A charming cafe serves up some of the best coffee in Santiago and it’s owners stage a delicious “hidden” dinner.
By Kylie Sherriff
Finding good coffee in Santiago was a priority when I arrived, especially after it had taken me close to 2 months in Buenos Aires to find a good, Colombian brew. After all, you can take the girl out of Melbourne but…
I had some success in the early days, thanks to some other bloggers’ advice, and found Café Santiago, on the corner of Teatinos and Catedral, in the west end of the city, with a proper barista and a waiter that remembered my order after the first visit, regardless of how much time passed in between. Great qualities in a café. Only problem is, they are a business district café that doesn’t open on weekends and, after I moved a little further east, it was a bit out of the way. Still, if I’m ever in that part of town, I will often stop by for a coffee and, sometimes, some pan tostado con palta (toast with avocado).
In the meantime, I discovered the corner of Santo Domingo and Miraflores, a café lover’s dream. On one corner, you have two great little locations; Leerte, a quaint little combo of bookstore and tea room, and Cocteau (incorporating Panaderia Bernard), a café bakery with fresh-baked French style bread and pastries (a novelty in Santiago), a nice café menu, and coffee. Unfortunately, the service is a little impersonal (no matter how many times I’ve been, they’ll never know my order) and the quality of coffee is inconsistent, a victim of their own success as they are often busy.
On the diagonally opposite corner, is Café Sur, which attracted me at first with its “café para llevar” (takeaway coffee) blackboard, another rarity in Santiago unless it comes with a Starbucks label. A smaller establishment with a limited food menu, these guys make good coffee and have remembered my order since Day One, the kind of service that makes you keep going back. Unfortunately, they are not always open on Saturdays, and never on Sundays.
It was after a lazy weekend coffee at one of the above, that I happened across Colmado. Hidden at the back of a little, off-street courtyard, my curiosity got the better of me and, upon closer inspection, I could see it was a cozy and comfortable little café that took its coffee seriously, with pour-over filters, an espresso machine, and other contraptions that would look more at home in a science laboratory. I decided that this was a café that I had to check out sometime soon.
Sure enough, the following weekend, I returned with a friend for a simple yet delicious breakfast with, honestly, the best coffee I’ve had in Santiago, and some toast made from handmade bread, topped with avocado, and finished with “gomasio”, a toasted, ground sesame with sea salt. Furthermore, the service was friendly and accommodating, and the location comfortable – perfect for a long, girly, weekend catch-up that was to become a frequent occurrence.
We soon got to know the hands-on owners; Ina, a Chilean local who worked for some years in Barcelona where she met her partner, Manolo, a Spanish chef with a wealth of culinary experience, and their business partner, Daniel, another Chilean who has also spent a long time living and working in Barcelona (enough time to develop the tell-tale Barcelona lisp!). Together, they have something in common – a focus on quality produce, great food and good, personalised, friendly service.
The café is filled with delicious food options, and some quality products to take home, such as a range of coffee, homemade muesli, handmade sweets, etc. Other menu options include fresh-daily, homemade tortilla de patata (spanish omelette), sandwiches with options such as sheep’s cheese or seitan (gluten steak), and a range of temptingly delicious desserts, including a rich chocolate cake made with stout and raspberry jam, and an amazing cheesecake.
In addition to the regular menu, in the beginning, Manolo was mixing up a big batch of paella every Sunday which had people coming out of the woodwork to discover this little hidden gem.
Manolo had even started to plan some “cena escondidas”, hidden dinners, to be held in the café after dark, and we planned to be a part of it.
Unfortunately, the combination of some jealous, complaining neighbours, and good ole Chilean bureaucracy, suddenly had the café closed down unexpectedly and, seemingly, without valid reason. Although a temporary spanner in the works, we decided to move our cena escondida to my nearby apartment.
Fortunately, in the meantime, after a week of incredible ups and downs – fighting bureaucracy, employing lawyers, digging deep to discover the reasons, receiving amazing demonstrations of public support (both via social media and in person), and producing the required paperwork – the Colmado team received the news that they were able to reopen.
That same, chilly Santiago night, a group of eight of us gathered in my apartment for our “hidden dinner”. Ina and Manolo brought EVERYTHING, from the table settings to the music, the candles to the cutlery and glasses and, most importantly, the food and beverages. We started the evening with a refreshing aperitivo, a gin tonic with strawberries and lemon, as the group started to arrive. A diverse group, we consisted of two Aussies, a Brazilian, a Colombian, a Mexican, and three Chileans (one of whom was invited by Manolo and runs his own restaurant which was soon to become our next foodie destination!).
The first course was a “sea-bed”of mixed seafood, accompanied by a pour over dashi broth made with green tea and lemongrass. Catering for my “no seafood” necessities, the sea-bed was substituted by a 62-degree egg, with the same flavour-filled broth. Manolo had personally selected all of the wines, and this first dish was served with a dry Aquitania Rosé made with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. I may be being converted to Rosé after all!
Next up was a roast “cebollin” (large spring onion) on a bed of “romesco”, a smoky pepper sauce, and topped with salted cod “bacalao” puree, topped with a catalan bull blanc. The flavour combination was amazing and, around about this time, we moved from the Rosé to a crisp Little Quino Sauvignon Blanc.
The following dish was the most surprising and a true crowd-pleaser. “Tiradito” of artichoke, the artichoke was served thinly sliced and raw, and accompanied with a smoky roasted tree tomato, finely sliced jamon, and sheep’s cheese. A light sauce of ginger, coriander and garum introduced a flavour-packed punch that contrasted amazingly with the crunchy texture of the artichoke.
The fourth course was octopus, marinated in red wine and served with a duxelle of wild mushrooms and accompanied by a delicious, smoked avocado puree and a piece of crunchy pork crackling. My octopus was replaced by a tender piece of seitan which combined with the other flavours and textures perfectly. At this point, we moved on to the first of our red wines, an Apaltagua Carmenere from the Colchagua Valley.
Next up, the “main course”, a not-so-mini lamb burger (did I mention there were two Aussies in the room? Lamb was always going to be a hit!) with orange-dressed endive and a homemade, smoky barbecue sauce, with a side of… Delicious!
In a perfect lamb-meets-cab-sav combination, we were served a Lagar de Bezana Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the Cachapoal Valley to accompany this dish.
Dessert was a simple yet delicious rhum baba with vanilla icecream, a subtly flavoured end to a flavour-packed meal. Thanks to the recent arrival of an Aussie friend, this was quickly followed by an after-dinner Caramello Koala treat! Don’t expect these at future dinners though.
Colmado is now re-open for business, and busier than ever. While the paella has temporarily been put on hold, and the team have sought out other venues for their hidden dinners (at least until things in the neighbourhood calm down), you can find them there for the best coffee in Santiago and a range of delicious food (closed only on Tuesdays). With Manolo’s focus on fine food, Daniel’s hard work and charming service, and Ina’s designer-eye for detail and amazing skills at the espresso machine, this team has created the perfect place to while away some time, either solo or with a group of friends.
Keep an eye on Colmado’s Facebook page for the latest news and details of collaborative dinners with other local chefs and, if you want to host your own “cena escondida” at home, contact the team directly. At last reports, Ina and Manolo will be moving into a new, centrally located apartment from where they can host their own, regular cenas escondidas, an experience not to be missed. Keep your eye out for their first event, hopefully in October (I’ll be there!).
Originally Published: September 5, 2013