Santiago, Chile: The South American city having a food renaissance
Chile's capital Santiago is balancing a wave of fine dining restaurants with a new obsession with seasonal and local produce unique to the country
Citrus-sweet sips of pisco sour; smoke drifting from slowly roasting meat: my first taste of Santiago life is as traditional as it comes. A friend is getting married here in two days' time and, as ever, the celebrations are charcoal-fuelled.
Asado, the act of gathering for a barbecue, is an institution in Chile. "There's always an excuse for a barbecue," says my host, Camila Astaburanga. "Honestly: in winter, in summer, in spring, we have them almost every weekend. It's crazy."
Out in the garden, the parrilla's coals have been smoking for eight hours before guests even arrive, slow-cooking two whole lambs splayed on wooden spikes, along with chicken, ribs and three types of steak – lomo (rib-eye), entrana (skirt) and filete (tenderloin).
After this, a few blackened bangers on a disposable tin-foil 'barbecue' will never be the same again. And don't even think about slathering the prime cuts in marinade; they're simply sprinkled with salt and served with a side of pebre, Chile's ubiquitous salsa-like condiment.
Increasingly, though, there's much more to Santiago's dining scene than roast meat. A new wave of experimental fine dining has appeared in recent years, driven by chefs returning to the city after stints in Michelin-starred kitchens overseas, going hand-in-hand with a stronger economy and more adventurous palates of well-travelled younger diners.
This all added up to Santiago being named "The Next Great Food City" in food magazine Saveur's Good Taste Awards 2015 – a prediction it seems to be living up to.
Stretching 4,300km, Chile has a mind-boggling array of produce
"The change has been pretty dramatic," agrees Colin Bennett, who runs culinary city tours under the moniker Foody Chile. "Chile has long been a great exporter of produce, but when I arrived in 2004 the restaurant scene didn't reflect the plentitude and quality of the ingredients. Chileans were also a bit conservative in their palate; they like to eat what they ate yesterday. Now you're seeing a restaurant boom, with chefs celebrating Chilean produce and cuisine but giving it a modern, international spin."
Friday night at Restaurant 040, and tables are filled with well-healed Santiaguinos eager to try chef Sergio Barroso's ten-course tasting menu of "tapas de vanguardia". His time at the legendary El Bulli shines through in technical, multi-sensory dishes, using seasonal and regional ingredients, while subverting diners' expectations.
'Churros' are in fact salty, savoury morsels of fish and parmesan; the flavour of my ice cream is carrot curry; and the 'paella' turns out to be sweet rice pudding with Campari-laced lemon. I'm shocked at the $40-45 price tag – plenty more inclusive than Barroso's Spanish alma mater. The experiential, reservations-only concept concludes with a nightcap in 040's candlelit speakeasy-style bar, accessed by a secret lift and password.
Barroso's compadres in this new wave of foodie innovation include Carolina Bazán, who cut her teeth at Paris' lauded Frenchie before coming home to turn family restaurant Ambrosía from traditional business lunch choice to 'bistronomy' hotspot. On the market-led menu you might find razor clams in potato shell with fennel crumb, or egg yolk-filled herb ravioli.
Boragó, the restaurant of foraging and botany-mad chef Rodolfo Guzmán, has been dubbed the "Noma of Santiago" thanks to creations such as a bonsai tree holding an edible nest of crispy mushrooms and soft-boiled quail egg, and breadsticks of sea kelp scoured from a beach an hour from the city. Guzmán trained at Spain's two-Michelin-starred Mugaritz, and his kitchen laboratory is a hotbed for molecular experimentation – think carrot sticks injected with penicillin, which apparently take on a camembert-like taste.
"What makes Chilean cuisine special is its products," explains Lucas Diaz, executive chef at W Santiago. "Thanks to the climate and other geographical factors, we have many delicacies occurring only here. Some I've discovered are morrilla, little-known Chilean mushrooms available only in spring, and maqui, a wild berry from the south, long used in Chilean culture for its many health benefits." Chile, a country that stretches 4,300km, and encompasses deserts, vineyards and fjords, naturally has a mind-boggling array of produce (and no shortage of coastline for catching sensational seafood).
There's no better place to grasp this abundance than La Vega Central market. On my visit in November, autumn colours of a different kind are in full flare: heaps of juicy ruby tomatoes; a bruise-like wash of berries and grapes; the brilliant greens of avocados and limes.
Locals fill their wheelie trolleys with speckled pink potatoes and bundles of dried kelp named durvillea antartica, jostling between the overflowing stalls. For eating on the spot, there are vendors frying pumpkin-stuffed sopaipillas (like large empanadas) and hole-in-the-wall cafés ladelling out stews of chicken and beans. Dried chillies and citrus fruits scent the air, before I catch the tang of coffee: it's the Café Altura cart, known for roasting and selling some of the best brews in the city. Usually mine's a flat white, but the cup I'm handed here is so fruity and fragrant that adding milk would be sacrilege.
Bennett explains that the covered market has long been viewed as a working-class shopping option, with professionals sticking to big supermarkets filled with imported goods, but this is gradually changing as the trend for local, seasonal and artisanal spreads here.
What's more, whereas Santiago's foodie renaissance was at first more sharply focused on fine dining, it's now becoming more accessible, and manifesting in everything from gelaterias to microbreweries. Between the colourful terraced houses of the Bellavista Quarter, we duck into Loom Bar for a tasting flight of craft beers and a rookie's guide to brewing techniques. My favourite is the bright lemony Tübinger Hoppiness from Valdivia de Paine, a few miles south of Santiago.
Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1266; rainbowtours.co.uk) can tailor-make trips to Chile, including a stay in Santiago, city tours and return flights from London.
Luciano K's (lucianokhotel.com) 38 rooms are priced between £138 (standard) and £318 (suite) per night based on two people sharing on a B&B basis. All rooms come with free wifi and use of all facilities including a rooftop splash pool. LATAM (latam.com) operates regular flights between London and Santiago.
For a full day city food tour of Santiago book with foodychile.com.
For more information on visiting Chile go to chile.travel
When lunchtime comes, I cross the river to artsy Barrio Lastarria to try one of the city's coolest hotel bars.
Perched atop an Art Deco apartment block, which was restored and reopened last year as boutique hotel Luciano K, its rooftop bar Terraza K would be worth a visit alone to ride the city's oldest elevator – a wrought iron contraption encircled by marble stairwell.
But what awaits me upstairs is just as impressive: a rainbow-tiled poolside terrace that overlooks the treetops of the neighbouring Parque Forrestal, and serves up a tempting tapas menu. Signature dishes on the menu include Chimichurri-marinated octopus and a dessert of gold-dusted chocolate eggshell filled with cocoa-rich mousse. I could swear the elevator made extra creaks of protest on my way back down.
Santiago's perfect solution for a food coma? Grab a cup of mote con huesillo from one of the many street vendors around town, and head to a shady spot on the nearby Santa Lucía hill. This traditional iced drink pairs a barley-type grain with peaches – the result is sweet, refreshing and a little bit strange.
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