We arrived at the door and stared blankly at it.
“Is this the place?” Peter asked, doubt and worry in his voice. He stepped up to the darkened windows and tried to peer in.
I fidgeted on the doorstep. Was this the address? Were we on the wrong street? It’s an easy mistake to make when you depend on Bogota’s notoriously bizarre street numbering system.
I looked for a doorbell but there wasn’t one, and the door was firmly shut against the world.
Just then the door swung open and a thin-faced man with serious eyes and heavy stubble looked at us. He didn’t say a word.
What was I supposed to do? What should I say? Was there a password we should recite, or would he simply recognize my name?
He swung the door open wide. “Come on in.”
Inside wasn’t more promising. An empty hallway, and an empty room. Stubble gestured up, and I looked at the rich wood staircase. The light of candles and the reassuring sound of chatter reached down to us and pulled us up the stairs.
Voilá. A speakeasy bar in Bogota.
We stepped into the 1920s in Louisiana; a jazz singer crooned at us and long-stemmed cocktail glasses clinking on the bar top added their own music.
We took our seats at the high bar. The roomy bar stools had backs and were made to linger on. The barman, dressed in snazzy clothes, greeted us in English. However, his wide smile welcomed us even more than his words.
“Welcome to Eighty-Six Cocktail Bar,” he proclaimed proudly.
He didn’t need to tell us he was the owner; his pride in every detail told the story. As he explained why a bar, and why a speakeasy, and why Bogota, we settled into the comfort of good drinks in good company.
The backstory and the menu
Gonzalo (an amazing name for a barman at a speakeasy, don’t you think?) was born in Bogota but left in his teens. His goal of studying business administration in New York sunk away when he discovered the specialty cocktail scene that was very much alive in the city. He’d found a place to rest his energy and passion.
When we looked at the cocktail menu he’d created it seemed short, and it was immediately obvious that it wasn’t actually made to look at. With 30 classic cocktails and almost 40 signature ones, they couldn’t all get listed on a menu without causing certain anxiety in the clients, so they listed just a few. Just ignore it.
Instead, trust the recommendations of Gonzalo, who will take a few minutes to listen to your likes and dislikes and serve you what he’s sure you’ll love. Don’t worry, it comes with a guarantee – if you don’t like it you can return it or ask him to modify it.
Food and drinks
He served me Wild Turkey Bourbon infused with black pepper. He added mint. Lime. Guava syrup. And he placed a pansy on top.
Funny enough, my husband got the one that you would have thought would be for the lady – it was pink. Called Rosita, it had rum, homemade rose syrup, lime, and a foamy cap created by eggs. It was refreshing, almost buttery in texture, and came with an aromatic dried rose on top. The texture and depth of flavors were exciting. But why a pink cocktail for Peter? Because Gonzalo apparently gets a kick out of serving cutesy pink cocktails to burly men – and making sure they like it.
They were both incredible.
Executive chef José Ragazzi was soon sending his dishes out from the kitchen, which the waiter discreetly placed in front of us. No clumsiness, just smooth service.
When we spoke with him about his culinary leanings, he talked about his love of products from the Amazon. He also mentioned his Gran Colombia vision of cooking, which incorporates the ingredients of the whole region stretching from Panama to Peru (a little beyond the original Gran Colombia, but valid from a culinary point of view). He bases his dishes on comfort, flavor, and tradition. Each one has a story, although he said he won’t bore people with it if they aren’t in the mood to hear it.
The first creation we tried is called Como bocadillo con queso. The idea is to vary the sweet and savory theme of Colombia’s beloved bocadillo con queso (guava paste with white cheese). José serves one of the creamiest burratas I’ve had and bathes it in payapuela and rum and garnishes it with cashews. The purple-pink flowers on top are edible – they’re garlic and are amazing. The chewy whole wheat bread with the thick crust was from Suculenta.
When Gonzalo heard I work with coffee, he prepared a cocktail that, sadly, had no name. Made with Scotch whiskey, Amaro, maple syrup, bitters, and coffee beans, it was soothing and comforting, pleasing to the end. I loved it and sealed the deal by giving it the name Flavors of Bogota Coffee Indulgence.
José kept bringing out the dishes, and we next tried his Trifasico marino. Spectacular octopus was mixed in with smoky and sweet roasted red bell peppers, ripe plantain, and red beans (instead of those white ones that the Italians use).
And to please me with a true comfort dish he brought out Huevos estallados. Mushrooms rub shoulders with organic egg yolks that create a pleasing creaminess. It also unexpectedly worked really good as bar food.
The Huevos Estallados went quite well with their Shiitake cocktail. Yup, you heard that right. Scotch infused with shiitake mushrooms. Which works way better than you’d think, since that earthy smoky flavor of the mushrooms combines with that of the scotch. Using a big serrated knife, Gonzalo shaved off a chunk of housemade clear ice from a huge block, while still talking animatedly. I would have lopped off a fingertip.
The sweet plantain croquettes were brought out on a very rustic wood bark boat. Combining plantain, mushrooms, almonds, and a touch of tomate de arbol, the croquettes were crunchy and creamy as well as sweet, sour, deep, and earthy, with a zing of onion.
The unexpected culinary experience
But as you can see, the food wasn’t the only culinary experience. Gonzalo makes his own bitters, syrups, and infusions. Like his beet infused whiskey, a bright red concoction that he makes from over-roasting and smoking beets. Or his curuba syrup, which adds a lively zing to cocktails.
What knocked my socks off was a sip of an Old Fashioned done Gonzalo-style. Old Fashioneds are hard to get right, since they are deceptively simple yet decidedly difficult to do well. I had given up on ordering them in Bogota. Gonzalo prepared one quickly with Wild Turkey Bourbon, demerara sugar syrup, bitters, orange oil and a deliriously good housemade cherry. I only got a sip of that one because it wasn’t for us, but I’ll be back for it.
Or you can just order wine. But I don’t recommend it.
One of my favorite moments was when Gonzalo leaned forward and asked me in a low voice, “Would you like some water?” I immediately liked him. And he did serve me a glass of water – not a bottle, no fussy questions about sparkling or flat – he simply served water. And he refilled our glasses as soon as we emptied them, as many times as we emptied them. It made me want to take him along with me to every restaurant I eat at in Bogota and thus end my constant struggle to get water from waiters.
When you live far from your country, moments that envelop you and whisper in your ear “You’re home” are precious. Eighty-Six Cocktail Bar brought me home with truly good service and fantastic-yet-simple cooking. It brought back the wonder of discovering new flavor combinations, of being moved by the complexity of a meal and a drink.
Flavors of Bogota celebrates José and Gonzalo’s project to combine fresh local dishes, amazing service, and cocktails that are a culinary journey in themselves. Thank you, guys, we will be back to order the Flavors of Bogota Coffee Indulgence – and other cocktails as well.
Calle 69A No.10-05, Bogota
Open from Tuesday to Saturday just at night, from 5 pm to midnight
You might want to make reservations: +57 (318) 230-0559 or +57 (1) 744-9910
Photo credits: Eighty-Six Cocktail Bar