A Dining Revolution at Leo, Bogota

When I received an invitation from Chef Leonor Espinosa to dine at her award-winning, flagship establishment, Leo, in Bogota, I didn't really know what to expect. Even after countless of gastronomic travels, I still didn't understand what Colombian cuisine is all about compared to its neighboring cuisine of Peru, Brazil and Mexico. More so, there is limited information online or from fellow food critics what a Colombian fine-dining experience meant.

Revolutionizing a Country and Its Cuisine
Colombia began its reinvention after its tumultuous past in the 90s and early 2000s. It was not until I learned that one of my good friends moved to Bogota that I now had a reason to visit.

Accolades, including the World's 50 Best Restaurant and Latin America's Best Female Chef in 2017, for the restaurant and chef/owner, respectively, definitely piqued my interest in dining at Leo.  It is also run by a mother-daughter tandem - another rarity in the restaurant industry. 

A 101 in Colombian Cuisine
With two of my eating buddies in tow, the receptionist at Leo welcomed us to a spacious, contemporary space in Pasaje Mompox, Centro Internacional in Bogota without the obvious white linens that surround fine dining establishments of its caliber. As our waitstaff started his explanation of our 11-course tasting named as Ciclo-Bioma, I was already bewildered on the list of ingredients on their simple menu, showcasing rare, local meats, vegetables and fruits with the specific location where they can be found in the country.

Yogurt cheese, limonero ants (tropical rainforest), native potato
I came with an open mind and left this establishment not only with a happy tummy but also with more knowledge on Colombian food ecosystem. Even if they provided a short explanation, we did end up doing a quick online search on some of the terminologies, such as the following:
  • Mojojoy: insect with medicinal properties from the tropical rainforest
  • Caiman: crocodile from the wetlands
  • Copoazu or CupuaƧu: a tropical rainforest tree related to cacao
  • Ponche: wild rodent meat from the dry forest
  • Borojo: Colombian viagra from the tropical rainforest
Tip: Get a crash course in a supermarket of the different Columbian fruits available for the season.

I paid utmost attention to the rare ingredients above and more, while simultaneously enjoying the pairing for each dish. Leo's alcohol pairing is also highly differentiated with mostly homemade, fermented beverages that cannot be found in the grocery or specialty stores. It is definitely not for the weak-hearted, starting with a fermented coca that blew my mind away. I've had coca tea before during my climb up the Machu Picchu, but Leo's coca was sweet and tangy with just the right amount of kick paired with delicate, savory amuse bouche. Thereafter, the white-colored cocktail, albeit pleasing on the eyes, left all of us an unfavorable taste of the salty seas.

Star of the show: fermented coca
Amouse bouche, which reminded me of Dutch bitterballen
Frothy Pacific ocean water
We further cheered our glasses full of Pink Dolphin rose with hints of blackberries and guava that felt refreshing with juicy crayfish floating on coconut milk. Then, we all giggled when it was time to sip on the fermented Borojo, a superfruit known for its energy superpowers, paired with what first looked like a mash up of grassy leaves that complemented the fruity drink.

Crayfish (Wetlands), mandarin lemon, pepper, on top of coconut milk
macambo (Tropical Rainforest), mojojoy (Tropical Rainforest), mambe, borojo (Tropical Rainforest), salt of Manaure
One of the dishes I enjoyed the most at Leo was the sweet, seasonal fish that was elevated further with passion fruit and light rum, a concoction of an alcohol based on sugar cane called viche, an exotic fruit called gulupa, and paramo leaves.
Seasonal white fish, paramo leaves, guesguin, copoazu, green peas
Unexpectedly, the caiman (crocodile) was exhibited in a non-threatening bowl. Don't be fooled of the simple presentation below though. Even with a piece of palm as the center point, the dish exuded a strong smell of adobo. With the addition of handcrafted beer made from quinoa, this pairing reminded me of home cooked meals in Asia.
Caiman, peach-palm, Amazonian pepper sauce
Sensory and Brain Overload
We're still not done yet, dear readers, since I was then introduced to pirarucu fish. The shaved ice cream-like presentation was reinvigorating cleansed with bubbly kombucha, while the local duck was displayed and tasted akin to pulled meat tacos. The finale of the savory entrees came in with the much anticipated rodent meat, ponche, swimming on savory, brown collagen and topped with the orchid Cattleya trianae, the national flower of Colombia.

Pirarucu, cacay, sour yucca, lulito pepper (Rainforest Amazon)
Local duck, cariaco corn (Dry forest)
Ponche (wild rodent meat), native red bean, Santamaria de anis
Cleansing the Soul
Now that we were introduced to many rare, local food sources, the dessert courses were dominated with sweet and citrus flavors coupled with water of citrus herbs called pirrin and fermented coffee. The most interesting of all was the flan-like bones jelly with a coquindo seed, which is abundant in the Amazon.

Araza fruit, caqueta cheese, meringue tiles
Bones jelly, coquindo, salt of Galerazamba
Be Fierce, Be Unafraid 
Leo is not for someone who is a beginner in fine dining experiences. It would be easy for a diner to be overwhelmed with the unfamiliar ingredients, presentation, and even the alcohol pairings. Despite that, I highly commend the waitstaff who meticulously explained each dish and answered our questions, such as how we could buy the fermented coca, without any hesitation.

The experience at Leo though is perfect for a gastronome who is eager to arm herself or himself with a new bible of ingredients and further knowledge of Colombian geography and food ecosystem. I can definitely say for sure that I learned a lot spending 2 hours at Leo as much as the guided walking tour in the historical district of Bogota.

Disclaimer: I was provided a complimentary dining experience at this establishment in exchange for an honest review.

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