The chance to visit Bogotá with a friend who hails from the Colombian capital was too good to pass up.
For me, travel is about food, and we arrive on a warm autumn afternoon with a sense of anticipation, a list of restaurants gleaned from well-connected local friends, and our appetites. I quickly realise there's no need to be fearful of visiting Bogotá. It has long shed its notoriety as a haven for drug lords and gangsters. A big, vibrant city of about eight million, it's defined by a young, entrepreneurial population, colonial-era architecture, highly creative street art and seriously good food.
Colombia is known as the fruit bowl of South America, so on our way from the airport to the west of the city we make a pit stop at a covered market, Mercado de Fontibón, to stock the fridge at our rented apartment. It's a brilliant introduction to the city's abundant exotica. We buy lulo, a citrus-like fruit; a type of passionfruit called granadilla; a banana passionfruit called curuba; strawberry guava; sapote; tamarillos; corozo (a red-purple fruit that looks like grapes but grows on palm trees); cherimoya, like a gigantic custard apple; soursop; and much more. I try uchuvas for the first time, a relish of cape gooseberries with yellow habanero chillies; Colombians slather it on toast like jam. Instant love affair.
Mercado de Fontibón. (Photo credit: Christine Manfield)
Among our first meals is lunch at Restaurante Club Colombia, a shrine to traditional Colombian dishes owned by chef Harry Sasson and Leo Katz, the city's most prolific restaurateurs. Like the crowds of families around us, we start with a plate of mixed empanadas, a dish that says a lot about the city's diversity. Made from stoneground white corn flour, one version on our plate is stuffed with shredded pork and potato with chilli salsa, another with a whole hard-boiled egg. Atlantic Coast empanadas, meanwhile, are wheat-flour turnovers stuffed with minced beef and served with suero, or sour cream, while Pipián Popayan empanadas, typical of southern Colombia, appear as fried parcels of yellow maize flour with potato and peanut stuffing. Sea bassceviche with lime, onion, red chilli and coriander is served with its usual accompaniment here: a packet of salted crackers. There's Colombian comfort food in chicharrones, chunks of spiced pork belly fried until crisp, and the ubiquitous yuca, or cassava (also known as manioc), which appears on almost every Colombian table in various guises. We have it fried like fat chips with chilli salsa, or steamed and made into pastries stuffed with minced meat and chilli and fried until golden, similar to Chinese wu gok taro pastries.
The mood is more corporate and lavish at Harry Sasson's eponymous fine-diner, a showcase for modern Mediterranean classics in the upscale Emaus district. A waiter carves jamón from the leg, cocktails are mixed at a centrestage bar under chandeliers, and private rooms upstairs oversee the main action-packed dining room. The hit on the extensive menu is costar rice with langoustines, the rice cooked then dried slightly and finished in the pan so it goes slightly crunchy, and topped with prawns cooked in a sweet and sour glaze that's tangy, savoury and irresistible.
Bogotá street art. (Photo credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images)
In the El Rosales barrio, on a couple of leafy streets between Calle 69 and 72 in Zona G, aka the "gourmet zone", is a cluster of restaurants, bars and cafés offering everything from traditional Colombian and Spanish to French and Arabic. I can't go past the wicked pastries and cakes at Grazia. Breakfast at nearby Masa, in the kind of austerely designed building that wouldn't be out of place in Copenhagen, features good coffee, excellent pastries and the best bread in the city.
We're also spoilt for choice in Usaquén, a compact bohemian district of lively cafés, restaurants, cool shops and small bars. At Bistronomy, one of several restaurants owned by chef Jorge Rausch, we share plates of popcorn prawns fried in panko crumbs, and risotto croquetas with mozzarella and tomato. La Mar Cebichería Bogotá, part of the franchise established by star Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, has a similar menu format and fit-out to his flagship restaurant in Lima, where ceviche and tiradito dominate. For Acurio's Nuevo-Andean tasting menu, book dinner at the Bogotá branch of his Astrid y Gaston for intriguing flavours and a postmodern aesthetic. My favourite, however, is Abasto. The single-mindedness and vision of its chef-owner, Luz Beatriz Vélez, reminds me of Alice Waters, her care evident in a succinct menu that features seasonal, local and organic produce, wine by the carafe from Vélez's bodega, single-origin Colombian coffee and artisan teas. I love Abasto's relaxed ambience, friendly service and takeaway counter.
Abasto. (Photo credit: Christine Manfield)
At every corner in the central La Candelaria historic district, known for its beautiful colonial buildings, museums, galleries and cobblestone streets, we find carts dispensing instant snacks: hard-boiled quail eggs, fried plantain chips, empanadas and sugar-coatedchurros, all sold in small paper bags. And there are carts dedicated to the oblea, a sandwich of wafers spreadwith sweet arequipe, a thick dulce de leche paste, and optional toppings of blackberry jam, sprinkles or marshmallows. It brings new meaning to sugar overload.
Our standout fine-dining experience is at Leo Cocina y Cava, owned by Leonor Espinosa, one of the country's leading chefs. For the past decade she has worked tirelessly to promote Colombian food abroad, developing the nation's reputation as a culinary destination as a way to maintain the cultural identity of rural communities. Lunch at her restaurant in the downtown Santa Fe barrio turns into a long and leisurely affair. Tuna tatakispread with a paste of Amazon black ants is the highlight of an inspired tasting menu. Espinosa also trained as a sommelier, and it's evident in the concise, carefully written list of great wines from Spain, France, Italy, Chile and Argentina. A couple of years back she opened Mercado west of downtown, a more casual showcase for her advocacy of Colombian ingredients with a farm-to-table approach. Serving terrific home-stylefood, it's the kind of place every neighbourhood needs.
On Sundays the beltway around the city, Carerra Septima, is closed to traffic and filled with joggers, walkers, cyclists, rollerbladers and prams. But we're on a pilgrimage of sorts, driving 60 kilometres north of Bogotá to the town of Zipaquirá to visit the Catedral de Sal, one of the nation's most important historical and spiritual sites. It's the cathedral's unusually spare beauty and history - from pre-Colombian salt mine to early 20th-century church - that impress me most as we walk deep into the earth through wide tunnels with the stations of the cross marked at precisely the same distance apart as those in Jerusalem. The minimalist lighting and mood evokes a deeply spiritual feeling. Arriving at the main nave at the end of the tunnel is breathtaking, regardless of religious conviction.
The road to the cathedral is lined with roasted carcasses strung over parrillas (grills over hot coals) and asadors (wood-fired ovens) outside restaurants that specialise in grilled and roasted meats. These places cater to the hungry throngs heading to the cathedral and do a roaring trade.
Parilla meats on the way to the Catedral de Sal. (Photo credit: Christine Manfield)
We head back to Chia on the northern outskirts of Bogotá. Our second Sunday pilgrimage is lunch at Andrés Carne de Res. This institution is unlike any restaurant I've seen. It started in the early 1980s as a roadside grill with six tables. Now it spans several buildings on either side of the road, seating 2,000 at a time and serving a mind-boggling double sitting for lunch, repeated at dinner Thursdays to Sundays. The place is madcap, bearing every imaginable form of decoration, from religious icons and masks to sombreros and objets trouvés.
Andrés Carne de Res. (Photo credit: Christine Manfield)
The staff of 700 is brilliantly well organised, with great service by DJs, musicians, comics and dancers, and waiters just as theatrical as the entertainers. There's a party at every table, with each pouring a bottle of aguardiente, the preferred local spirit made from cane sugar, like a potent white rum. The 50-page menu pays tribute to the meat culture of Colombia's plains, and sizzling iron plates arrive at the table piled high with slabs straight from the parrilla: organic grass-fed beef sirloin, chicken and cochinillo, or suckling pig. It's a feast of gargantuan proportions, in a city where a party is always about to happen.