So, Colombia is behind us, and we’re on to just a few days in Quito, Ecuador. It wasn’t part of our original plan, but we added in a stop here because Henry had met a folklore dance group a couple of years ago at a big conference and workshop in Cordoba, and wanted to meet up with them. I had hoped to meet up with someone whom I’ve been in touch with for years online, but after an initial, “sure, let’s meet and I’ll show you around”, I haven’t heard from him again. Ah well.
So first off, Quito is “at altitude”. Not particularly high, it’s about 2600 meters, which is lower than other places we’ve been like Calamarca, Cuzco, Puno, and La Paz, but high enough to feel it, particularly because it’s a city with lots of hills. Surprisingly, Henry’s having a more difficult time of it than I am. We also hadn’t really done much research on staying here, either what the city’s like, nor the food of Ecuador, nor, really, anything else. Some friends recommended staying the La Mariscal area, which we are, in a very lovely boutique hotel, but we’ve been repeatedly warned since arriving here that being out on the streets after dark is not a good idea.
Our hotel just blatantly won’t open the front door at night unless we have a cab waiting, and the restaurant we went to the first night was the same way – even escorting us from their door to the cab. Not exactly confidence inspiring. I don’t know about actual safety, but there’s no question that stepping outside, day or night, seems to bring panhandlers out of the woodwork – there are always a couple hanging near to the front of the hotel, and when we went to the nearby Plaza Foch, sort of the gringo-bar center of the area, we were swarmed from the minute we stepped out of the taxi, some of them even following us right to the door of the restaurant we were eating at. Sightseeing yesterday in the Centro Historico wasn’t much different, they were just less insistent, but I think that was more numbers – there were a ton of tourists in the area to swarm, so they just move on.
As I’ve been doing, I’m going to hit the food stuff first, and then we’ll wrap it up in a couple of days with a little video montage of sights and sounds. But, I’ll even accompany this post with a short video of the musician/singer who was performing at that first restaurant.
Some BA acquaintances sent me a list of recommended things to do and eat while in Quito. Most of the former tend to involve day trips outside the city, and most of the latter seem to be oriented towards the nicer French, Italian, and steakhouse kind of places. In fact, perusing sites like Foursquare and TripAdvisor, pretty much all the top rated restaurants fall into those categories, while the top in popularity tend to be burgers and pizzas. We wanted to sample some local fare, and searched for the neighborhood the first night, finding a decently rated spot, Achiote. Being a Sunday eve, we just dropped in, only to find it jammed full, in fact, the owner started to turn us away, but then one of the waiters said he had a table that was leaving, so we hung around for about 15 minutes until the table was ready. Perfect timing, a couple who arrived about two minutes behind us, without a reservation as well, were shown the door.
Good music. Nice ambiance. Friendly service. Slow service. Really slow service. Did you know Ecuador produces wine? I didn’t, and I’m supposed to be up on those things. Decent Cabernet Merlot blend from Dos Hemisferios – though, for a local wine, not cheap at $40, which was the least expensive wine on the list. Ecuador, by the way, uses dollars as currency – the only differences I’ve seen are that they don’t seem to have $1 bills, they use $1 coins, and 50¢ coins, nor do they have pennies – but nickels, dimes, quarters, and then bills from $5 on up.
Good food. We tried a trio of ceviches of crab and shrimp – one classic, one with tamarind, one with passionfruit. Nicely cured, well balanced, though completely missing any heat – no chilies at all, and even the hot sauce we asked for on the side had less picante than a typical cocktail sauce. Accompanied by “chocolate rice” – and yes, it was chocolate, not cocoa, rice – very odd, sweet, and we just nibbled at it. An ají de carne – was described as a “flavorful potato soup” accompanied by a beef, peanut and banana sauce. Odd, but intriguing sounding. What arrived was not at all what we expected – it’s a bowl of broth with a potato in it, and then on the side an almost equally big bowl of what was basically mashed bananas, peanut butter, and bits of grilled steak. Bizarrely enough, mixing the two together worked. And, another classic local plate called a horneado – roast pork, llapingachos (more or less stuffed mashed potato pancakes), choclomote (hominy corn, what the Peruvians just call mote), chulpi (fried corn kernels, cancha), avocado, fried green plantains, and a “bittersweet” sauce that was basically a tomato and onion base, plus Henry ordered a side plate of fried yuca. All told, four plates, bottle of wine, two bottles of water, tip – $83.
Out for a morning of sightseeing in the Centro Historico, and Henry with a time limit as he had to get to the southern bus terminal (a bit of an adventure in itself) to head out of the city to meet his group of friends, so we sort of just stopped in at the first place we saw when we were running out of time. Little hole in the wall, with a kitchen and dining area on the ground floor, and a bedroom and bathroom loft above it (if you need to use the bathroom, you just climb up into the chef/owner’s loft and use it). Only thing on the menu was the daily “menú”, a choice of seco de pollo o carne – not at all the Peruvian seco as it turns out – basically just a piece of what was probably boiled chicken over reasonably good rice and black beans (not traditional to here, but the chef is a recent arrival from Cuba), a potato wedge, and a little salad, plus a watery soup with a potato in it, a glass of what was basically strawberry koolaid, and a little cup of “dessert” that seemed to be a steamed meringue. A whole $4.50, with tip, for the two of us.
With Henry off for his overnight with friends in the town of Ambato, I thought I’d give a shot at one or another place that I knew he wouldn’t enjoy. Quite a few online recommendations for La Locanda, in the Swissotel, just a few blocks away from where we’re staying. Described as Peruvian Mediterranean fusion using molecular gastronomy, I was intrigued – the fusion part is much of what I’m doing at Casa S, and the MG part is still a very small part of my repertoire. Seated at the table, I perused the menu, only to find that it was mostly pretty basic sounding Italian food, a few other Mediterranean area dishes, with maybe some hints of Peruvian ingredients, and a few Peruvian dishes. No real fusion, other than sharing the same pages, and no indication of any molecular gastronomy. I asked, and they said, no, we do Italian and Peruvian food, and no molecular. I can’t hold them responsible for various online reviewers, but if they don’t actually do molecular gastronomy (nor fusion), why do they get write-ups for doing so (they’re even listed on a site for MG restaurants around the world, as Ecuador’s best take on it)?
To be honest, were it not for having to figure out another place to go and then dealing with the whole taxi thing, I might have just walked out and gone on my merry way. But I decided to just relax and eat, and, it was actually quite good food, if not what I’d set out to eat. Great service, pretty room. Nice selection of breads – particularly the ají amarillo (yellow chili) rolls. Disappointing wine list – the list had a wide array from Argentina, Chile, Spain, France, and Germany, including several by the glass and half bottle. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any of the European wines, nor most of the Chilean, and the headwaiter couldn’t seem to understand why I didn’t want one of his Argentine selections. And no specialty cocktails, nor beers. The bartender agreed to whip something up – it was a bit fruity and sweet, with passionfruit, aguardiente, and some sort of local liqueur, but I managed.
An amuse of beef tataki with sweet potato puree – tasty way to start. Excellent mariscos anticuchados – a mix of jumbo prawns, octopus tentacles, and mussels in a reasonably spicy anticucho sauce with corn, avocado, and oddly, potato chips – though it worked. Good main course of black sesame crusted, seared tuna, with leeks (undercooked – way undercooked), and what was supposed to be an “almond puree” turned out to be somewhat dry potato puree with toasted almonds in it, and a sauce of uvillas – the local name for the aguaymanto, uchuva, or, in English, ground cherry. So, mildly disappointed in the experience and meal, other than the appetizer. For a luxury hotel restaurant, not badly priced at $57 for the above, a bottle of water, and tip.