back to Bogota to assume his role at La Puerta Falsa. "This café has been in my family since 1816," he tells me matter-of-factly, suggesting that he might not have returned last year if his life hadn't taken the turn it did, but that he is where he belongs at the moment, running this pocket-sized landmark in a fast-changing city.
If La Puerta Falsa is a shrine (complete with an on-site statue of the Virgin Mary) to Bogota's culinary heritage, Club Colombia, the vaster, flashier restaurant operated by the company that produces the popular beer of the same name, is the city's upstart temple. Located in a restored former mansion in the trendy Zona Rosa area north of the business district, Club Colombia may be corporate-smooth and deliberately chic, but its commitment to authenticity is far from prepackaged. This is evident when I settle down for lunch there on one of my last days in the city. After a caveman-worthy appetizer of chicharoncitos, great hunks of crunchy/ tender pork with their rinds still on them, I tuck in to an expertly grilled lomo de res (beef fillet) that stands up to any steak Buenos Aires has to offer. At a nearby table in the bustling ground-floor dining room, a corpulent businessman settles down happily for a mid-afternoon dessert-and-coffee break. My own sweet finale is a coconut pie with a tinto de anis, black coffee with a shot of anise liqueur.
The morning after I arrived in Bogota, I had set out on a tour of La Candelaria, Chapinero and other neighbourhoods with Bogota Bike Tours, an outfit established by former journalist Mike Ceaser to provide visitors with unique perspectives on the city from astride two wheels. During my ride, we took in not only a host of cultural highlights (the bullring, the Catholic cemetery, the newspaper office where Gabriel Garcia Marquez once plied his trade), but also a number of edible ones, from street food such as mazorca (freshly toasted corn cobs served on their own husks) in Parque Nacional to La Merceria, a food and flower market where I sampled a wealth of tropical fruits, including lulo (a pleasantly tart cross between a kiwi and a lemon), uchuvas (a lot like gooseberries), local dragonfruit (green instead of purple) and grenadilla (like passionfruit, but smaller and sweeter).
As I stumble out of Club Colombia in a food haze days later, it occurs to me to that, maybe, I should have scheduled that bike tour for later in my stay. Yes, it was a great introduction to both the city and its food. But after pigging out all week on Bogota's bounty, a little calorie-burning cardio might not be such a bad thing.
Where to sample Bogota's traditional best (and what to have)
Leo Cocina y Cava (www.leonorespinosa.com) for its ceviche de pescado blanco.
Chicharoncitos at Club Colombia, which also makes a fine martini (www.zonak.com.co).
Ajiaco or tamales at La Puerta Falsa, the capital's oldest café (1-286-5091).