Like a true culinary artist, Alejandro Chamorro uses the plate to make a statement. Amid the sensory joy of seeing colors arranged like mini-landscapes on my dish at Nuema was also an understanding that the chef is trying to get at something. To make a point that may not be clear to a diner, particularly one foreign to Ecuador.
It’s only when I speak to Chamorro that I learn he is sculpting a showcase of his nation’s story in the most appealing way — through its food.
Chamorro explains his potato soup bowl — unlike any potato soup you’ve ever tasted — by saying he precisely selected the ingredients because “this is our history.”
The traditional name of the soup is chalcha and originates from the Andean highlands. At Chamorro’s stylish, 25-seat restaurant, the soup is poured tableside into a bowl containing cheese from the Pacific coast, avocado and wheat from the Andes, mushrooms from the Amazon, a cayenne powder, and, most notably, milk emulsion.
“That is to indicate the Spanish. We didn’t have milk before they came,” says Chamorro, noting that cows were among the animals Europeans imported to the western hemisphere. “This is a way of telling the story of Ecuador. We include the milk emulsion as a symbol of European conflict.”
The soup is bright and also silky. It takes you through Ecuador’s regions as well as the texture of its culture. It shows you this under-the-radar country is learning from the successes of its neighbors, Brazil and Peru, whose leading chefs have turned those nations into destinations for the globe’s culinary aficionados.
Chamorro sees the same potential for his homeland. He was the first chef from Ecuador to work at Noma, the Danish gastronomy star that powered a movement for all chefs to use only ingredients from their respective regions. Peru’s Gaston Acurio (La Mar, Gaston y Astrid) and Virgilio Martinez (Central) and Brazil’s Alex Atila (DOM) are the giants of Latin American cuisine. Chamorro is among the young breed of Ecuadorian talents who wants to follow their lead.
“The advantage of Ecuador is that we are going through at this time what others have already done. We are in a position to learn from them,” says Chamorro, who also apprenticed under Acurio. “All kitchens of Latin America develop in their own rhythm and we are the last ones to go through what has happened almost everywhere else. All the trends that have been booming around the world are coming to Ecuador. We see the work of Gaston Acurio and Virgilio Martinez, how they use their local ingredients of their country, and we know they are ahead of us. It is our duty as young chefs to make use of these products that are Ecuadorian. To show what Ecuador food truly is.”
These days, Chamorro is most excited about the ingredients he sources from the portion of the Amazon that belongs to Ecuador. He has discovered niapia, a plant from the rainforest that Indigenous cooks ferment at a low temperature for days. The result is a sour-tasting paste that reminds Chamorro of miso.
“You have a new hall of ideas when you taste something really complex and you don’t think you can find that kind of complex taste from the jungle of Ecuador or even in all of Latin America,” he says. “But you can and when I taste this ingredient for the first time, I was just amazed.”
It’s a sensation Nuema’s diners will share when they first encounter Chamorro’s cuisine.
Other Quito Restaurants to Taste
Galeria Cafe Restaurante: Chef and owner Francisco Larco offers cooking classes at his charming bistro in trendy La Mariscal. Larco teaches how to make Ecuadorian-style ceviches and tostadas, among other dishes, in his lessons that take place on the covered patio of his restaurant. I made tostadas filled with a mix of cheese and onion, and the hot chilli sauce that accompanied them. It was an easy recipe that I can replicate at home and it also gave me what a good cooking lesson abroad should: An insight into local food, and explanations of the ingredients and why they are foundational to the chef’s culture.
Larco has also apprenticed under Peruvian master Gaston Acurio and brings thoughtfulness and simplicity to his menu. You can try empanadas, salads, and ceviches made with local, organic flavors, along with the items you make in class.
Achiote: Across the street from Galeria Cafe Restaurant is family-run Achiote, which specializes in regional flavors of the country. Its name refers to the seed from the Amazon that is turned into the oil used as a base in much of Ecuadorian recipes. Among the options are maito de pescado — an Amazonian dish that features steamed or grilled white fish such as catfish or tambaqui wrapped in a banana leaf and served with fried plantains and vegetables.
Octavo de Corpus: Wine and art are the centerpieces of this dining experience in a home that has been opulently transformed thanks to the owner’s sophisticated tastes. Guests can enjoy their meal surrounded by original art work and with wines chosen from a cellar containing more than 500 varieties of bottles.
Theatrum: This classic establishment inside the city’s historic opera theater will immediately please diners with its elegance. Patrons enter between red velvet drapes, which signals the level of class they are about to enjoy. The dishes are rich flavors prepared in methods familiar to North American and European palates.
Grilled octopus served on top of pea puree is a delicious dish that will make you reminisce about the Mediterranean.
Urko: A casual modern restaurant, Urko has a relaxed atmosphere with an open kitchen and a creative cocktail list. It’s located in La Floresta, a leisurely residential neighborhood with a number of dependable restaurants. Urko stands out for its devotion to celebrating Ecuador’s cuisine. While not as upscale as Nuema, its inclinations are similar.
Las Quesadillas de Juan: Since 1930, Quiteños have been coming to this family-owned bakery for all kinds of pastries, including unique quesadillas. Unlike the savory dish popular in Mexico and the southwestern United States, these quesadillas are baked buns.
Rather than melted inside, the cheese is baked into the dough of the bread. The result is a soft, delicious bun that will make you rethink your idea of this favorite dish.
Where to Dine Outside of Quito
El Crater: Ever wanted to dine at a restaurant facing an active volcano? El Crater is that place. The Pululahua volcano has not erupted in more than 3,000 years but it is active and researchers frequently report small amounts of seismic activity. Don’t worry, though. The chances are tiny of you feeling anything but a jolt of satisfaction while at El Crater. The grilled seabass from the waters near the Galapagos Islands is succulent and a must-order item if its on the menu.
La Mirage Garden Hotel & Spa: For more than three decades, La Mirage has been serving diners an amuse bouche presented in a working music box. It’s a charming touch that also signals the level of refinement in the courses to follow. Inside my music box was a small cheese empanada. Subsequent dishes included seafood salad and fruit-filled dessert crepes.
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For 33 years, diners at La Mirage Garden Hotel have began their meals with an amuse bouche presented in a music box. Shouldn’t all memorable meals begin with classical music? This one holds a delicious cheese empanada. La Mirage is in Cotacachi, a community in Ecuador known for its expat retirees, leather goods, and upscale shopping. The luxury hotel, spa, and restaurant is in an exotic setting complete with peacocks! . . . #finedining #visitecuador #dining #restaurants #empanada #ecuadoreanfood #luxuryhotels #latinflavor #latincuisine #southamericanfood #cotacachi #musicbox
La Mirage is part of luxury resort and spa property in Cotacachi, a city known for its large expat community and marketplace for leather goods. The resort is in a secluded location accessed through a security gate. Inside, you feel like you’ve escaped to somewhere exotic, thanks to antique paintings and statues that adorn the dining room. And mostly because of the flock of peacocks preening and lounging in front of your table as you dine.