Discovering Latin America with Every Bite at iLatina
Flavor. That’s what I look for in food. Bold, dangerous, and sometimes just downright confusing flavor.
In Buenos Aires, spicy, sour, and smoky are harder to find than a pastry that isn’t drowning in dulce de leche – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Growing up on the border of Mexico and California, my culinary upbringing owes a lot to the distinct flavors of Mexican cuisine. I realize now that was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Latin American cooking thanks to my trip around the continent with iLatina.
iLatina is a reservation-only restaurant that combines typical cuisine from Latin American countries and creates an atypical international journey in every dish. The restaurant was founded by siblings Santiago, Camilo and Laura Macías. Head chef Santiago wanted to open a restaurant in which he could develop and create recipes inspired by his native Colombian and Caribbean flavor palette made with the exotic ingredients he had discovered while traveling through South and Central America.
Santiago founded iLatina began in 2008 in Bariloche. With three successful years under his belt, Santiago was forced to relocate following the tragic Peyehue Volcano eruption that halted tourism to the area. But rather than see it as an obstacle, Santiago took it as an opportunity and together with his brother Camilo, he moved iLatina to the same beautiful house in Villa Crespo in which the restaurant is currently located.
My evening at iLatina was more felt like a delicious dream. My date Rachael and I entered a gorgeously renovated traditional casona with an adorable candle lit patio, funky Colombian art decorations, and a modern open kitchen. The staff greeted us with eager smiles and gave us a quick tour of the restaurant and kitchen – VIP access!
As the meal was about to begin, we received a quick rundown of the meal we were to embark on. Seven courses, seven wine pairings, and a few extras on the side just because. The dishes, we would later learn, are inspired by Santiago’s travels around the continent; when he returns from a trip, Santiago and the kitchen team recreate and experiment with what he saw and found. After many tests and tweaks, a dish is considered finished and replaces an existing one. Most recently, Santiago and his sister Laura travelled through Costa Rica and Panamá searching for new flavors and inspiration.The dishes started out simple and subdued and progressively culminated in an intense finale.
We started with different snacks. White corn aniseed arepas with spicy avocado mousse and chicharron. Patacon with hogao and goat cheese. This is traditional Colombian dishes done right. Winner goes to the arepa with the refreshing avocado mousse and smoked chicharron (fried pork rinds).
Then came the bread basket. Banana bread, Chipá, coconut bread, focaccia with olives from Mendoza, and cacao bread. Lime and Pepper flavored butter. I usually reserve precious stomach space (and calories) on the main dishes, but I couldn’t pass up this bread basket. Everything was freshly baked; the standout was the Chipá, which was the closest thing to a Pão de Queijo I’ve had since my last trip to Brazil.
The first course was a toasted corn tortilla with beef cheek, Oaxacan mole, and Mezcal-marinated red onion. Espumante Saint Felicien Nature. My beloved Mexican influence appears with chocolate mole sauce smothering a thin slice of beef on a crispy blue tortilla tostada. Oh, and I love that Mezcal agave liquor is incorporated into the dish in the most refreshing way. Its smokey strength is balanced by the bubbly sparkling wine.
Baru style ceviche with seasonal fish, mango biche, and coconut. Dorado Sauvignon Blanc. Ceviche! A dish I constantly crave and feel like I never eat enough of. This ceviche was off the charts with the sour leche de tigre sauce and sweetness of the mango and coconut. A more full bodied Sauvignon Blanc normalized the sweet and sour flavors.
Peruvian seafood casserole with grilled octopus. Manos Negras Pinot Noir. This dish is when I notice the ascension of intensity in the dishes. The seafood casserole had a soupy consistency that was so delicious I let out a small gasp when I tried it. I serve myself a spoonful of the soup, squirt a bit of lime, and add a piece of the thickest octopus tentacle I’ve ever seen and I am in heaven. We switch to the first red of the night with a light Pinot Noir.
Braised Pork in Colombian coffee and sugarcane reductions. Monteagrelo Malbec. Before I began the meal, I thought my favorite dish was going to be a seafood dish. I was pleasantly surprised to find it was actually the bondiola pork, so tender it fell apart with a slight touch of the fork. The thick coffee and sugarcane reduction just drew on the essence of Colombia, with refreshing splashes of radish and artichoke purees. A rich dish to be enjoyed with a deep Malbec.
Ecuadorian cacao truffle with sea salt and olive oil. Susana Balbo Late Harvest Malbec. Easing us into the desserts, the cacao truffle is gourmet chocolate at its finest. Top it with thick granules of sea salt and a healthy pour of olive oil and the perfect sweet/salty dish is born. I had never tried a late harvest Malbec before and it was a sweet dessert wine. It was followed up by avocado and aguardiente ice cream. Smooth and creamy, with just a bite of the Aguardiente liquor. Perfect clean palette cleanse after the richness of the previous courses.
No Colombian inspired meal is complete without Colombian coffee. Its strong, its bold, and it helps digestion after a heavy meal. It is accompanied with little homemade biscottis and alfajores for dipping.
As the three hour dinner affair winded down, I thought I might shed a single tear. I feel like I travelled the continent and back and have a bit of post-travel depression. Good thing iLatina is just a bus ride away with no plane tickets required.
iLatina, Murillo 725, Villa Crespo