Peumayén – Santiago, Chile
Yep, Chile! Here I am (or rather, there I was)!
Many on social media were surprised to see that I had managed to get out of the country, given the COVID restrictions. I am sure many passed quiet judgment. I myself was surprised to end up anywhere international this year (and I am judgmental of myself every day)!
Here's the thing––I love solar eclipses. I am nearly addicted to them. I saw my first total solar eclipse in Oregon in 2017, and it was a life-altering experience. Since that eclipse, I have had my eye on the schedule of eclipses to come. Two of them post-Oregon––and the two that were seemingly most accessible before the next one over North America in 2024––were in Chile and Argentina, one in July 2019, and the other in December 2020. I missed out on the July eclipse due to lack of resources after graduating, so I had my crosshairs on the next eclipse, sure to be wonderful in southern Chile's lake country. This is was last eclipse visible from any meaningfully accessible location until North America's big one in 2024.
Well, COVID hit, and Chile and Argentina shut their doors, so I thought I was SoL for my shot of eclipse adrenaline for another four years, and planned my winter break without a trip to South America in the cards. But then, one chilly November morning in Park City, I saw an article that Chile was re-opening borders; they just required a negative PCR COVID test and health insurance. Then, as if the sun, moon, and earth were aligning (see what I did there?), I found a cheap ticket on LATAM, fortuitously a Delta partner, to Santiago from the States. I took a leap of faith and booked, praying for a continued run of negative COVID tests and excellent weather.
The former panned out, the latter did not. Chile's Lake Country experienced an atypical day of heavy rain and clouds on Monday, and I saw it coming in the forecast, so decided that instead of subjecting myself to the 11-hour night bus to and from Pucón just to get a rainy, busy eclipse, I would just stay in Santiago and experience an 80% eclipse, and explore a brand new city (and country... and continent... ... and hemisphere!!).
The city of Santiago is under quarantine on weekends, so for my first two days I stayed locked in my hotel and enjoyed pisco sours, king crab empanadas, southern hemisphere summer-in-December sun by the pool, and sunsets illuminating the Andes on the roof. Could be worse!
On Monday I finally got the chance to escape the hotel and take a stroll around the city before the eclipse reached its peak. I love the street art in Latin American cities, and Santiago is no exception. The colorful Bellavista barrio in particular was striking, with bright colors, flowing bougainvillea, quiet neighborhood tree-lined streets, and (currently closed) shops and cafes of all stripes. I would love to see this lively barrio at a time when things are more open!
I enjoyed the eclipse from the roof of the hotel with my disposable cardboard eclipse viewing glasses decorated by the Chilean flag, watching the light gradually change over the city as the summer temperatures cooled and shadows became crescents. Not a 100% eclipse, to be sure, but still a wild thing to experience!
For dinner on Monday, I wandered down a shady street to the street-side patio of what many consider to be Santiago's best wine bar, Bocanaríz. Chile is prime wine country, with the perfect latitude (roughly same as southern hemisphere wine regions in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) and ideal climate, getting maritime influence galore into its arid mountain valleys from the Pacific Ocean, and the valleys stretch thousands of miles north to south between the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range. I have had some, but not a lot, of Chilean wine, so I was excited to try some of their wine flights to give me a better sense of the wine world here!
I started my visit with a flight of Chilean whites––first, a VERY tart sauvignon blanc, an interesting and unusual Riesling, and a complex and fantastic semillon. Later, I ordered an "aromatic" flight of Chilean reds to pair with one of the most ubiquitous proteins in South America––octopus. These included an expression of "Chile's national grape," aptly called "País," a cinsault, and a carignan, two grapes I associate with southwest France. Like many Chilean red wines I have tried, they were silky, luscious, and berry-driven, like velvet on the palate. With my delicious Chilean cheese and charcuterie plate (what alliteration!) and some a-bit-too-sea-funk-y oysters from the Chilean coast, I also sampled a lovely, bright pink, mouthwatering brut rosé.
Many commentators on cuisine in the Americas are noting that Santiago is swiftly becoming one of the most exciting food cities in Latin America. Fifteen years ago, there was little in Santiago's food world happening besides street empanadas, inexpensive local wine, hot dogs, and pork sandwiches. These days, however, there has been a substantial movement dedicated to re-learning and re-connecting with Andean indigenous traditions and local ingredients, and it has powered an increasingly magnificent food scene. Boragó, thought to be the crown jewel of Santiago's fine dining world, is even on the most recent 50 Best Restaurants in the World list, ahead of some of the temples of fine dining I've been lucky enough to try in North America and Asia, such as Alinea, Atelier Crenn, Ultraviolet, Le Bernardin, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Now, I don't put a lot of stock in the methodologies for such "lists," but it's still pretty wild to achieve that level of recognition in a city without much of a food scene just over a decade ago.
Sadly, Boragó has decided to keep its doors closed for the duration of the pandemic, an understandable move, so I was on the hunt for the second best restaurant in Santiago to try, with a particular yen to immerse myself in some culinary traditions and ingredients I couldn't get anywhere else.
There is a current of anticolonialism in Latin America, and in Chile in particular. Political figures like Pablo Neruda in the '70s (whose poetry also contains overtly anticolonial themes) were instrumental in defining the broader cultural trends that persist today. Food, of course, is not immune from these forces, and there's been a concerted effort, also as part of the desire to improve the food scene in Santiago, among Chilean restaurants to tap into pre-colonial ingredients and food traditions of indigenous Andean peoples. Peumayén is perhaps the most complete example of this trajectory. Their website describes their philosophy:
The Peumayén Ancestral Food project is the result of an in-depth research on the gastronomic roots of Chile, embodied in a menu that combines products, techniques and original preparations of the main ancestral cultures of pre-Hispanic Chile.
After needing to go to the damn airport just to get an answer on whether I could modify my flight so I didn't have to have a 25 hour layover in Brazil during the pandemic, I found myself with plenty of extra time back in the city on my last day in Chile while waiting for my new 11:30pm overnight flight to Miami. I downed a couple G and Ts on the hotel rooftop and strolled out into the Santiago sun back to the Bellavista neighborhood to find Peumayén.
I was stunned to find the restaurant empty, but then again much of Santiago has really slowed down during the pandemic. I was the sole diner in their breezy courtyard, decorated with all manner of indigenous art. My server brought me a Chilean pisco sour made with huacatay, a type of mint grown in the Andean regions. The mint added a refreshing, mojito-like element to the drink. Wonderful for a summer day.
You can order from their rather large a la carte menu, but the way to go at Peumayén is the tasting menu, and at $25 (yes, $25) for about 20 different "dishes," it's maybe the culinary steal of the decade. Now, you'll have to forgive my incompleteness and lack of precision when describing these dishes because a) Spanish is not my first language and my ability to understand it is merely moderate, and b) many of these ingredients were wholly unfamiliar to me.
The extravaganza started with an amuse of minced chicken, onions, peppers, mustard, and other tasty things on an "ancient bread" from indigenous recipes, which resembled a sort of salty, slightly crispy tortilla, and a creamy "rustic sauce" topped with avocado mousse. A very tasty bite indeed!
They course their tasting menu into four plates of smaller bites. The first course was called the "bread basket," and featured indigenous "bread" recipes from the north to the south (left to right) of Chile using various grains and starches. In order:
- Bread made with quinoa.
- The same ancient flatbread from the amuse with a smoked chili sauce (omfg).
- A sweeter bread made with pumpkin.
- A fried potato bread.
- Two breads made from different types of indigenous beans.
- Ancient grain bread made with umo honey.
- A potato bread with oxidized potato (hence the purple) mixed with chicharrones (yummm).
The "appetizer" course was next, with which I paired a very food-friendly (and so so cheap) Chilean sauvignon blanc. The same style as before, with a long board of smaller bites, the offerings were:
- "Tamal," a sort of ground corn porridge resembling grits or polenta, with olives.
- A salad of local greens, toasted corn, peas, and potato with "special sauce."
- Sliced potato with a rustic, creamy quinoa sauce somewhat resembling romesco.
- Beef gizzards breaded in corn and fried and drizzled with garlic aioli alongside something pickled. I had heard that at Peumayén you must be ready to be adventurous, and this was the most adventurous thing of the meal. Really tender and delicious.
- Spicy seafood, including shrimp, mussels, and stone crab, from the Chilean coast, best (but perhaps not entirely accurately) described as served in the style of ceviche.
You may also notice that I asked for more of the salty, crispy ancient bread so as to not let the absolutely magnificent chili sauce from the first course go to waste.
With the next course, I ordered what many consider to be Chile's primary claim-to-fame in the wine world––a glass of carménère, an absolutely silky, luscious, berry-driven, dark, fabulous wine that can best be described as "like drinking velvet." I had another couple glasses of carménère with my meal on the flight back to Miami. It's so goddamn good (and CHEAP!)
The next board was the main course, featuring fish, meat, and veggie offerings. From left to right:
- Local seared fish with a purée of peas.
- Glazed short rib over an ancient grain and potato succotash.
- Cylinder of eggplant with a rich, complex mushroom sauce and lentil salad.
Wow. What a lineup of savory courses! I enjoyed every bite. But this wasn't all––they had dessert ready to go as well, and again it was presented in a lineup. From left to right again:
- Dulce de leche ice cream.
- Cheesecake with lucuma, a popular Andean sweet fruit that I also enjoyed at the Peruvian joints La Mar in Miami and Cabra in Chicago this year.
- Lemon sorbet with chocolate.
- Chumbeque, a traditional flaky cake from the north of the country made with anise syrup.
The other thing my server recommended was a tasting flight of piscos as a digestif. They varied in geography and aging. Left to right, one more time:
- Armidita "Encanto," from the Atacama Desert region in the north of the country. A clean, un-aged pisco with freshness and a distinct "grape" flavor; reminded me of some grappas that I've had.
- Bou Barroeta "Romanet," also from the Atacama area. With three years of age, showing more complexity and depth.
- From a little further south, but still north of Santiago, in the Elqui Valley, Pisco Alamo, with two years of aging in oak. As you might expect with the oak aging, this was rich, almost buttery, with luscious caramel and vanilla and immense complexity.
Well kids, I'm not sure you can get more Chilean than this. My trip to Chile was short and marred by two days of quarantine, but I found the perfect spot to really get a taste (literally!) of what Chile is all about. From the "ancestral" food, to the décor, to the wines, to the pisco, this was a really wonderful experience that I will not soon forget.