Juan Manuel Barrientos wants to tell a story. Part of it is about days spent at his grandmother's house in Fredonia, about 30 miles south of Medellín. There, she prepared lunches of thick carrot soup with chopped plantains and guava.
At El Cielo, which opened in early January nearly hidden on the ground floor of a Brickell condominium, abuela's soup makes a dramatic reappearance midway through a 15-course tasting menu. A somber server sets down a bowl dotted with plantain purée crowned by a rose-colored cube of cardamom-infused guava jelly. It's engulfed in a vibrant orange blend from a whipped-cream canister. What gives pause is the intense carrot flavor. It's starchy, nutty, and sweetly reminiscent of the finest specimens pulled from the ground.
This isn't what's generally expected of Colombian cuisine. Its better-known dishes include bandeja paisa, a death's-row supper of blood sausage, chorizo, chicharrones, a fried egg, an arepa, half of an avocado, and stewed red beans. It's a signature of the coffee-growing region of Antioquia, where Fredonia is located. But Barrientos won't touch it. "Everyone's grandmother makes a bandeja. I don't want to be compared to that," he says.
Instead, he prefers to tinker with the most basic building blocks of Colombian cuisine — yuca, tropical fruits, and seafood — which sustained the region's indigenous people centuries before conquistadors arrived.
Barrientos' first foray into the kitchen came at age 19, when he dropped out of college after seeing a cooking show on television. He moved to Argentina for culinary school and an apprenticeship under the Japanese master itamae Iwao Komiyama. A year and a half later, he was expelled (he won't say why) and departed for Spain. He was a stagiaire at celebrated Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak's eponymous restaurant during his two-year stint on the Iberian Peninsula.
He returned to Colombia and opened the first El Cielo in 2007 in Medellín at age 24. A second one followed in the country's capital, Bogotá, in 2011.
At 31 years old, he has now opened his first U.S. restaurant, a marble-wrapped space filled with palm fronds and candles. Thick auburn tables, which appear hewn from a single tree, are huge and require an outsize share of the space's cool light.
Barrientos made back-to-back appearances on San Pellegrino's "50 Best Restaurants in Latin America" list in 2013 and 2014. This catapulted him onto the international stage as the de facto standard-bearer of a new kind of Colombian cuisine.
The pressure is palpable. In English, the name of his three restaurants translates to "the sky," which is how high he wants his staff to aim. But more important is the tale of Colombia he attempts to weave through his tasting menu, "the Journey."
"I'm trying to rescue and show the world my cuisine, Colombian cuisine," he says. "Through creativity, I'm trying to show that Colombia is changing."
Some dishes boast the positives, while others are mired in challenges, much like the country's lingering conflict with leftist guerrillas. On paper it's impossible to tell which offerings tell a happy story and which will leave you distraught.
Take, for instance, the "CraBBrûlée." The traditional French dessert is redeployed as a strange-sounding savory dish when the custard's heavy cream is simmered with crab carcasses that impart a briny flavor. What's strangest is how well it works. A few knots of knuckle meat, a fluffy potato croquette, and a sprig of rosemary give each bite a profile similar to crabcakes.
But throughout the two-and-a-half-hour meal, similar dishes are pitted against one another. It begins with a pair of proteins prepared sous vide. There's a stark-white plate splattered with a bland squid ink sauce blanketing an overcooked chicken breast. Alongside are dehydrated chanterelle mushrooms with an unpleasant jerky-like texture but devoid of their loamy flavor. Later, a fat coin of pork tenderloin is bathed in hot water until it reaches a juicy medium-rare. It's crisped and rested atop a smear of a luscious plantain purée. The accompanying spinach is cooked in a generous quantity of butter and topped with a rainbow of petals signifying Medellín's annual flower festival.
Two raw preparations fall into the same pattern. First is a thin slice of Wagyu strip steak resting on a half-globe of sushi rice under a cloudy dome. As a server lifts the glass cover, the smoke's acrid, ashy flavor clings to the overcooked slice of meat. Meanwhile, three slices of escolar — a meaty, buttery white fish that's often mislabeled as white tuna — denote Colombia's shared border with Peru. They're topped with fried red quinoa that adds a welcome crunch alongside crisps of brittle yuca glass. The whole thing is enlivened by a passionfruit sauce poured tableside, tempering the rich fish with a shock of acid.
Even a set of palate cleansers falls into the yin-yang pattern. A chilled wedge of green apple compressed with rosewater and tequila is a refreshing bite that had me glancing across the table to see if my dining companion had any left to share. Later, a server set down a teal plate and said the kitchen had grown tired of cooking. That was a joke. Soon we realized it bore a thin film of clear coconut gelatin devoid of coconut flavor.
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Then there are those dishes that could be perfect with a touch of work. The "Tree of Life," which appears throughout Barrientos' empire, is made of boiled and pulverized yuca blended with a white cheese and yuca starch. It's propped up on copper wires twisted and fashioned into a tree that lifts the flat, bubbly loaf into the air. At first it has the soft, stretchy texture and flavor of pan de bono, a rich cheese bread popular in Colombia. But as it cools, the knobs — tinted red-green thanks to basil and paprika — become tough. Throughout the night, servers were kept busy clearing half-eaten loaves off tables.
For dessert, a pin prick is popped into a raw egg, the insides are sucked out, and it's refilled with a creamy vanilla panna cotta and passionfruit. The result looks like a soft-boiled egg, and at first that's what the kitchen mistakenly sent out. The cup of coffee, a Colombian signature, that followed was the night's surprising culmination. The liquid is traded for a stiff cream made by steeping whole beans in lukewarm water to capture their flavor but not their color. Egg whites are added, and the whipped-cream canister is again used to create a light foam that clings to the inside of the upside-down cup.
That deceivingly simple cup of coffee offers the clearest look at Barrientos' mission and potential. It uses the bare minimum of ingredients and technique to turn something typically Colombian into the unexpected.
These days, Barrientos is paring back the menus at each of his three restaurants to 13 courses, which will be culled from a roster of 21 options that will change three times a year. If even half the total achieves anything like our meal at El Cielo, coffee, arepas, and empanadas face stiff competition.