I’d done a bit of research on restaurants before we left for our maiden voyage to Bogota and I had one place on the brain: Leo Cocina y Cava, a contemporary, Colombian-fusion restaurant owned and run by Leonor Espinosa- a groundbreaking female chef who has been a leader in ushering Colombia into the world of international fine dining. Although there were other restaurants that I’d heard good things about, I wanted to make sure to hit one high end restaurant that focused on Colombian food, not French or Italian, so I asked my new friend Carolina to make the reservations on our second night there.
A group of six of us sat down in the modern yet warm space and sipped on their signature cocktail (sorry- I can’t remember the name but it resembled a cosmopolitan) while perusing the extensive menu. There were multiple seafood offerings in addition to some lamb, beef and rice dishes, but I quickly decided on the Filete de Róbalo – a white fish (snook?) resembling grouper coated in a rich sauce and set on top of some black coconut rice and enclosed in a plantain leaf. I’d heard raves about the restaurant’s coconut rice so I wasn’t going to miss out.
I have to say that since Bogota was the first of three cities on our trip, I can't remember the actual names of each dish but will describe them the best I can. Sorry! Taking notes while taking photos and drinking lots of wine just doesn't work for me:).
We opted to order a few appetizers to share:
A whitefish ceviche that was absolutely perfect- just tart enough, the fish was tender and fresh.
Seafood empanadas: Crisp little discs filled with shredded seafood, these were one of my favorite appetizers.
Rabbit empanadas: need I say more? Crispy, tear-drop shaped dough filled with tender stewed rabbit.
Plate of mixed seafood. Whoa- this octopus was transcendent. Life-altering. It was so tender while still retaining a bite and we all scratched our heads in amazement wondering what cooking method the chef used.
Tartare with local avocado: Very good, although the local avocado is not as creamy as the Haas variety we're used to here in SoCal.
Now for the main courses. Although everyone had their own, we all reached across the table numerous times tasting each other's plates.
Mine: the aforementioned fish in plantain leaf. We declared this "the winner" of the night- the rich, slightly sweet sauce and tender fish was perfect with the black coconut rice. Not the best looking dish but the best tasting for sure!
The Carne Puyada - slow cooked beef over risotto.....I think the photo says it all.
Grilled prawns over cilantro risotto. The prawns were perfectly cooked but the real star was this risotto. It would never have occured to me to make a cilantro risotto (since I always use cilantro as a fresh, not cooked, garnish to dishes) but I'll have to get in my kitchen and try to re-create this. WOW.
Another prawn dish swimming in a succulent broth, displayed by my friend Manny who seems to think you need to present your dishes with a hand gesture.
Grilled, pepper-encrusted tuna. Fresh, delcious.
We polished it all off and sat there, quite satisfied, when the waiters started bring out desserts we hadn't ordered. Thinking it was a mistake, we tried to wave them away but they sat these right in front of us:
Miniature beignets filled with chocolate, served with Helado de kola Roman - an ice cream made from a popular pink cola. Yes, it really IS that pink. The ice cream has a heady, almost chemical-like flavor so you might love it if you're 8 but I wasn't too crazy about it.
Carrot cake with coconut ice cream- this was subtle and lovely.
Flan with crispy rice. Whoa. Not only was the flan creamy and rich but it sat on a bed of....cake? And was topped with crispy rice which I'd never think to do but went so well with all of the creamy elements. Note to self: top all flan with crispy rice!
So it turns out that the sous chef saw us from the kitchen and recognized Carolina, whom he used to work for at her family's old restaurant. Thus the dessert parade which followed our main courses. He came out to introduce himself to the rest of us and I was amused to see that his first name was Disney. Seems his parents were fans of Walt Disney and bestowed the last name onto their son as a first name. We chatted with him for a bit, told him how remarkable the food was, and he said that it was unfortunate he hadn't seen us earlier since he would have simply done a prix fixe of recommended dishes. He then said "Can you come tomorrow?" Hm, lemme think for a millisecond.....YES! So we all decided to return the next night, this time to experience Leo Cocina y Cava in the way that Chef Disney felt we should. Score!
The first night: friends with Chef Disney, minus me, who conveniently took the photo:)
The next night, our party of six turned into a party of nine (word spread fast among band and crew about our delicious eats from the night before) and we once again found ourselves in the cozy restaurant. First up? A bowl of Hormigas Culonas (big fried ants available only in the region known as Santander). Yup. Honestly, I had heard of these ants and expected to see little fried mini ants on a plate but the bowl of big, black balls totally threw me for a loop. It was a bowl of just the bottom third of the ant, and talk about big butts! I ate one and it was fine- crispy, tasted like protein......nothing gross yet nothing wonderful. Some of the guys had fun chomping away but I think once was enough for me. Glad I tried it though!
Hormigas Culonas - the "big assed ants"
Night two- awaiting our feast...........
Right then, we spotted Leonor Espinosa walking around, inspecting every flower, every wine glass, making sure everything was operating smoothly. We stopped her to tell her how much we enjoyed her food, and she was very kind and even let us snap a photo with her. I was oddly starstruck and didn't say a whole lot but made sure to thank her for the delcious food!
Chef Disney started us off with sea snail ceviche drizzled with herb oil- it was so fresh, briny and the perfect way to start off our six course meal.
We had a few of the dishes we'd had the night before- prawns with the cilantro risotto, grilled langoustine, etc. Next up, we had a pile of tartare over which the waiter poured the richest, most succulent broth I'd ever had. It was slighly gamey and extremely savory.
The meat course was New Zealand baby rack of lamb cooked medium rare, piled on a knob of creamy mashed yucca and drizzled with au jus. It was divine.
We had several different desserts (including the flan which was asked for) and then had a chance to peek into the kitchen. It was quite small and I was amazed that the chefs could turn out so many dishes out of the tiny space.
We finished off the evening with an aperitif of Aguardiente, Colombia's national alcoholic beverage. It has a strong, anise flavor which I normally hate but somehow the sweetness and warmth of this liquor sat quite well with me. I'd definitely have it again.
So - two nights of mindboggling food with great people in a city I'd never been, plus a surprise visit from the famous chef and a peek into the kitchen- wow! It was a fantastic experience and I would recommend Leo Cocina y Cava to anyone visiting Bogota.
Leo, Cocina y Cava:Ubicado en Bogotá ( Calle 27 B No 6-75)
Horario de atención: De lunes a sábado: 12 a 4:00 p.m. y 7:00 p.m. a 12:00 p.m.
Reservas: 286 7091 281 6267