Taking a six hour bus journey, which includes an international border crossing, while suffering from diarrhoea isn’t much fun, as I can now unfortunately confirm. Thankfully, there were enough decent toilets – and by decent I mean porcelain was present rather than bushes, even if the aforementioned porcelain didn’t actually have a seat – that I didn’t suffer too badly. However, upon arriving in Santiago I wasn’t feeling my best so took it easy for the few days we were there. Thankfully our hostel was lovely: four metre high ceilings in the room; a double bed (to myself!); and best of all, a pool, albeit one that can be swum in its entirety after one and a half breaststrokes.
I had to go into the office while I was in the city, but I didn’t mind too much especially as the taxi ride there and back meant that I could at least see some of the neighbourhoods. I was impressed with the modern feel of the financial district and my stomach yearned for the offerings from the various sushi restaurants I could see out of the window. Not surprising given that it was 4pm and I was yet to eat anything that day due to my turbulent tummy. However, it was the last day on the trip for two of my favourite people – Astrid, the sexagenarian with whom I shared a tent in Ecuador, breaking the tour company’s single-travellers-mixed-gender-sharing policy in the process; and Lauren, she of trekking-Machu-Picchu-having-just-had-knee-surgery fame – and to celebrate we were treating ourselves to a slap-up meal at BORAGò (yes, that spelling is correct), a restaurant which is ranked #5 in South America and #42 globally.
Let me start by saying, IT WAS THE BEST MEAL I HAVE EVER EATEN! I realise that’s quite the statement, but I honestly don’t think I can oversell the experience. Upon arrival, we were greeted by what seemed the entire restaurant staff of circa forty people, all at the same time. After five minutes of Lauren protesting that she honestly wasn’t a celebrity and that this must just be the norm, we were escorted to the only private dining room. At this point, Lauren decided to confess that she made the booking on the Spanish- language website and ‘may have made a mistake in the booking’ and apologised profusely for the size of the bill that could potentially be forthcoming. Given that we were already salivating looking at the vertical grill at the entrance of the restaurant, we assured her that we honestly didn’t care.
The staff at BORAGò were the most attentive I’ve ever experienced, somehow managing to appear ever- present without being noticeably intrusive; an underrated talent. Our maître d’ explained the menu choices: Raqko, consisting of eight courses or the Endémica, which had an eye-popping 16 courses, containing only ingredients found in Chile. We opted for the latter, along with a wine pairing, natch, my empty stomach grumbling at the thought of what was to come, a feeling that continued throughout the evening as you are not shown the menu until you are walking out of the door, four hours after you first arrived! Having advised us that we would be drinking Patagonian rain water throughout the meal – something I’ve since had ‘at source’ – the maître d’ suggested a Pisco sour to start off the evening. We were all still agog at our surroundings but managed to confirm that we were happy to go along with anything he suggested. I’m not much of a cocktail drinker, usually opting for a whiskey sour when required, and I’ve taken to Pisco sours like a duck to water during my time in Peru and Chile. However, the green concoction that soon arrived was like no other Pisco sour I had experienced before, and not just because of the unusual colour!
Our first four courses arrived shortly after: chilenito, a deliciously light biscuit sandwich filled with succulent crab meat; palo palo sea snail, ulte and seaweed broth which was heaven to this escargot-loving Brit; stuffed copihue (the national flower) with shrimp from Juan Fernandez island; and baked marraqueta, a perfectly simple roll which was like manna from heaven having encountered disappointment after disappointment when it came to bread on this continent thus far.
Our fifth dish was a unanimous favourite (up to this point), chupe of mushrooms from Quintay, served with a light broth, a mix that conjured up the sight and smells of the woodlands, and the taste of chestnuts got us talking about Christmas and our various local traditions, living in five different countries as we do. Up next was the dish I liked the least – although I still scoffed the lot – jibia with almond milk, alfalfa, pajarito cream and roasted kolof. I’m not the biggest cheerleader of the texture of squid, but the almond milk and pajarito cream made the plate very palatable indeed.
The following dish, rock vegetables from Punta de Tralca, was my favourite of the whole evening. I think. It’s rather difficult to pick just one. It sounds somewhat basic: four different types of seaweed served with multi-coloured crackers. However, aside from being the best tasting green food I’ve ever put in my mouth, the concept behind it was ingenious and executed to perfection; the dish was presented in the shape of the Chilean coastline, with the Andes represented by the crackers.
The ‘rock secuence’ continued with a rock pure and kolof roots broth. As with everything else on the menu, the ingredients had been foraged by restaurant staff, and the puree was served on an actual rock. Having scraped it off in order to eat it, the resultant rock looked rather unappetising with what now looked like skid marks. Moving swiftly on…..
Our next dish was fish ‘al rescoldo’ with wild pea flowers and it is here where I realised I’ll never become a food critic (although what’s the point when all food reviews should be written by the incredible Grace Dent anyway?), as I was so entranced by the flaky white meat melting in my mouth that I forgot to ask what kind of fish I was in the process of annihilating.
It was at this point that my stomach deemed it necessary to remind me that it wasn’t quite ready for such a gastronomic journey and I had the distinct look of an Olympic race walker as I dashed to the loo, trying to look like I wasn’t dashing to the loo. On my return from the immaculate bathrooms, I was able to take a look at the dining room, although my attention was soon captured by the frenzy of activity that could be spied through through the glass-encased open kitchen which dominates one end of the room. I was amazed to see no chef seemingly older than 25 years. I assumed the unusual taste combinations of each dish must have been conjured up by an old-hand with decades of experience.
The next dish was another favourite with me and my fellow diners: Chilean morels and red plum leaves, grilled duck on miso made of murra. I have no idea what murra is in this context. Thankfully Google doesn’t seem to either, so I don’t feel too bad. Although none of the dishes were large, this one took a particularly long time to eat, mainly because we were too engrossed discussing the artistry in its presentation. I usually get annoyed when watching Masterchef and seeing the majority of chefs spread purees across a plate with the back of a spoon, but I was more than happy to put aside those feelings on this occasion. Thankfully, the taste matched the appearance; the tartness of the jus being a flawless complement to the perfectly-cooked duck.
One of our fellow diners, a gentleman from Estonia, had previously enquired at what point we would be tasting the lamb from outside, but the waiting staff had been coy about giving an answer. He was very happy to see, therefore, that it was the next dish on the menu, served with a mille feuille of wild Patagonian apples. I’ve never seen such tiny apples, but good things definitely came in those small packages, each one packing a punch as the ideal accessory to the tender lamb.
My belly decided to speak up again and during the resulting trip to the facilities I contemplated being sensible and calling it quits at course number eleven. However, sensible isn’t a word that features often in my vocabulary thus I rushed back to the table to play my hand, accepting whatever consequences befell me in the following days. It was now time for the first of our five desserts. Yes, five. First up was some Nalca candy, shaped into a leaf and with the texture of a strawberry shoelace (apologies to any international readers who don’t know that confectionery).
Our second dessert was a ‘Chirimoya alegre’ cheesecake, and without doubt the biggest surprise of the night. We were presented with a simple cheesecake and accompanying piece of cheese. Except we weren’t. As each course was delivered, the chef responsible would arrive at the table to present it, detailing the ingredients and process. It was a brilliant touch and really hit home how a meal such as this is a real team effort. In this instance, the chef was unusually reticent to impart with information on the dish, something I initially took for shyness. I didn’t miss, however, the unmistakable glint in his eye as he returned to the kitchen. Wondering what was about to occur, I took my first bite of cheesecake and it took a few seconds for my tastebuds and brain to connect. THE CHEESECAKE WAS IN FACT CHEESE AND THE PIECE OF CHEESE WAS A CHEESECAKE. Consider my mind blown. Each item had the appearance and texture of its visual form but tasted anything but. There were squeals of delight from the table and it was lovely to see the grins from the nearby staff, who seemed to take an equal measure of satisfaction from our reactions as we did from the experience.
I thought the meal had peaked, which at course number 13 is a pretty good run. How wrong was I?! Courses 14 and 15 arrived together, greeted with a chorus of oohs and aahs as it was set down in front of us. The bright pink rose of the year ice cream sandwich was accompanied by an ice brulée from the Atacama desert and bitter plants. The ice cream sandwich was a revelation; eaten with one’s hands, the nougaty centre was ice cold yet easy to handle and the rose flavour was exquisite, which if watching the Great British Bake Off has taught me anything about baking, it’s that rose is a notoriously difficult flavour to get right. The black ice brulée was met with confused faces, prompting the waiter to tell us that we should hit it with our spoons. The satisfying crack revealed a watery sorbet – much better than it sounds – in which the bitter herbs swam. After the sugary sweetness of the ice cream sandwich, it was an ideal contrast. Our sixteenth and final course was a cold glacier, which looked like a regular chocolate truffle, but by now we knew that wouldn’t be the case. For starters, there was a cloud of mist emanating from the top. The waiter told us to eat it quickly and once bitten into I experienced one of the strangest sensations ever. My breath seemed to physically be taken away. It sounds bizarre but I honestly couldn’t breathe for a second. The friendly face of our waiter ensured we didn’t panic, and once again, we excitedly discussed the experience.
And that’s exactly what BORAGò is, an experience. Calling it dinner or a meal doesn’t do it justice. This was art. This was theatre. And the cast deserve every cry of encore.
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