French Connection in Bogota

 

Just after a light rain, the streets of the Zona G in Bogota are still wet, giving a slight chill to the air. Every cozy cafe I pass invites me to enter and enjoy a hot cup of coffee. In front of a small public square with immense trees there is a building whose black exterior gives it an austere appearance, and the pale pink sign outside tells me I’ve arrived at the boutique restaurant, Grazia.

A wood terrace wraps around one side, the tables soaking up the rays from the sun that’s just emerging from behind the clouds. A good place to get warm. Entering through the main door, a long table is set against black walls that contrast with oak shelving and lighted niches that showcase products. A small bar and a shiny espresso machine create a busy spot towards the back, and in the far left corner a vertical garden reaches up three stories. Upstairs on the second floor, the warm kitchen is alive with action.

The owners, Raphaël Haasz and Claudia Oyuela, are busy overseeing their new venue. Born in Lyon, France, Raphaël followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, a pastry chef, and started his culinary studies at age 15. After working in several Michelin-starred restaurants in France and later in England, he went on to work six years in New York with renowned chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud. Claudia started working with Boulud after studying at The International Culinary Center in New York. After love bloomed between Raphaël and Claudia, the idea of opening a restaurant naturally developed, and they moved to Bogota.

The international background of these two chefs gives them that interesting way of communicating that’s common in multilingual couples. The conversation often flows in and out of French, Spanish, and English; a Grazia dialect.

The couple worked on their concept for two years, got through the tough construction period and opened their labor of love in January 2013. Grazia is a cafe and bakery; it is also a boutique restaurant that offers breakfast through to dinner and temptations in between. Grazia’s menu is based on their preferences, a reflection of what they like to cook and eat.

This cuisine has no cultural boundaries; it could be considered European with a Colombian twist. The breakfast menu is flexible, allowing the diner to create the dish: eggs, juice, coffee or tea. A house specialty is brioche à tête. Lunch and dinner appetizers are meant to be shared. A soup made from the local arracacha root is savory with a slightly sweet taste of Colombia. There’s a salmon sashimi with herb vinaigrette and bacon chicharrón or the catch of the day with corn purée and an herb croquant topping. A light evening meal pairs well with wine, cava or champagne.

Grazia is a place for chocolate lovers. For a limited time they have whisky truffles that Raphaël labels “delicate and feminine.” Milk chocolates filled with caramel and almonds, plain chocolate truffles, crispy puffed rice cookies bathed in chocolate and almonds dusted in chocolate powder all provide small bites that soothe the soul. Their specialty cake, Place Bellecour, is a dark chocolate creation with a vanilla cream center named after the public square in Raphaël’s hometown. The Belgium-style speculoos cookies are thin, crunchy, and decadently buttery. The incredibly delicate, superbly flavored, melt-in-your-mouth macarons come in five flavors.

To take home, there is a selection of products ranging from antipasto to champagne and wines. Boxes called mini-todo or grande-todo can be packed with a selection of canapés or petits fours, and chocolates can be boxed to go.

The third floor is a kitchen laboratory that Claudia and Raphaël call their atelier. Huge windows along one wall capture the views of the neighborhood, the kitchen area occupies the whole right hand side, and to the left large glass doors open wide onto a wood terrace that invites in the sun. This creative space, designed for private parties and cooking classes, is where new recipes are born. Innovative creations from this experimental kitchen will reach the ever-changing menu with the label Atelier.

Opening a new restaurant is never easy. As I leave Grazia and nighttime falls, I glance back. The irregular sized windows set in the dark building light up like shining stars. I notice on the corner of the third floor terrace diminutive pink plants swaying in the breeze, delicately optimistic, knowing that whole-souled work and a creative attitude are the secrets of success.

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