Latina spirit

Man at work: Santiago Macías manages the kitchen.
I hereby present you with the second of two brand-spanking-new restaurants, and this one could quite possibly be the first of its genre in Buenos Aires: high-end Colombian fare.

As mentioned in last week’s column, there’s a new wave of closed-door eateries as well as pop-up enterprises warming up this winter, soft-launching as they prepare for the coming spring.

There are plenty of reasons why a chef would rather work in this way, not least because they allow themselves the flexibility to do as they please with the menu, changing it on a weekly or even monthly basis.

Following May’s trip to Colombia, I tried to replicate the experience on my return and came across one large hurdle: there aren’t many Colombian restaurants in the city. And the ones that are doing their job are more café style, not very fancy, managing to get the flavours out there with a few Caribbean juices to boot, and that’s about it.

But now, direct from Bariloche via Bogotá come the Macías siblings, Camilo and Santiago. Following a difficult winter 2011 season, when that pesky Chilean volcano basically botched it up for everyone including the Macías, who used to run a restaurant in the city, they decided to come and try their luck in the capital with version 2.0 of I Latina.

Going puerta cerrada was an easy decision to make, and although the restaurant hasn’t set up shop in their home in the “traditional” puerta cerrada style used by Casa Saltshaker and Cocina Sunae among others, it is located in a former casona home in the heart of the leather district in Villa Crespo.

Of course, the Macías are not the first puerta cerrada restaurateurs to use a dining space separate to their living conditions: both Treinta Sillas and Almacén Secreto in Colegiales use distinct venues, with the latter also incorporating an art gallery at the front of the building, and a well-established, rather lush garden at the back.

But back to Colombia in Buenos Aires. I Latina is so very fresh that it only just launched its official website this week, two weeks after first seating guests for the first time, and what is coming out of Santiago’s kitchen is just as fresh.

Although he is from Bogotá, Santiago’s aim is to dip into both Colombia and its Caribbean coast via five courses on a Friday or Saturday night. The exact location is, as is the wont of closed-door restaurants, revealed at the time of booking, and in fact I Latina stipulates that there isn’t a menu, simply tasting options.

I had always assumed ceviche was a Peruvian creation, but it is on menus across Colombia, certainly in Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena when I visited. And with the menu emailed before the Friday opening night, that was certainly a promising sign of courses to come.

In fact, KT and I, seated at a table for two next to the open kitchen to spy on culinary events, started proceedings unofficially by devouring a board filled with banana bread, focaccia and a most original orange-flavoured butter.

A rabbit carimañola.
The real deal then began with a Colombian-style empanada, a carimañola or yuka fritter stuffed with glacéd rabbit, accompanied by a sharp yet sweet passion-fruit salsa. I went, hands straight on, dipping it into the maracuyá. The first courses were paired with a Santa Julia Chardonnay Reserva, and then moved on to a mushroomy Alambrado Cabernet Sauvignon, also from the Zuccardi winery.

Ahead of round two, and there was a short, sharp shock to the system with a shot of Pisco. Okay. That warmed me up, and I was then ready for my Ceviche Nikkei with octopus. Always a sucker for a tentacletastic meal, the I Latina version used cubed sweet potato, plenty of coriander and red pepper as well as a smear of avocado foam which they remembered to keep well away from my plate. It was fresh and zesty, as well as bright and beautiful.

Chef Santiago operates a calm kitchen.
Service was efficient and also bilingual, and as we were one of the first to arrive, our dishes were coming out ahead of other diners, which was great for us but may have ruined the visual impact for them. That said, when I saw more ceviche coming out while I was biding my time for dessert, I certainly had a craving to wrestle waiter Camilo to the floor for that marinated octopus.

Another classic Colombian dish is the arepa, or corn pancake, and Santiago took us on a trip to both the coast via a shrimp topping, then inland to Medellín for a paisa pork crackling (chicharrón) arepita. These were pretty tasty, although I’d have liked a few more porky pieces atop mine for the ultimate experience.

Then the main course, or rather step four, and slow-cooked lamb braised in a coffee salsa, another famous Colombian product. While the lamb was as tender and as succulent as Mary could have wanted her, the coffee beans didn’t make much of an impact, although the herb pairing with thyme was original, as was the plantain cream on which the lamb nestled.

Bearing in mind the pressure of a first night (and I’ve been to a puerta cerrada debut and trust me, it was a total disaster exacerbated by the drunk waitress who was later sacked), I Latina came out on top with impeccable service, cheerful, original food and a splendid venue.

All that let the side down were the three glasses of wine. I do like to know why a certain grape has been chosen to match a particular flavour, especially when so much effort has gone into the meal — a bit more information would have kept the high standards experienced all night on an even keel.

Wining On verdict: Original modern Colombian-Caribbean cuisine in a beautifully reformed home is a sure-fire winner. Take your time — I Latina wants you to spend three hours over dinner there.

I Latina, Villa Crespo
Address on reservation
200 pesos, 240 pesos with wine
Tel: 4857-9095

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on August 26, 2012

BREAKING NEWS: I Latina is now running a Sunday brunch – check out the gorgeous patio now that spring is in the air… Cost: 120 pesos.

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