Quick Reviews are short peeks at restaurants in Colombia
While Matiz tends to fly under the radar, it’s one of the hidden jewels in Bogota’s dining scene. A refined and understated restaurant set in an ivy-covered restored house near the posh Parque de la 93, Matiz is based on Mediterranean roots. Chefs from around the world have taken their turn at the stove here, and each new chef brings a different air to the restaurant.
But his restaurants are what prove the point. He’s been giving Colombia a tasty culinary mix for years, taking his Lebanese roots and combining them with Colombian ingredients. Zaitún Café was born in Sincelejo for 13 years, and Beit Quessep has been providing Barranquilla with good Arabic-Colombian dishes for three years. Alex’s love of vegetables, spices, and grilled food goes well with the Lebanese roots that shine through on the menu of those restaurants.
And now he’s brought his creation to Bogota. Zaitún opened in the capital city in March of this year. It has an ideal location, in the well-known restaurant area Parque de la 93. Zaitún’s corner spot gives it a wide space for outdoor dining, with an elegant and clean design that is mostly dominated by plants and wood tables. Outside, diners can choose to sit under a transparent roof (to soak up the Bogota sun) or under large umbrellas that give good coverage. Inside, there are only 14 seats. The long couch along the left side is good for a glass of wine or sharing a dessert after an evening film in Cinemanía (a movie theater that focuses on independent films). http://www.cinemania.com.co/
Zaitun in Bogota borrows many of the main dishes from the menu in Barranquilla. There are 14 salads on the menu, with meats such as turkey, grilled chicken, smoked salmon, falafel, or a few Caesar salads. The seafood salad was recommended, and the kibbe salad looks enticing.
Most of their appetizers are good for two or three people to share. They have a long list of wraps, including roast beef and falafel. Their desserts change weekly and can include Nutella pie, apple pie, carrot cake, or chocolate cake with arequipe.
Wine and drinks
They have a short wine list, with a Chilean house wine for COP$16,000 a glass (Sauvignon Blanc or Carmenere) or you can choose a bottle. They offer whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, or beer (Club Colombia, Miller, Grolsch, Peroni birra). Although they don’t have cocktails on the menu, they can prepare the classics.
They serve Illy coffee (from COP$4,000-6,500 depending on how you ask for it). They have a selection of Harney and Sons teas: dragon pearl jasmine, Darjeeling, mint, organic Assam, and one called Paris that sounded like a scrumptious dessert: caramel, citrus, currant.
What we ate
Hummus Premium: It seemed more like meat premium: chopped meat took center stage, cooked with basil and mint, over a bed of hummus, and topped with chopped almonds. It’s served with pita bread and olive oil. The creamy hummus was just right, slightly tangy. In my opinion, it was good size for three people to share, or for one person it could be a light meal.
Lomo en salsa ajonjoli. The meat was a good cut, cooked as ordered (medium rare), which is rare in Bogota: usually waiters here don’t believe you when you say medium rare. It was served over mashed potatoes with dash of pesto served on the side. What they call “Arabic salad” that accompanies it was a tasty fattoush, a green salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, radish etc.
The falafel wrap was tasty and light, with a tangy dressing. The bread is pleasantly thin.
We finished it all off with coffee (I had a marvelous macchiato) and a delicious mango tea from Harney and Sons with apple, hibiscus and mango.
Carpaccio menu, (beef, salmon, or vegetables): COP$19,000-25,000
Zaitún is an excellent place to share an appetizer before catching a movie at Cinemania, right across the street, or for a relaxing drink afterwards. I’ll definitely be back for a light lunch when I’m in the area. And frankly, the service made this restaurant even more special; the waiters were warm and attentive without being smothering, and more knowledgeable than I normally find in Bogota. Our waiter, Ricardo, tried hard to provide a good, personalized service, and he was sweet in that Colombian way that you won’t get anywhere else in the world.
It sits on a corner facing Parque de la 93 in Bogota, the large green letters announcing the presence of the American coffee chain: Starbucks. But this is the first time the mega-company has opened a store in Colombia, and I was curious to see what Colombians would think of its arrival.
So just a few days after it opened, on a sunny Saturday morning, I stood on the corner of the Parque de la 93 and got my first look at Starbucks in Colombia.
The outside sitting area is typical of restaurants and cafes in Bogota, with wood benches, tables, and sofas mingling with standing heaters and potted plants.
Inside, it’s the typical Starbucks scene. I first noticed the smell – yes, it smells like any other Starbucks.
Well, to be honest, the first thing I noticed was the long line. By the time I had arrived it was busier than a Monday morning in Manhattan, and the line was not only out the door but had reached the sidewalk.
A sign behind the counter welcomed me to Starbucks in Colombia. About 15 employees behind the coffee bar and cash registers were frantically trying to keep up with the demand of cappuccinos and caramel macchiatos, and five more were rushing around cleaning and working, basically, on crowd control.
The store was filled with Colombians, though a number of foreigners drifted in and out. I was surprised by the amount of Colombians stuffing themselves into the packed coffee house, since they are quite passionate about their Juan Valdez and Oma restaurants – some go as far as considering Starbucks to be a sort of treason against their Colombian identity.
As I squeezed into line I noticed a particular energy; the hum of dozens of people on a strong caffeine buzz, getting their first Starbucks in this land of coffee beans.
My big question when I heard Starbucks would be opening was: How much is a coffee going to cost? Well, the prices range from COP 5,500-7,900 for a variety of small coffees with milk. A tinto (black coffee) that’s a little taller than what you’ll get in Juan Valdez goes for COP 3,300, which is a bit pricier than Juan Valdez’s version. The cups are quite a bit smaller than in the States, but for those that need more coffee than is ever available at a coffee shop here in Bogota, this is the place to come to.
Starbucks has also opted to sell coffee preparation methods like Chemex and French press that are already popular around Bogota at places like E&D Cafe, Diletto and Juan Valdez Origenes.
In the effort to prove that they’re all about Colombian coffee, there’s an antique coffee mill under a staircase, surrounded by sacks of 100% Colombian beans.
Baskets filled with Nariño coffee take up the center of the store, and rows of Starbucks mugs display a graceful couple dancing cumbia, with a chiva truck lumbering about on the back. In one corner a column with Spanish text explains how special Starbucks coffee is, as if the crowds here need to be convinced.
I took a quick look at the food as I passed the sparkling new case; fat blueberry muffins with crumble topping, delicious panini sandwiches filled with spinach and imported cheese, and a dubious looking bagel are what got my attention.
Inside on the first floor, the only seating is a wood table with stools, and wasn’t as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. It also gave me a direct look into Parque de la 93 and a front row view of all the commotion inside the store.
The second floor is taken up by a long coffee cupping table. The third floor has a big picture window with a view of the leafy Parque de la 93. The sofas, armchairs, and vertical garden make it a place to hang out with friends, or perhaps attempt to do some work on a laptop.
A notable part of the decoration is the gigantic mermaid painting on the second floor and third floors. The brown tones come from coffee. Really – go on, get close and sniff it – it even smells like coffee. Luis Carlos Cifuentes used coffee to paint this beauty, and its somber colors go well with the industrial look of the ceiling rafters. The floors are laid with ceramic tiles that resemble those you’ll see in a farmhouse while on a trip to a coffee farm in the Colombian mountains.
Coffee cupping at Starbucks
I pulled up a stool at the coffee cupping table and got a course on how to prepare Nariño coffee in a Chemex.
Tati and Karen were the sweet girls who did the coffee cupping for me. Their enthusiasm soon had me sniffing deeply, slurping noisily and closing my eyes to fully get the tastes of the Colombian countryside.
Colombians are enjoying their moment of Starbucks, but I doubt they’ll trade in their beloved Juan Valdez or Oma for Starbucks; Oma has the food and ice cream, and Juan Valdez is just too cool (and is a cheaper deal than the imported American version).
Coffee to take home
So what coffees are available at Starbucks in Colombia?
Colombia: First coffee blend that Starbucks served in Seattle back in 1971, it’s 100% Colombian fine stuff and is only available here. COP 22,000 for 250 grams.
Nariño: Comes from plants that are grown among chocolate, orange and mandarin orange trees, which gives the coffee some interesting nuances. COP 16,000.
El Peñol: Limited edition from 160 plots of land in Guatpé, Antioquia, not far from the Piedra Peñol (if you look closely at the bag, you can see the rock incorporated into the artwork). It’s only available at Starbucks in Bogota for two months and costs COP$26,000. This one is roasted in Seattle.
Expresso Roast (I’ve bought it in the States under the name French Roast): Coffee from Nariño and Huila. COP 16,000.
Want to read more about the Starbucks opening in Colombia? Click through this link to see what the Associated Press has to say.
Have you been to this Starbucks? Tell me what you think about Starbucks opening up in the land of coffee production.
In recent years they have popped up around the world, from Mexico to Tokyo, Scotland to Costa Rica, South Africa to Germany, and all over the United States. They have been used for everything imaginable: homes, computer labs, studios, cafes, farms, parks and hotels. Even Starbucks and Tommy Hilfiger have joined the band wagon and opened stores in them.
What are they? Shipping containers. Yes, those large metal containers that are used to ship things overseas. Using these structures for construction gives them a second, and more permanent, life.
Colombia is also in on the trend.
Container City opened to the public in February of 2013 in one of the finest business neighborhoods of Bogota. Twelve shipping containers, each one occupied by a gourmet restaurant, are set around an internal courtyard, with an additional external dining area on one side and at the back.
These shipping containers are not shy; sporting colors like fuchsia, lime green, baby blue, stoplight red and lollipop orange, they shout out irreverence. Add to that the chef graffiti on the outside walls and the result is casual yet classy and a break from the norm in this often conservative area.
Yes, it is a food court. But it’s got plenty of personality.
I sat down with the architect, Alejandro Barreneche, to talk about the project, some of the challenges faced, and the construction process.
The project started to be planned in 2010, the necessary permits took fourteen months to obtain, and the construction was finished in three months. Occupation was 100% right from the beginning.
The Container City concept combines materials that are recycled or can be, with some interesting design twists along the way. For instance, the floors are made from residue left over from coffee production. Yes, 100% Colombian coffee…floors.
The center of activity of the food mall is a 12 foot shipping container, a tower of corrugated iron dressed in stately brown. The interesting thing is that it is standing on one end.
Alexander pointed out that although they’ve stood a container on end in Paris, it has an external support, while this one in Container City is freestanding. The internal structure was designed by a Colombian architect specializing in bridge construction using a base that moves on springs to absorb movement and shocks. So don’t worry, it won’t come down any time soon; it’s even earthquake resistant.
The design also takes into account the year round good weather in Bogota. The courtyard combines open-air dining with a roofed area, allowing natural light to flood in and minimizing the need for artificial lighting.
Space is optimized at Container City. The 948 meter, multi-level area gives the impression that it’s bigger than it really is. Typically an area this size would hold only three restaurants, but twelve fit in here without feeling crowded. The layout allows for the easy circulation of people and plenty of open space.
Recycling is just starting to get attention in Bogota, and is not yet a popular concept in most areas. The fact that Container City is occupied mainly by gourmet fast food restaurants helps people in the community value the recycled/recyclable concept even more. And it works – this popular mall is packed even well after the lunch hour.
Container City is hip, artsy, and gets people thinking outside the box (or shipping container). It certainly is a reminder that anywhere around the world, we can all do our part to help the environment.
This article is part of a series of conversations with chefs in Bogota. Click here to read other articles in the Kitchen Talk series.
I was sitting by the miniature palm trees and ferns decorating the vertical gardens alongside the waterfall in Matiz’s outdoor dining area. Sunlight peeked its way in and made the white linen on the tables seem brighter.
Nicolas Quintano joined me at the table. Sunlight lit up his brown hair and crisp white chef’s jacket. At 29, he still has a baby face. This is the executive chef at Matiz.
Nicolas, from Santiago, Chile, always had an interest in art and architecture. But coming from a banking family, that created a certain amount of problems. Nicolas simply didn’t see himself spending his life behind a desk; active, creative, constantly in motion, he wanted to work with his hands.
So he graduated college with an art degree instead of a financial one, and opened up his own art workshop. He traveled with his art in expositions to Canada, Mexico and other countries.
When he went to Florence, Italy, to specialize in drawing, it happened. Florence changed his life.
But it wasn’t art that opened him up to a new world. It was food. Living in Florence, he realized the importance of food in people’s daily lives and fell in love with the simplicity of the ingredients used in the region. “Using just tomato and olive oil…well, that’s your dish is, and it was wonderful,” remembers Nicolas.
He and his girlfriend started planning to open a restaurant. The obvious first step was learning to cook, so he returned to South America to study cooking at the Cordon Bleu in Peru.
He graduated best in his class. Older than other students in his class, he had a different viewpoint, one that was more oriented towards getting results. Paco, one of the instructors, took an interest in Nicolas, and after graduation put him in contact with Olga Lucia, the manager at Matiz.
Olga Lucia invited Nicolas to Bogota to prepare a tasting menu for her. Wanting to impress Olga, Nicolas asked Paco about her preferences and found out she is a vegetarian, interested in yoga and well-being. Nicolas found organic products at the market and worked hard to present Olga with his best. He’s been working ever since at Matiz.
Nicolas considers his success in the kitchen to come from understanding flavors and how they work together, how they flow into each other, change each other, and come out as something different.
And his personality helps a lot. He has an eagerness to be impressed by what he’s experienced in his travels around the world, and he recognizes the power of simple ingredients artfully prepared. He has an energy often associated with the young and an earnest desire to share the best he has, which he uses to make the kitchen at Matiz one of the best in Bogota.
bogota and food
For Nicolas, Bogota has been an amazing surprise. The green urban scene reminds him of his hometown, Santiago: “You have the mountains, and the sunlight here is so explosive.”
In the Bogota food world he can see that things are changing. Restaurant owners are opening their second or third restaurant. He sees more of a tendency toward bistro-type restaurants where people pay less for good meals. Foreigners are investing here, which raises the standard and makes competition tougher – but Nicolas is always up to the challenge, and loves trying to reach and satisfy that increasingly knowledgeable public.
At Matiz Nicolas feels the freedom to be like the owner. “I have the liberty to cook whatever I want. I can choose what I want to serve; of course, I have filters, which is good, but I get a lot of freedom.”
The influences on the menu are wide, including Japanese, Chilean, Peruvian, Mediterranean, and of course, Colombian. There are also cultural mixes, like gnocchi made with plantain and cheese.
He’s happy with the ingredients he finds in Bogota although he sees the need to have more consistent suppliers. From Medellin he gets bok choy, carrot and amarantha sprouts. He makes the lentil sprouts and the sun dried tomatoes on the premises.
He would love to work more with local ingredients. For instance, he gets his lamb meat from a local farm where lambs are fed quality food, resulting in a good product and reducing the need to bring lamb from, say, Australia.
Matiz is a small restaurant. In fact, to be able to provide the kind of detailed, personalized attention that they pride themselves on, small is a good factor. The tasting menu gives free reign to Nicolas’ creativity, liberating him from the constraints of a menu; it’s like a personal agreement you come to with the chef, and it’s his creative process that surprises you and delights you.
His focus is not on making money but on creating, transcending. Nicolas’ family has a nut farm in Chile and among his many dreams is the one where he goes back home to work that farm, along with a boutique store to sell his products. And high on his list of priorities is raising his family with the same love of food that he’s found.
Note: At the time this post was published, Nicolas Quintano was the chef at Matiz.