Cartagena Restaurants and Hotel

 

Our perpetual dilemma in any city: so many restaurants and so few meals at which we have a chance to try them. The following is a list of the best of those we did try, in descending order of our impressions of them.

Dinners

Carmen. This was a wonderful dining experience, from the atmosphere of an historic palace courtyard (now a hotel), to the impeccable service and especially the food. We had three dishes. Our appetizer was a sea bass ceviche in an unusual tamarind tigers milk with sambas, coconut, mango and coconut smoke. Although tamarind certainly made for a non-traditional dish, it was very good. Then came two entrees. The bacon-wrapped ostrich with purple yams, and date and onion escabeche with foie gras and black truffle jus was very good. But the green plantain-crusted sea bass with coconut rice risotto, run-raisin purée and green grape sauce was a knockout: a truly memorable dish. A wonderful wine further enhanced our dining experience: a 2011 Chilean Casablanca Valley Loma Largo Pinot with blueberry fading smoothly into a smooth earthy finish. And there were also the complementary tastes offered by the chef: a ring of calamari tempura with mango sauce and bacon-wrapped fried yam amuse bouche and a parting gift of a small party with sorbet a dusting of cocoa powder.

La Vitrola. A refined restaurant with attentive service and very good food. We shared two entrees and a dessert. The grouper fillet was prepared with something resembling a very mild verde sauce with shrimp broth. The seafood casserole was a delicate, slightly creamy coconut milk-based soup with Caribbean lobster, king prawns, squid, octopus. Both were delicious with a bottle of Chilean Montes Reserve Chardonnay. We finished with a slice of dense coconut pie with vanilla ice cream. Our meal was accompanied by a trio performing suitably subdued Latin music.

Marea. No relation to one of our favorite New York restaurants, but good anyway. This one is from the Colombian restaurant family, the Rausch Brothers. A modern-style restaurant in the Convention Center, it specializes in seafood. We had three dishes, two of which were very good, the third a local specialty that I wanted to try, but with which neither of us were enthralled. To the two we most enjoyed, one was an appetizer: crab meat and guacamole tian with sorbet and mango collision, which we ate on plantain and yucca chips. The second a roasted, herb-crusted sea bass in with mashed potatoes and caper beurre blanc, all of which tasted wonderful together. The experiment was the popular deep fried, boneless mojarra (which is a member of the tilapia family) served with patacon (deep fried plantain), coconut rice and relish. Although nicely prepared, the fish had a muddy taste (although it is not a bottom dwelling fish) that was not especially to our taste. (We had these with a bottle of Argentinian Torrontes.) our server was very good and we tried to learn words from each other. Although the restaurant was good, it is not in the same league as either La Vitrola or especially Carmen.

Claustero. One of the restaurants in the Santa Clara Sofitel Hotel, has a lovely outside dining area in the middle of a garden filled with tiny chirping tree frogs. Although Tom’s seafood stew did not quite live up to the beautiful setting, it was good: certainly much, much, much better than his first attempt at dinner (really bad) at Cande.

Cande. We have never had such trouble finding a place to eat. Our hotel claimed that we had a reservation at Don Juan. When we arrived,we found that Don Juan and its sister restaurant, Maria (one in which were also interested) were closed for renovations. On to our next choice, Alma, was closed for a wedding reception. Then we remembered that a couple people from our hotel recommended Cande. We looked at the menu which appeared rustic, but of potential interest. After ordering, we were a bit taken back when the “amuse bouche” turned out to be a dry, fried maize biscuit. We really knew we were in trouble when floor show performers whirled around the floor for 20 minutes, before rushing out to their next gig. Then the food arrived. Joyce’s seafood platter (small offerings of spiny lobster, prawn, clams, snapper and bass) was edible. This was much more than Tom’s  dry, inedible ram ribs (served with tomato, red pepper, onions and coconut rice). Given our lack of Spanish, we were unable and unwilling to even attempt to express this to our server. We hoped that surrendering an untouched plate may have provided them with some clue: but apparently not. After leaving, Tom needed to find something to eat so we headed to Claustero.

Lunches

El Boliche. A cevicheria+ … With the “plus” representing delicious and artistically prepared seafood carpaccio and grilled dishes. And how many cevicherias do you know that serve complementary amuse bouches (manila clams) and post-dinner treats (sweet coconut with cream and raspberry sauce). Our meal was just as delightful. We had a sea bass carpaccio with marine broth, yellow pepper, coconut milk, caviar, dried coconut and cassava chips; followed by grilled prawns with sausage and quail eggs served on a hot stone on which our server poured a delicious saffron- based marine broth, accompanied by a corn roll. And how many cevicherias serve Bogota Beer Company brews (A La Candeleria amber) in addition to basic Colombian beers? Our new favorite cevicheria and a must-visit place.

Conde Socorro. A neighborhood seafood restaurant with a wide selection of ceviches. Although temped by many ishes, we settled for two. The house mixed ceviche, with Covina and shrimp, was delicious, with mild juice that had just the right amount of tang, without being overbearing. Even better were the small crab claws marinated and served in a wonderfully mild, slightly warmed vinaigrette.and, for a little starch, we ordered the fried plantain chips, which were more like thin, crisp corn pancakes than that were like chips. Good, but we prefer actual plantain chips. All this and two beers. Tom prefered the darker,slightly hoppy Club Colombia, Joyce the lighter Aguilla.

Le Cevicheria. A big selection of ceviches, paella and other seafood-based dishes, this popular and casual place is also good. We shared two dishes: a replay of the crab claws that we had at Conde Socorro with honey vinaigrette (good, but we slightly preferred the previous day’s where the claws and sauce were warm, rather than cold) and, since we couldn’t decide on the ceviche, a trio of samplers. Our favorites were the shrimp with mango sauce and and fish with lime. We were less impressed octopus with ketchup-based sauce. And we chased it all down with the same two beers, which have become our Colombian standard bottled beers.

Arepa Stands. After learning about and seeing so many people eating arepas during our history tour, we had to try some. We had one traditional ground corn flour version, one made of maize and one of potatoes–all filled with cheese and ground meat, on which Tom tried different sauces (yoghurt with herbs, ketchup and mayo, salsa and verde). We then made up for all this fried food with a healthy dessert of fresh mango. All followed by a Colombian cigar and a Bogota Beer Company Pale Ale draft.

Hotel : Allure Chocolate

We wish the hotel had emailed us to remind us that the road leading to the hotel’s front door was under construction and the taxi would drop you at the corner and you had to drag your suitcase down a dirt sidewalk to enter. Not realizing this, it was a little off-putting. The construction is not under the hotel’s control, but the communication is. Once we arrived, checkin took some time as we were told to wait for our “personal concierge”, who then wanted us to go on a 60 minute sales tour (which we declined) in exchange for free admission to some tourist events.

Once we got past these inconveniences, however, our experience was great. We loved the location of being just outside of the congested old town area (5 minute walk). And we always felt safe. Our room had a great view of the water and was fairly large with a good size bathroom. We were disappointed in having only 2 scratchy bath towels (as well as 2 hand towels) and no bathrobes—we’d expect more at this price level. The room had a safe, iron and ironing board and plenty of hanging space. The large rain shower had a clothes drying line, however the sink in the room was huge and did not have a stopper for washing out clothing. It also leaked when filled with water (using a glass over the drain) to wash out some undies. We also had an issue with some misinformation from the staff (telling us they made a dinner reservation for us, but the restaurant was closed for renovation so they couldn’t have made the reservation is one example). And, our requested 4:30 AM wakeup call never came—although the TV did mysteriously turn on by itself at about 4:45. Perhaps the wakeup was done via the TV? Bottom line was that we liked the hotel in spite of the annoyances.

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