The late film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that Werner Herzog “never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.” Replace the word “film” with “dish” and “he” with “she” and this perfectly describes my dining experience at Leo Cocina y Cava, the flagship restaurant of Latin America’s Best Female Chef 2017, Leonor Espinosa.
That’s not to say that the remarkable seasonal tasting menu features any real failures; rather that Leo’s culinary vision is unabashedly forward-thinking and uncompromising, and that even when a plate doesn’t quite match up to her impeccably high standards, it is still never anything other than unique and interesting. Take the cube of capybara meat in a rich, hearty broth: the meat is rather chewy for my taste, but the broth dances on the tongue and reveals an unexpected depth of flavour. It might be the weakest dish on the menu, but still somehow manages to be one of the most complex bites I take all night.
Leo’s commitment to traditional Colombian ingredients and overlooked regional dishes is this restaurant’s real strength – plenty of places can put together an excellent tasting menu and a nice ambience, but this place elevates the concept to an art form. Each dish blends perfectly with its accompanying beverage, so much so that the friendly and knowledgeable Maitre D’ recommends that we alternate bites and sips. It sounds rather bizarre until you try it, at which point the logic becomes clear: far from simply being a tasting menu of quality dishes matched with good wines, this menu truly is the culinary journey through Colombia that was promised. Each bite enhances each sip and vice-versa – the faces of my dining companions and me must be a real picture: from confusion to joy in the course of a single bite.
If I were to single out one dish among the myriad triumphs on show at Leo, it would have to be the pirarucu, served in a chilled milky broth with frozen wild yuca shoots and ojo de pez hot pepper. The fish is tender and delicious, but it’s more detailed than that: the chilled broth tempers the effect of the spice, and the shoots and hot chilli powder reveal their flavour slowly as you chew. It’s a dish to be savoured, marvelled over, even admired – a mark of real culinary talent and imagination. Which basically sums up Leo, a restaurant I truly can’t recommend highly enough.