Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
Francisco Galavis E12 – 143 y Toledo
Tel: (593-2) 6000881
Chef Edgar León’s restaurant Estragón was a few weeks away from the “official” opening, but we were welcomed for a chef’s tasting lunch that, frankly, exceeded all expectations. Chef León has collected traditional Ecuadorian recipes, most over 200-years old, and modified them to be in concert with a modern palate. The restaurant is a culmination of a career that has taken Chef León through numerous kitchens around the world, including the Ritz Hotel in Paris.
The restaurant is in a quiet Quito neighborhood and, from the outside, it looks like all the other middle class walled homes on the street. It is not until one enters, through a small front garden, that one realizes that this is indeed a restaurant with tables set in individual rooms - to ensure privacy – and in the entry hall of the ground floor. It has already become a favorite of the corps diplomatique in Ecuador’s capital and, as I understand it, reservations have to be made at least two weeks in advance.
As I mentioned above, this tasting menu exceeded my expectations in its novelty and creativity.
Chef León uses unusual, to us, sauces and condiments to accentuate the taste of his dishes. The table was set with small dipping bowls of Pekin sauce, Tabasco in avocado oil, and Habanero pepper-paste in banana oil with sugarcane vinegar.
The first course was an oyster ceviche in a martini glass – small, luscious bivalves in a bath of sweet banana vinegar, garlic foam, avocado oil, and shaved cilantro. I normally don’t like oysters, but that offering was so far removed from the usual oysters-on-the-half-shell that I did not mind trying.
The second course was empanaditas (small empanadas) of sweet potato and mango. Dipped in the Habanero pepper sauce, they were delightful.
The third was a surprise for me. Steamed octopus in a quail-egg mayonnaise. I love octopus, though an octopus dish improperly made can have the taste and consistency of chewing on rubber-bands. In this case, the octopus was very properly cooked. It was like the three bears – not too soft and not too rubbery, just right. For a few participants that did not like mayonnaise, chef León prepared the octopus Mediterranean style, i.e. with just an olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette sprinkled with basil and parsley. Since the picture of that version is much clearer- no mayonnaise to cover the seafood, I’m showing it.
The third was a chicken cream soup. This was certainly no Jewish penicillin! The soup was flavored with mandarin orange and flower of cinnamon. Now, according to Chef León, there are 255 different recipes for Ecuadorian soups including fruit-based soups that can take over 10 hours of cooking to prepare. But this was not one of them. Again, a twist on a very traditional dish that made it aromatic and delicious.
A gooseberry palate-cleanser arrived at the table; a welcome respite from the intense flavors of the previous dishes. Right on the money, Chef León.
Next came a spiny-fish soup with green bananas, choclo (ear of corn), and yucca. According to the Chef, it takes 4 hours of slow stewing to prepare, and is considered a folk remedy for frail constitutions.
The next dish was sole with sweet paprika in a lemon sauce. Light and delicate, yet very satisfying.
Then came a medallion of beef tenderloin with chocolate sauce and corn bread. Reminiscent of a Mexican mole-sauce, this recipe works well with the tenderloin. The sauce is almost like a Hollandaise, only slightly sweeter and, of course, very brown. The vegetable sides were cooked in milk.
A rosewater ice again cleansed the palate.
Finally we were offered the piece-de-resistance, a 400 year old recipe called “Secreto Andino” i.e. Andean Secret. It requires 3 kinds of meat in a hollowed out green gourd (almost like a round zucchini) and is served with Arroz Andino; rice cooked with 7 Andean spices and tubers. One of the meats is partridge (without the pear tree!). By this time we were all so full we could barely sample this interesting creation nested in a domed porcelain plate.
The wines accompanying the tasting menu were all mid-priced Chileans and an Argentinean, including a lovely sparkler that started us on the tasting menu. As a matter of fact, Ecuador just started producing wines in a vineyard located near Guayaquil. The problem is that the climate where the vineyard is located is very hot and humid and I don’t think that vinifera grapes do well in so much heat. The vineyard is only a few degrees into the Southern Hemisphere – actually Ecuador straddles the Equator and the country rests on both hemispheres.
The final offering was a zabaglione-like dessert, as pleasing to the eye as it was to the palate.
So, kudos to Chef León. Meticulous research and a passion for great food, excellent service, and a kitchen that understands the requirements of modern food aficionados should make Estragón a standout in the culinary food scene of Quito.
© June 2010 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.