She spoke hurriedly into the phone, “I’ll call you back.”
Then she looked at me, her light green eyes wide open, listening attentively to my next question.
That can be rather intimidating when those eyes belong to Juanita Umaña, chef and restaurant owner – and a living, breathing encyclopedia of Colombian ingredients and recipes.
We were in her newest restaurant, El Clásico, in Zona G, and I was getting a lesson in Colombian ingredients, traditions and inclinations.
Juanita (who is from the savanna that Bogota is perched on) studied history in college, then married and traveled, living in New York City and London. Then she got the cooking bug and went off to cooking school. Her first restaurant back in Colombia was Café Granada, although Indigo and 1492 are the ones that have been around for longest (Indigo for 17 years and 1492 for 14 years).
Personally, I was intimidated by her neighbors on this stretch of Zona G, with chefs like Harry Sasson across the street, and the Rausch brothers just a half block away.
But Juanita says this street is a wonderful place to be. “If I run out of anything, I can just cross the street and ask for some cilantro or a cup of sugar from my neighbor [Harry Sasson].” We’d all like to have that kind of access to Colombia’s most famous chefs.
The partnership and the restaurant
For this new restaurant that opened four months ago, Juanita teamed up with Diana Garcia, a talented Colombia chef who draws inspiration from the coast of Colombia.
Juanita considers the foundation of this new venture to be…friendship. Diana and Juanita trust each other, they work well together, and they use their strengths – Diana’s talent with international desserts and Juanita’s knowledge of sauces – so that success winds up being contagious.
Juanita attributes her restaurant success to working with great teams in her kitchens, people she considers her family. The team includes William Lopez, a chef that has been working with Juanita for nine years.
El Clásico is basically an ode to chicken. They wanted to honor one of Colombia’s most beloved meats, and have made their oven roasted birds the focus. There are four varieties: Mediterranean think herbs, dried tomatoes and red wine), Curry and coconut (made with coconut milk), De la casa made with aceite de platano and cilantro, or you can get Pollo Haydée, named after Diana’s mother (the chicken gets 12-20 hours in the oven).
Juanita mentioned that the chicken and plantain empanadas have been a hit. I was also interested in the carimañolas with cheese, since I just devoured a large number of them in San Andres. Here they’re served with aji dulce and cilantro. The soups are all vegetarian, and the Mexican and Asian rice dishes can be made with or without meat.
Colombian desserts like figs, candied papayuela, Tres Leches cake, and if you can’t decide what you’d like, try the trilogy: three deserts of your choice that you can share. Or not.
And to top it all off, they serve one of my favorite Colombian coffees, Amor Perfecto.
I didn’t have a chance to eat at El Clásico, but the Flavors of Bogota team will certainly be heading back soon.
A word of warning: what looks like a market is actually their pantry (the kitchen is small), and the items are not for sale.