Being realistic is sometimes, not always, a good thing – flights of fancy or fantasy are just fine as well. The reality is, however, I will probably never eat at Noma, the much touted world’s best on one list or another. And whether it is “the” best is irrelevant, it’s obviously up there in the elite top few. But I have no plans to go to Copenhagen in the foreseeable future (then again, I never planned to visit Argentina), and financially, the place is probably out of my reach unless I go back to working a high end job in NYC. When I was planning the La Paz part of my vacation, it just happened that The Guardian published an article about a new venture (3 months open) in town called Gustu, created under the umbrella of Noma, with the supervision of one of their chefs. So, I thought, here’s a chance to get a sense of what they do, in another country and with another local cuisine, but still their general style. I sent off a note to the chef, who passed it on to the two chefs who actually run the place, day to day, and one of them contacted me and we set up a date for me to come dine, tour the kitchen, and chat with her. Unfortunately, also being a cooking school, they’re a little overwhelmed with folk in the kitchen to have another spend a day there, but I still got to see a bit of the inner workings and the mindset, which was fun. (I did like the note in the Guardian article about how the place is saturated with demands for reservations, often three months in advance – the place has only been open 3 months – at the time he visited it was only open a couple of weeks – and the night I was there, it was never more than 1/3 full – which was a good thing, because my reservation wasn’t in the computer system, but there was plenty of space.)
So let’s jump right to the experience. First off, it’s located a long way from the center of town, a 25-30 boliviano cab ride ($4) that takes about 30-40 minutes. It’s located in one of, if not the wealthiest neighborhoods in La Paz, Calacoto – I suppose it has to be there to attract a local crowd who can afford it, though it does feel like a slight disconnect from the mission to train young students from the poorest neighborhoods in El Alto, which probably requires them to travel for 1-2 hours each way just to get to and from. The mission is impressive, however, and despite still working out the kinks in the opening project, there’s a drawing board plan to open 15 satellite gastronomy schools throughout El Alto in the near future. The bar and kitchen area are visible on entry, the bar quite impressive and well stocked, the kitchen opened and gleaming clean. The prep kitchen is downstairs and takes up nearly the whole level – a wine cellar is being built along one side – currently the wines are stored haphazardly around a cool room in the prep kitchen. There’s a ton of empty space – the logistics of getting the equipment and even countertops of the type they want means that they trickle in and will gradually fill the space. The dining room, too, has a somewhat empty feel – not just because I’m the first to sit (soon to be joined at neighboring tables by the French, Italian, and Swedish ambassadors and their families), but because the tables are spaced far apart. It’s not a warm, welcoming dining room, but thankfully, the staff are, and are immediately attentive. The chef whom I’ve been corresponding with, Kamilla Seidler, joins me at the table a short while later.
The menu is a simple tri-fold card – five apps, five mains, five desserts. Available a la carte with apps running 65-85Bs ($9-12), mains from 85-135Bs ($12-20), and desserts 60-75Bs ($10). There are also three tasting menu options, each of which has an alternate option to be paired with alcoholic beverages. Five courses runs 320 or 415Bs ($46 or 60), 7 courses runs 425 or 540Bs ($62 or 78) – pre-programmed chef’s choices from the menu – or the whopping option to try everything on the current menu with a 15 course run at 720 or 930Bs ($104 or 135). Given that this is a probable once in a lifetime experience on my end, guess which option I went for. I did seriously consider not having the beverage option simply because I still wasn’t feeling fully acclimated, but decided I could at least taste each thing, even if not imbibe fully. Tasty little whole grain rolls arrived shortly thereafter, along with my pet peeve, rock hard butter – seriously folks, take it out of the refrigerator 10 minutes before serving, let it soften a little. And right there, we’ve exhausted all the negatives that occurred over the night – missing reservation, feel of the room, and butter. So hey, let’s just skip the review and move along…. okay, no.
In truth, each tasting menu and a la carte option has an extra course – and really, it’s as big as some of the tasting menu courses, so let’s count it as an extra one. Thin slices of palm heart, avocado mousse, granadilla foam. Nicely balanced flavors and a nice start.
Dried cherries, rehydrated, amaranth, hazelnut, vinegar, quinua sprouts – kind of like a savory granola, and quite good. Paired with a Torrontes from the 1750 line of Uvairenda winery – fresh, clean, bright fruit, just barely off-dry, nice match.
Trio of cauliflower – puree, charred, and thinly sliced raw, with “tears of tangerine”. I love cauliflower and this was one of my favorite plates of the evening, and something that in one form or another I plan to steal. The Moscatel de Alejandria from Molina was a great pairing with the flavors.
Roasted and fresh corn, lemon, rabbit – I liked the dish but wasn’t wowed, the rabbit could have been anything, it was just a bit too neutral in the dish – that said, it isn’t that I disliked the rabbit, I just would have liked a more pronounced flavor. Nice pairing with the Chardonnay reserva from Casa Grande, actually my favorite white wine of the night.
Poached egg yolk (though not specified on the menu, I have no doubt it was sous vide at the perfect temp – the menu, specifies simply “an egg”, so I was actually expecting a whole poached egg rather than just the yolk, but that’s okay, the yolk is what makes the sauce, right?), with long ribbons of wild palm heart and shreds of salt cured beef. No new wine for this course, so I finished off the Chardonnay, I think the only beverage I finished off over the night (not because of quality, which were mostly excellent, but again, the whole altitude thing).
Chicken hearts in peanut crust, tomatillo, spicy peanut cream. Great flavor combination, the hearts are just barely cooked, they might have still been quivering with electrical activity – I’m okay with that but I imagine some folk would find it a little odd in the texture department. Strange pairing with a cocktail of singani (local firewater), extract of salsa llawa (the local tomato, rocoto and huacatay based hot sauce) with a cherry tomato garnish. The cocktail was good, though I didn’t quite get it as a match for the dish, nor at this point in the lineup.
A dish of shredded potato “huaycha”, a local yellow potato, some of it fried in little fritters, poached trout from Lake Titicaca (by the way, side note – Bolivia is a landlocked country, with little coming in from outside, and particularly not fresh fish – this is not a place to go for sushi or ceviche, unless it’s the lake trout, though there are plenty of restaurants offering each), and an indigenous minty herb called coa (also known as muña or huaycho) – a plant used for its aphrodisiac properties, and, which I also learned while looking it up, is in the same family as the herbs used to create curare for poisoned darts and such. This and the next two dishes came with beer pairings, which while I’ll say were interesting, and I could see why they were picked, were not great matches – this course came with Saya Doarada, a lighter, amber beer.
Seven hour braised suckling pig rib meat, onions and pears – good dish, nothing out of ordinary, but who doesn’t like suckling pig? And, I do like red ales a bit more than most other beers, so the roja from Alexandra was a decent match in my book.
Next course I seem to have missed a photo on – I remember taking it, so it probably just didn’t register in the phone’s memory. But, you can see it above on the link to the Guardian article, it’s the second photo in the article. Little baby papalisa potatoes with beets and a wafer made from hibiscus flower. I think it was my favorite dish, edging out the cauliflower simply on creativity. The beer, Matasina negra, was too sweet for my tastes with the dish.
Llama sirloin, apple bananas that seem to have been freeze dried and powdered, and caramelized chuño – the frozen fermented potatoes of the Andes. I always find chuño a little odd in flavor and texture to begin with, definitely an acquired taste – I’m not sure that caramelizing them did much for them, either good or bad. The Aranjuez Tannat was a great match with the flavors, and definitely the better of the two red wines served.
Aged beef, just seared, grilled green onions, fermented carrots – good dish, a little over-salted for my tastes. The Sausini Merlot did nothing for it, it was my least favorite match of the evening. I just didn’t like the wine, finding it thin and acidic. I stuck with the Tannat.
Cheese, quinua cracker, sugarcane honey. Good. No beverage pairing. But it’s nice to have a little cheese at the end of dinner – actually, heading into the part of the meal I wasn’t overly looking forward to – four desserts?
Lemon trio – sherbet, crocante and freeze dried. That much lemon is overwhelming for any wine, and it just completely plowed the Kohlberg Moscatel Dulce Natural into oblivion, couldn’t even taste the wine.
Chankaka (raw sugar) cream, tumbo (passionfruit) sorbet, singani (firewater) crocante. Definitely the most interesting blend of flavors in the desserts, and worked beautifully with the wine above, which it shared.
Milk ice cream, vanilla-milk skin, fresh strawberries – a playful reinterpretation of strawberries and cream, I’m not sure how it showed off much in the way of Bolivian flavors or ingredients, but it was delicious. Decent pairing with the La Concepción Rose Demi-Sec, which the waitress thought was Cabernet based but wasn’t sure.
And, the last official course, a chocolate sponge with coconut and passionfruit, paired with a Campos de Solana Oporto – port style wine – another really good pairing.
But, it didn’t end there, a petit fours plate with a carob crocante sprinkled with rocoto powder and a quinua tuile, accompanied by a flavored coffee, which was kind of lukewarm – then again, I’ve noticed that the coffee here tends to be less hot, and realized it’s because water boils at this altitude at 88C/190F, so coffee is made at a cooler temp than what we tend to be used to. Tasty bites, decent coffee, though I only took a sip or two. On the side, yet one more alcoholic potion, an 8 year old aged singani.
So, overall assessment. I enjoyed myself and the food and beverage. The 15 course route, for me, is a bit too much – it’s just overwhelming in volume by the end of it, and I can’t imagine how anyone who actually finished off the 13 beverages provided over the course of the evening could even navigate to the door, altitude or not – and even with only tasting each and finishing only two of them (the chardonnay and the tannat), I was in no shape to eat or drink anything until about 4 pm the next day – that altitude stuff does impact. I’m not enamored of the dining room, finding it cold and vacant feeling, but the staff are attentive and friendly and welcoming and make up for most of that. I basically liked everything I ate, I can’t say I was blown away by anything as “the best thing I ever ate”, but there were some truly interesting and creative flavor combinations that I wouldn’t have thought of, and there was nothing really negative to say about any dish, other than some nitpicking on saltiness or a particular ingredient I wasn’t overly fond of. And while getting hit with a bill that says 940Bs (there’s a 10Bs charge for drinking water not mentioned on the menu or by the waitstaff, and it’s not an individual bottle of mineral water, it’s just served as needed around the dining room from what look to be tall wine bottles – I think they should drop that charge at their prices – it’s barely over $1 and just looks silly on the bill, especially since one person may just sip a little and another may drink a lot) – but with the roughly 7:1`exchange, it’s really pretty reasonable for an experience like this, even if extraordinarily high for La Paz (where most meals have been costing me around 50Bs or less, i.e., under $10). They should also change their policy of requiring tips be left in cash – at those prices, if you were a group of folk having tasting menus, that could be a whole lot of cash. Definitely a recommended experience for a splurge night out, though I think I might point anyone but a die-hard foodie towards the a la carte or 5 or 7 course tastings.