Think of the world's great cuisines and chances are Colombian isn't among them. Over the last few years, Peru has been South America's culinary hotspot despite Colombia having more biodiversity and geographical variety.
The reason, of course, is that for decades the country was paralysed by a crippling civil war. When a peace deal was eventually struck in 2016, chefs could start utilising their homeland's extraordinary natural larder. The result? An explosion of innovative eateries by boundary-pushing cooks. Here are three of the best.
Leo Espinosa is arguably the godmother of Colombia's culinary renaissance. She opened her eponymous restaurant, Leo, in 2007, with the aim of showcasing the nation's lesser-known ingredients and ancestral cooking techniques. It's earned the former economist a shelf-full of accolades, including a 2017 Basque Culinary World Prize.
Housed in an elegant colonial mansion near the National Museum, the restaurant is famous for its 12-course tasting menu, which uses produce from every corner of the country.
"Prepare to take a trip around Colombia," says our server, "and to be taken out of your comfort zone."
The first course pairs a piangua, a chewy mollusc found in the mangroves of Colombia's Caribbean coast, with a crunchy, deep-fried Pacific clam mixed with sweet caramelised coconut. Washing it down is a briny martini topped with a foam made from Pacific seawater.
It sets the scene for an intrepid culinary road trip, guided by a map on the menu showing where each ingredient has been sourced. In almost every dish, there's a flavour or texture that's new and surprising. Some are triumphs, such as sweet corn and cassava encased in a cabbage-like tallo leaf and doused in a rich guineafowl gravy. Some are challenging (at least to this Western palate), such as pirarucu fish with lulito pepper and sour yucca, which is somehow milky, fishy, icy and spicy all at the same time.
Espinosa's daughter, Laura, is the sommelier and she clearly shares her mother's ethos. The drink pairings range from the familiar – a smooth Argentinian malbec – to the bizarre – a wince-inducing rosé made from guavas and blackberries.
Leo is currently No. 49 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list which means a meal here is expensive by Colombian standards. Check out Espinosa's more casual eatery, Misia, where you'll find the same passion for local produce without the fine-dining price tag. Dinner tasting menu costs COP300,000 (with pairings COP420,000). Lunch tasting menu starts at COP200,000. See restauranteleo.com
As the headquarters of Pablo Escobar's drug empire, Medellin bore the brunt of the narcos-fuelled violence of the '80s and '90s. Couple this with the fact its most famous local speciality is bandeja paisa, a cholesterol-laden heap of pork belly, eggs and fried plantains, and you'd be forgiven for arriving with low culinary expectations.
Surprisingly, the city is at the forefront of the country's gourmet resurgence, with several innovative eateries helmed by ambitious, young chefs. One such outfit is Barcal, a sophisticated, pared-back establishment located on a quiet residential side street in the popular tourist hub of El Poblado.
Chef Miguel Warren was just 19 when he opened the restaurant in 2015. Like Espinosa, he's passionate about Colombian produce and wanted to apply the fine-dining techniques he learnt during a stint at the Basque Culinary Centre in San Sebastian, Spain. The result is an 11-course tasting menu using ingredients sourced from some of Colombia's most remote communities.
Once again, the dishes range from the sublime – a tender cured shrimp covered in sweet, creamy coconut milk, to the so-so – a pumpkin and orange salad garnished with five "big-bottomed" Santander ants.
Colombian chefs are curiously enamoured with ants, which is puzzling given they contribute little taste-wise. When deep-fried, they have a nutty, crunchy texture with a dry, flaky finish. I still find their presence in a dish somewhat confronting, particularly when one appears floating in a bowl of thick garlic soup ("err, waiter"). Perhaps that's the point.
Barcal's drink pairings are equally eclectic, with an interesting focus on craft beer. Complementing the ant-garnished garlic soup is a hoppy Medellin IPA, while a rich goat ragu is matched with a dark, toasty Belgium dubbel.
Although some of the drinks are from overseas, Warren is committed to using 100 per cent Colombian ingredients in his dishes. As he explains on the menu, "We have the perfect tool to be the best chefs: Colombia's megadiversity." Dinner tasting menu costs COP165,000 (with pairings COP260,000). See restaurantebarcal.com
Don't be fooled by the upbeat music, the unpretentious decor or the kitsch cocktail garnishes, Celele is a very serious restaurant indeed. Founding chefs Jaime Rodriguez and Sebastian Pinzon spent 2½ years scouring Colombia's Caribbean coast for traditional recipes, ingredients and cooking techniques before opening this cosy, 30-seat eatery in Cartagena's Getsemani district in 2018. Their aim was to show that the country's African-influenced Caribbean cuisine is more than just fried fish and plantains.
The 10-course tasting menu kicks off with a crisp yucca wafer and rich sesame butter matched with a large, ice-filled tumbler of whisky, orange bitters and orgeat syrup. Next is a delicate ceviche of local mackerel with coconut and mango accompanied by a mama Africa, a potent cocktail containing gin, white vermouth and charcoal that's garnished with a plastic crocodile head.
It's a strong opening to a playful menu that doesn't put a foot wrong. A large, meaty local mussel topped with fried pork shavings and a spicy Marie Rose-style sauce pairs surprisingly well with a artisanal pilsner from Colombia's Santa Marta region. Equally impressive is a dish of stewed goat with rice made from dehydrated shrimps, a technique perfected by the Wayuu indigenous group from the La Guajira coastal desert.
Chef Rodriguez frequently leaves the tiny, open kitchen to mingle and chat with diners. I comment that he looks surprisingly relaxed for someone presiding over a packed restaurant on a busy Saturday night. "It's simple," he replies, "I have a great team."
The whole operation is infused with this endearing modesty. Earlier in the day, the restaurant won the Miele One To Watch Award 2019 awarded by Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants, yet no one mentions it. And only through patient probing do I discover our gracious, well-informed server used to work in New York's two Michelin-starred Jean-Georges restaurant. It shows that the focus is where it matters – on the ingredients and the technique. It's a formula that's clearly working because it's hands-down the best meal I eat in Colombia.
Dinner tasting menu costs COP280,000 (with pairings COP320,000). Five-course version and a la carte menu also available. See celelerestaurante.com
Rob McFarland was a guest of G Adventures, Leo, Barcal and Celele.
LATAM flies to Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena from Melbourne and Sydney via Santiago. See latam.com
G Adventures/National Geographic Journeys' nine-day Colombia Journey from Bogota to Cartagena includes three nights in Medellin plus several exclusive experiences, such as a stay on a coffee farm and a private salsa class. From $2745 a person. See gadventures.com.au