Tag Archives: STYLE: Avant-garde

Schwa | Chicago | Feb ’14 | “magic”

28 Feb
  • Address: 1466 N Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
  • Phone:(773) 252-1466
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $140
  • Courses: (11 main/13 total) 1 amuse / 8 savory / 1 cheese / 2 dessert / 1 mignardise
  • Price/Main Course: $13
  • Rating: 18.5/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 200 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 15.5 minutes
  • Chef: Michael Carlson (ex. Trio, The Fat Duck)
  • Style: Avant-garde
  • Michelin Stars: 1
  • Notable: BYOB; Also, no Front of House staff – the servers are the chefs

Rating: 18.5/20

Memory: The buzz of really loud hip-hop, doing shots with the chef, butter poached lobster, marinated cuttlefish, antelope loin, Chimay Brulee, Root beer float, honeycomb brittle

2014-02-28 02.21.02 A restaurant I remember with great fondness. Here is fine dining with all the pretense stripped out. The front of house is the back of house, with chefs serving you – and they’re always knowledgeable about every dish that they serve. Chefs Joshua and Michael were really friendly, and made me feel at home. The pulsating rap made each table anonymous, in their own drunken revels – this place is BYOB. I enjoyed the casual fine-dining vibe here, carpeted floors and clawed chairs always make me feel a bit uncomfortable and stiff.

Set in a corner of Ashland Avenue that’s almost industrial wasteland, it’s easy to walk past Schwa. The “dining room”, if you want to call it that, is an orange-lit space that’s maybe 80 square meters in area. I knew all of this before I came to Schwa – the only criterion I would use to call my meal a success would be the food they would serve. From the packed dining room (and Schwa is notoriously difficult to get a reservation at), I would say a lot of diners agree – creature comforts are secondary to the food. And what a meal I had.

A tip for getting a reservation: I called around 1pm. Most people claim they have success from 12-4pm. The key is, if the dial-tone goes straight to the message that “the mailbox hasn’t been set-up” instead of ringing about 5 times first, that means someone is on the line. Spam your calls then.

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1. A Night at the Movies (4.25/5)

Sour Cherry Dot (Sourpatch Kid); Pizza Cotton Candy; Inside-Out Nacho; Popcorn Soda

Recreation of a typical movie experience in America – nachos, pizza, gummies, and popcorn, except deconstructed – and remade. Tells of their playful nature. Flavors were remarkably accurate. Gummy was indistinguishable from the real thing, candy floss (another movie food) was well-seasoned with pizza flavor, soda tasted of that buttery popcorn taste, and the nachos were good.

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2. Butternut squash + cantaloupe jelly; Peanut Leaf; Curry Puree + Chocolate Nibs; Gooseberry as Palate Cleanser (4/5)

This was a more experimental dish. I remember the jelly having great flavour, which I originally thought was due to curry, but Josh said it was squash and cantaloupe. I have on my tasting notes “fruity taste of christmas pudding” somewhere on this dish.

2014-02-27 23.17.59 3. (Extra Course) Quail egg ravioli with parmesan shaved black truffle (4.75/5)

A schwa signature, this was served with no spoons. Picking it up with my fingers and downing it in one bite, a rich and luxuriant cream sauce was really delicious. I can see why this is an ever-green on the menu. It says as much about Schwa as it does about me, that I had no qualms greedily tipping the small bowl over my lips to get every lick of that sauce.

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4. Chestnut agnolotti with 3 types of consomme (sweet potato; iberico ham; persimmon) gelatinized into cubes; crispy prosciutto; shaved chestnut (3.5/5)

Agnolotti means little purses in Italian – and they held sweet chestnut puree. I was not the greatest fan of this dish, since I felt this was one of the rare times the flavor combinations were slightly off – the sweetness of chestnut + other two types of sweet gelatin cubes marginally overpowered the ham preparation.

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5. Carbonated pears with Ossetra caviar, white chocolate foam, basil chips in the style of kale chips (4.25/5)

Carbonated pear balls? Why not indeed! It was an odd combination, caviar and carbonated pear, but the white chocolate harmonised the dish with its fat content; and the textural contrast of basil crisps balanced it. But the combination wasn’t as enlightening as the following two dishes.

Afterwards I found out from my copy of Modernist Cuisine how to carbonate fruits. See below*.

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6. Butter poached lobster; lavender bubbles; soy skin “yuba” tuile, oyster mushrooms, orange segments, with earl grey foam; and our best approximation of crumpets – which is actually olive oil cake (5/5)

The conventional pairing of lobster would be with a citrus/mango sauce to provide fruity contrast. But I believe Schwa has provided a playbook to elevating those flavors. The secret is earl grey tea gel, which has the herbal taste that really triangulates between the rich chewiness of lobster and a baseline sweet fruit flavor. A dish of genius.

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7. Marinated cuttlefish, finger lime, a slab of apple ice, sunchoke + lemongrass panna cotta, herbal broth with many herbs (incl. cucumber and fennel) (5/5)

This dish worked on at least two different ways. At the centerpiece is the thumb-sized hard slab of apple-ice. First, it brought out the smooth cucumber and fennel taste from the salty, pungent and oily herbal broth. Second, the cut, marinated cuttlefish and finger lime was seasoned in a way to remind me of Thai papaya salad, Here apple ice was a sucking lozenge, its cool hard sweet apple flavor cutting through the Thai-papaya-style seasoning. Another great dish.

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8. Thanksgiving Dinner (4.5/5)

Sweetbreads crusted and fried, with stuffing puree, mustard grains, foie gras + sweetbread gravy, and mock cranberry sauce (actually pomegranate)

Pleasant, the sweetbreads were expertly (diced and) fried. The foie gras +sweetbread sauce had a nutty taste like peanut. I may have had a greater reaction to this dish if I had had more experience eating Thanksgiving dinners.

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9. Antelope loin, shot down by a sniper, with trail mix crust, pickled pistachio, dried cherry leather and sauce (4.5/5)

The first time I’ve had antelope ever, I think. Michael explained that it was shot from a helicopter by a sniper in Broken Arrow Reserve in Texas 2 days ago. Due to the vigor of the antelope, if it is shot from any closer, the stressed out antelope would presumably attempt to flee, and in its stressed death would go into rigor immediately, making the meat completely unpalatable, hard and dry. This meat was served rare, and what a cut of meat – it was so soft, that it was pliable to the butterknife I was cutting it with (the kitchen gave us a butterknife for that reason presumably). The rest of the accompaniments were secondary – besides being a passable trail mix. I guess I had my first taste of ultra-high-density fast-twitch-reaction-fibre meat!

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10. (Cheese Course) Yeast ice cream, fermented huckleberry watermelon jelly, with Chimay cheese “brulee” (5/5)

Amazing. Chimay cheese below was treated with a creme brulee crust above (how did they do it?), and the funky taste of good bread came from the yeast ice cream. Ostensibly a cheese course, this was a great tribute to beer. Rounded. Completely unique. I miss it already.

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11. Root Beer Float (5/5)

Parsnip icecream with butterscotch shavings, to be dumped in a root beer float

Another amazingly balanced dish. The clean taste of parsnip was an inspired choice to be dumped into root beer – and a whole spoon of butterscotch. I wish I had had a whole mug of this!

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12. Honey Sorbet, yuzu gelee, bee pollen, honeycomb brittle (4.75/5)

I am haunted by the taste of that honeycomb brittle. Salty, sweet, with a lightly burnt taste. The thought occurs to me that if I came to Schwa every month for dessert, I would be a very happy man. The desserts have been absolutely outstanding, zany and off-the-wall, while remaining perfectly balanced and very pleasant.

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13. (Extra Course) A crystal of cold air, then “lemongrass + ginger + ?” snow, and a bit of pee (yellow sauce incl. rutabaga) (4/5)

A common sight in the winter months everywhere is yellow snow (I.e. dog piss) I am glad to report this tasted considerably better than that! This was more of an effect dish – the crystal once popped in the mouth became menthol, and a rush of cold air killed my taste buds, and then shoving saucy snow into my mouth heightened the menthol taste. One of the oldest effects known to me (menthol + cold == more cold), this was evocative of the harsh Chicago winter I was about to step out into shortly.

 

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* APPENDIX. On carbonating fruits. There seem to be two ways to carbonate fruits

A. If you put fruit in a pressure chamber with carbon dioxide, the gas will permeate the skin and dissolve into the juice inside – Modernist Cuisine. vol2 p469.

  1. Chill fruit (The fruit must be ice-cold)
  2. Wet fruit and place in carbonation chamber
  3. Add liquid (optional: adding grape juice to apples with infuse apple with carbonated grape juice)
  4. Charge the chamber.
  5. Carbonate. Hold refrigerated long enough for gas to dissolve into the food
  6. Serve chilled.

B. Carbonating fruits with dry ice MC vol2 p472

  1. Put a layer of crushed dry ice (don’t come into skin contact with it) at the bottom of plastic sealable container (air pressure may cause glass containers to shatter)
  2. Place an insulating layer of paper towels/tea towel on the ice layer (protects fruit from extreme temperature of dry ice)
  3. Place cold fruit on insulating layer. Let it settle for a few minutes so the “steam” pushes out the oxygen in the container
  4. Seal the container.
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Boragó | Santiago | Jan ’14 | “the summation of Chile”

6 Jan
  • Address: Av. Nueva Costanera 3467, Vitacura, Santiago, Chile
  • Telephone: +56 2 2953 8893
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $130
  • Courses: (15 main/17 total) 1 amuse / 11 savory / 4 dessert / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $9
  • Rating: 19/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 270 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 16 minutes
  • Chef: Rodolfo Guzman (ex. Mugaritz)
  • Style: Avant garde Chilean / foraging
  • Notable: forages all ingredients within 140 miles of Santiago.

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Amazing. The New Year had barely passed, and I was already having one of the best meals I could imagine anywhere. I first heard of Borago, when it was blogged by John Sconzo. Reflecting the New Naturalism philosophy of Mugaritz, noma, and In de Wulf – it was a delight to see it applied to a different set of ingredients, one I was completely unfamiliar with. I’ve heard a catchphrase used to describe these restaurants – Borago (Santiago), Gustu (La Paz), Astrid y Gaston (Lima), Central (Lima), among others – “New Andean“. [reports to come, later]. All ingredients from the restaurant are foraged within a 140km radius around it.

Borago is best enjoyed after traversing the length of Chile. I imagine travellers, fresh from 10 days in the Patagonian rainforest, or driving down the coast of Chile, or just flown in from San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama desert, would find delightful reprises of their journeys in each of the dishes conjured up by Borago. For example, a soup made of Patagonian rainwater was served in a bed of moss. A macaron made with plants from the Atacama desert was made to look like that dry, desolate landscape. The plating was inventive, and absolutely delightful. The tastes were precise, and towards the end there was a sustained sequence of excellent and memorable dishes which rivalled anything I have experienced.

I ordered the 16 course extended Raqko tasting menu. Borago offers an 8 course option (Endemica) and 16 course option (Raqko). Rodolfo Guzman helmed the kitchen that night of 2nd January, ably assisted by Peruvian sous Tommy de Olarte and Mexican sous Sergio Meza, who has had experience at In de Wulf and noma. He:

has spent time working at noma and In de Wulf  amongst other noteworthy restaurants before coming to work at Boragó. Cooking since he was just 14 years old and now still only 22, his is a name to watch. – Docsconz.

A beautiful meal, there is no better send-off to Chile than dining at Borago. Indulge on your last night before you fly back home.

Rating: 19/20

Memory: Egg (Huevo de Galina Mapuche), Mushroom (Chupe de Setas de Pino), Rainwater Curanto, Conger Eel Tempura, Milk (Temera y su Leche), Atacama Desert (Rica Rica de Atacama), Sheep (Oveja Chilota)

Notable links:

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My eating tour at a few of the Top 50 Latin American restaurants had gotten off to a rocky start with a amateurish meal at Tegui in Argentina. But Borago (the second fine-dining spot I had visited after 2 weeks in South America) restored some faith in that list by the end of the meal.

Geography: Borago is located in the upscale neighbourhood of Vitacura. You can use Uber to get to the restaurant, since Uber has just launched in Santiago.

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An Aside on Economics: Chile’s economy is undergoing a boom right now. But there are storm clouds ahead. Chile mines over 1/3 of the world’s copper ore, and copper accounts for 13.5% (2011) of Chile’s GDP. Codelco (Chile’s national copper company) sells copper ore straight from the Antofagasta region to China, which refines it and ships it back to Chile. [This reminds me in principle of the exported expertise-building that took place in Singapore when Malaysia exported water from the Johor region from 1961-2011, only to have it purified and shipped back for a higher price]. There is a worry that Chinese demand is going to taper off. There are three plausible reasons I have heard:

  1. General rebalancing towards Chinese consumers due to unsustainability of investment-led growth model. The steady-state analysis by Michael Pettis in his book is very persuasive. He makes what he calls his “second assumption” on timing that Chinese demand will taper off very soon, where China will soon hit debt capacity limits, where loans for investment cannot be repaid out of taxes (implicit in artificially low savings rates, suppressed exchange rate).
  2. The time of fundamental infrastructure investment in Chinese cities is over. Copper is mainly needed for high-voltage power-lines. I consider this a non-factor, since according to Tom Miller’s book on Chinese urbanisation, there is still about 300 million of Chinese rural-urban migration yet to occur.
  3. Substitution by carbon-nanotubes for fundamental infrastructure. Copper may be needed for high-voltage power-lines, but China is looking towards carbon nanotubes for fundamental power infrastructure, being cheaper. I consider this an on-the-fence factor, because much depends on how successful Chinese research into carbon nanotubes will be.

In addition, there is a worry about how the tapering of QE in the US will start bringing hot-money investors seeking higher returns back to the US and away from the rest of the world.

What this means for a Chilean high-end restaurant, is that there is a question mark over the domestic economy and domestic consumers. High-end restaurants are like desert flowers that bloom when prosperity rains upon the local region. A restaurant like Borago represents Chilean prosperity. If the rains of prosperity cease after a short time, then restaurants must subsist upon the tourism aquifer, or shrivel, wither, die. Gastronomic tourism is especially important in a high-income-inequality region such as Latin America, which has a smaller domestic base of gastronome consumers. In any case, I noticed that most of the diners in Borago the night I was in (2nd January), were tourists (mainly American).

Aside 2: Besides talking about the nature of demand for Chilean fine dining above (domestic and foreign), the foreign demand for global fine-dining is in fact, composed of a very distinct set of “foodie” people. There promises to be a good documentary on foodies released this year. I hope the directors devote some significant time to how foodies interact with each other. That’s the most fascinating part.

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The passage of 4.5 hours…

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Statement of intent

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Initial photos on the pass

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Mawun Rainwater – collected from a lagoon in Patagonia

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Snacks

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Pork Skin

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Flatbread

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“Cuchufli”

Normally a Chilean candy filled with dulce de leche, this replaced it with chicken pate.

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A yellow pepper salsa (“pobre?”) with ash of coriander, onion, tomato on top

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Melon Jelly with Golden Liqeur

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De Martino, Viejas Tinajas, Muscat, 2012, D.O. Italia. (1,2)

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The evening has begun…

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1st. Nalca y Frutilla Blanca de Purén (2.75/5)

Nalca, a stemmed herb of the rhubarb family, and occasional pest plant, was presented here sliced two ways.

First in a disc, and lengthways. I did not like the lengthways slicing, which preserved the toughness of the fibres in such a way that was almost inedible.

A more pleasant thing was the “white strawberry”, in season for only 2 weeks a year (lucky me!). It tasted exactly like strawberry.

Wild dill, and a dill sauce.

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2nd. Locos Cítricos (3.75/5)

Locos, a false abalone (actually a sea snail), is usually served with olive oil and mayonnaise (how I had it earlier that day at Aquí Esta Coco)

Here the idea, explained to me by Meza, was to avoid masking the taste by adding a lot of mayonnaise, but to pair it with citrus. Lemon balm leaves, bits of lime peel, blitzed 12 times and reduced to paste dabs, sprinkled with parsley and a sweet hunk of citrusy paste in the middle made of an endemic herb.

Pleasant, though I felt the locos here had a bit less sweetness than the ones at lunch.

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Jugo de Pepino-Aceite de Oliva (3,4)

Delicious. Cucumber and olive oil.

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3rd. Verdolagas al Rescoldo y Yogur de Pajarito (3.5/5)

Purslane, cooked like a meat straight on the grill. Yoghurt with kefir.

While I enjoy the direct grilling technique applied to beets and carrots, I didn’t think that this purslane had enough sugar or chemicals to react deliciously with the heat. It was still a bit tasteless when it came out.

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4th. Cremoso de Isla Negra (4.5/5)

The beginning of a sustained sequence of courses I really enjoyed all the way until the end. The first three courses were duds to me (the only reason why Borago doesn’t get a perfect score), but from here all the way to the end the quality was unflagging.

Roasted samphire (a type of seagrass) was served with creamed spinach. Beautiful, crunchy texture contrasting with paste.

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Domaine Raab-Ramsay, Blanc de Blancs, D.O. Marga-Marga (5)

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5th. Ajo Chilote y Huevo de Gallina Mapuche (5/5)

An egg yolk from the Mapuche hen was cured in sugar, taking all the water out until it became a sweet gummy, was plated deceivingly with what looked like cooked egg white but was actually elephant-garlic-and-potato puree. Plating masterpiece.

Afterwards I had to spend a good minute getting the gummy egg yolk bits out of my teeth.

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Jugo de Damasco (6)

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6th. Chupe de Setas de Pino (5/5)

A cooked down stew (“chupe”) of pine mushrooms and bolete mushrooms foraged 120km away in Quintay was garnished with mushroom crisps and crispy mushroom strands. Next to it was pine powder. Evocative of a forest floor. Tasted marvellously of pine-woodiness.

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Agua de Lluvia de la Patagonia (7)

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7th. Curanto y Agua de Lluvia de la Patagonia (5/5)

Here’s a humorous Wikihow link on how to make Curanto. Essentially, a mud-wall underground barbecuing technique. Concentrated with intense flavors of the component parts, this was a dish I will remember for a long time.

At Boragó, the flavors of the curanto were distilled into a broth, rich with the flavor of clams and pork, which was served in a cup surrounded by moss and twigs among which was tucked a nugget of fried potato.  It was delicious. – Ulterior Epicure

Curanto is a traditional preparation from the south of Chile and involves burying layers of food including shellfish, meat, chorizo,  potatoes, vegetables and other ingredients cooked under ground on a layer of hot rocks and covered with nalca leaves to keep the smoke inside. This is usually done during a minga, a traditional party held when houses are literally moved from one location to another. At Boragó they used Patagonian rain water to create a stock incorporating all the flavors of the curanto serving a traditional potato bread or milcao on the side nestled amongst the branches. – Docsconz

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Calcu, Rosé, Ensamblaje, 2012, D.O. Colchagua (8)

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8th. Corvina y herbias de Playa (3.75/5)

Sea bass in ash, with beach herbs. Slightly overcooked fish, but the rock (for foraging smells) was evocative.

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9th. Congrio Frito… (4.75/5)

He coated conger eel in ash and perched it on the banks of a lake of machas broth, blushing with the peachy-pink color that the machas clam (mistakenly called “razor clam” by locals; it’s triangular in shape) secretes when cooked.  This dish, like many other dishes, including an inky dashi made out of ulte seaweed, was rich with the xian of the ocean.  It was one of my favorite dishes at Boragó. – Ulterior Epicure

An ashen tempura of conger eel, in bullwhip kelp root dashi. Conger eel had a soft, cod-like texture. Very good.

Jugo de Pimentón Rojo (9)

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Tipaume, Ensamblaje, 2011, D.O. Alto Cachapoal (10)

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10th. Temera y su Leche (5/5)

Brilliant dish. 40-hour beef cooked in milk (to evoke the smell of what it produces), served with alfalfa leaves (to evoke the scent of what it eats), a burnt branch (to evoke the smell of the meadow). Milk crisps further enhanced the milk scents. The entire lifecycle of a cow.

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11th. Pieza de Vaca y Espino (4.75/5)

Guzman used wood or products from four different trees in this dish. The seeds in the photo above were edible as they were and also used for the complex, mole-like glaze on the beef. These were from the Espino tree (Acacia Caven), which according to Wikipediais just an ornamental tree. According to Rodolfo Guzman, however, the Mapuche have been toasting and eating Espino seeds for over 2000 years. The toasting gives the seeds an aroma like coffee. The Mapuche call these tannin-laden seed pods Quirinca. The beef was cooked over both Espino wood as well as wood from the Tepu tree of southern Chile. Additional elements in this dish came from the Quillay tree and the Ulmo tree. This dish made no sense intuitively, but somehow Guzman pulled it off and made the wood enhanced beef work. Sure, wood has been a flavor enhancer via smoke for as long as humans have used fire, but I had never before actually eaten woody elements as I had here. The only thing on the plate that wasn’t actually edible was the branch itself. I’m still not sure that I understand this dish or how Chef Guzman did it, but I’m glad I had it! It was a very complex dish that really grew on me as I ate it. It will likely continue to haunt me for some time. – Docsconz

A good dish, reminiscent of the coffee spareribs ubiquitous in Singapore czechar places (the difference being that Singaporean ribs are fried, and here the shortrib was, I believe, sous-vide-d). Sweetly and slightly bitter glaze on shortribs. Good.

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Quirinca seed pod.

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Jugo de Murra (11)

Blackberry juice. A note here on the philosophy of the sommelier at Borago. Most of the drinks I had were orthogonal to the dish, adding a completely new dimension to the dish, without competing or diminishing the flavors. It was very enjoyable to drink the pairings.

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Ramping up to dessert.

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Licor de Rica-Rica (12)

A mothball smelling, mild tasting sap.

 

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12th. Rica Rica de Atacama (5/5)

Ice cream from the rica rica plant, and a macaron layer made of rica rica. The filling was made from the Chañar wildflower. Evoked the Atacama desert.

I had just spent 4 days in the Atacama desert, in landscapes that looked like this:

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So this dish immediately hit home in visual associations.

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Chicha Premium, D.O. Cachapoal (13)

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13th. Oveja Chilota “Chilota Sheep” (5/5)

A cake covered with fermeneted maqui berry juice, an endemic berry tasting similar to black berry, was covered with a blonde sugar floss and a sheephead-shaped marshmallow. Taste and visual presentation, superb. [The “sheep” is a plating also used at El Celler de Can Roca.]

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Someone has to kill the sheep.

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Infusión de Cedrón (14)

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14th. Chirimoya contenta y zanahoria (4.75/5)

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I could not guess the identity of the leathery, sweet thing on the branch. Persimmon? It turned out to be carrot, cooked for a very long time. Carrots have been a revelation in recent years – so many cooks have taken the humble carrot. There are so many possibilities within this humble vegetable.

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A haute-version of Chirimoya Alegre. Chirimoya is custard apple, and here was paired beautifully with citrus and carrot, in puree, sorbet and crisp form.

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Cerveza Barrio, Barley Wine (15)

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15th. Coulant de Espino (4.5/5)

A tribute to Michel Bras’s coulant. Warm inside, cold and quite hard outside. I had to take five strong taps to crack my coulant.

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16th. Frio glacial

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Puff the Magic Dragon again!

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Cleaning up, the end.