We recently spent some time in the legendary party town of Montañita, Ecuador. Every evening we wandered into town and roamed about to get a sense of the form Montañita would take that night; we learned it is an ever-changing town.
During each of these evening walks we inevitably passed by a small restaurant called Disfrutando: Cocina Amigable (Enjoying: Friendly Kitchen), run by three young men. The chef has his cooking station set up outside at the very front of the “patio”, where we had a clear line of sight on the sizzling meats being grilled, and fresh vegetables behind him. Each time we became more and more intrigued, memories surfaced of a once much-loved restaurant that is now gone.
The sights and smells of rustic grilled food took our minds back to another groovy coastal town in Mexico, called Sayulita. Delicious food was prepared by a young Mexican chef and served at a small, street side restaurant called Mexotica. We have reminisced about that meal occasionally (particularly the sinfully delicious chocolate avocado mousse!) and have often wondered if we would ever encounter a similar experience anywhere else.
Disfrutando gave us this wonderful experience once more, but with the chef’s own personality injected into the cooking style. Disfrutando is the child of a young Ecuadoran chef, using fresh ingredients and a remarkably small range of spices. He has no formal training, learning everything he knows through observation. What he does have is a love of food and good friends to help him run the place – his handsome smile and gentle demeanor certainly help as well. Dishes cooked on a single iron grill and two side gas burners presented what were easily the two best meals we had while in Ecuador. In fact, the first meal – consisting of a shared appetizer and two small plate dishes, served “on trend” using simple wooden platters – was so good that we returned two nights later determined to share all four small plates (at all of $5.00 US per plate!) to enjoy as much of Felipe’s cooking as we could. Bringing along our own bottle of inexpensive Chilean Sauvignon Blanc we settled in to enjoy a delicious meal.
First up, house baked, country-style bread rubbed with freshly cut garlic and grilled with olive oil, then topped with barely frizzled spinach and caramelized shallots. This take on bruschetta was simple and delicious – a great start to the dinner. It was interesting to experience how much firmness the spinach could retain while slightly charring on the edges, a trick we we’re going to work to replicate. The spinach provided a lovely texture as we bit into the bruschetta, with the garlic as a delicate accent. The sweet mild shallots gave a juicy freshness, they were nice and crunchy with a smokey caramelization. As lovers of bread, we really appreciated the hot, soft slices of thick bread with a crunchy crust. We are very much looking forward to the nutritional community deciding that bread is not bad for us after all.
The next dish: Cameron A La Cerveza con Calabaza Y Berenjena Asada (Shrimp in Beer with Grilled Pumpkin and Eggplant). Ecuador’s small but plump, sweet shrimp had become something of an obsession with us during our trip. Ecuadoran cuisine serves up shrimp many ways: breaded and deep fried (Apanado); served in a rich coconut sauce (Enconcado), or served as a ceviche being the most popular. Felipe’s preparation was a unique delight. He gently sautéed the shrimp in beer, with garlic and cilantro. This was also served with his signature spicy blackberry compote and that fascinating aioli that seemed something of a cross between mayo and creme fraiche. A savoury slice of pumpkin, grilled and hot, was a lovely complement to the sweetness of the shrimp. Generally not fond of eggplant, we were surprisingly pleased with the melt-in-you-mouth soft texture and delicious caramelized flavour.
Pollo A La Plancha Con Papa Rellena y Ensalada Criolla, Grilled Chicken With Stuffed Potato and Creole Salad. This is a chicken breast fillet lightly seasoned, then drizzled and rubbed with a fresh lime as the chicken was grilling. The chicken breast was tender and juicy, somewhat surprising in light of the boneless fillet being used. Accompanied by a unique, spicy blackberry compote and a fresh tasting twist on aioli this chicken really sparkled. The addition of a twice baked potato stuffed with bacon and cheese, and a small side salad of finely chopped tomatoes and red onion – called “creole salad” on the menu, but more reminiscent of pico de gallo – rounded out this delicious first sharing plate.
Our last dish was the Credo Braceado A La Cerveza, Milhoja De Papa Y Ens Tomate Albaca – Pork Braised in Beer with Scalloped Potato, Tomatoes and Basil. This dish was so tasty we had it twice during our stay inMontañita. Pork is very slowly braised in beer, with tomatoes, carrots, and onions. This was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, the fat was beautifully braised out of the meat making each bite rich tasting, with a wonderful mouth-feel. Never did it feel particularly greasy or fatty. The scalloped potatoes were able to hold up to the same quality as the pork, some bites were as crispy as a potato chip, others soft and creamy, with actual cream to make it a touch more decidant. The tomatoes with basil worked as a nice palate cleanser, refreshing our taste buds so we could fully appreciate the pork and potatoes as we kept eating.
In our travels, we are always thrilled to find eager, talented people striking out and trying to make a go of things. This enterprising spirit is particularly what impresses us about Latin American culture. Disfrutando has a special place in our hearts for this reason, and we hope more travelers will delight in the work of these three gentlemen. Felipe’s food was a brilliant reminder of how spectacular simple cooking can be when the ingredients used are fresh and the execution is precise.