In the Golden Age days of piracy, swashbuckling, and privateering on the Spanish Main, Cartagena stood proudly as one of the wealthiest and most invincible towns in the Caribbean – its collection of forts ready to blast an English or French frigate into shards of salty timber before it came within five hundred yards of shore.
Today, the city retains a great deal of its pride. But its warlike mores have been replaced with a cocksure knowledge that, here, you can taste seafood so fresh that it takes your breath away.
Moving at anything more than a slow lollop though the still distinctively colonial streets of Cartagena will immediately identify you as a foreigner, and you’re constantly assailed by choice (and waiters) when it comes to places to escape the searing humidity, to settle yourself with a few icy Dictador rum cocktails, and to indulge in a crustacean or twelve.
I would be doing you a profound disservice if I didn’t tell you to try the smooth and elegant dining room at Carmen on Calle del Santísimo, with its very able Modern European treatment of local Latin American produce, or to take a few hours to pop in to La Cevichería on Calle Stuart 714 to perform surgery on a lobster the size of a small Labrador. But the (Spanish) gold medal has to go the fairy-tale cloisters of Restaurante 1621 within the plush auspices of the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara.
For the full effect, you need to go after dark and reserve a table in the courtyard, where the candlelight, palms and the ochre and terracotta coloured arches make you feel like you’ve fallen through a wormhole and into a charming seventeenth-century playground.
Cold tomato soup with lobster and avocado was vibrant and silky – the explosive red legacy of months of tropical sunshine, fatty green slices of nutty fruit fanned out from just below the surface, leading the way to sweet ozoney collops of opalescent shellfish. It was an excruciatingly simple showcase of three of the flavours which Colombia’s climate and coast produce probably as vividly as anywhere in the world. Equally, softshell crab gave another bite of the sea. So often, the crab taste gets lost in the batter, but fried, more unusually in breadcrumbs at 1621, it sat nicely with the under-ripe fresh crunch of green papaya.
There was a decent nod (or maybe a Gallic shrug) to the traditional French kitchen with mains of magret de canard (presumably flown in) with roasted peach, arracacha and steamed brioche. Arracacha is another of those Colombian curiosities which can work really well in place of the more traditional Western staples – it’s a starchy root vegetable originally from the Andes which lies somewhere between carrot, celery and potato. The duck breast was well executed and the sauce had zing, but you can get that in Bordeaux, or even Berkshire, so I’d stick to the stuff that’s home-grown or home-caught. Roasted scallops with apple slices and sweet potato purée in vanilla oil was agile and sprightly, although the vanilla was in danger of overpowering a little.
Desserts ran the gamut of the seemingly thousands of exotic fruits with which Latin America is blessed and were all that were needed to put a citrussy seal on a distinctly elegant evening. When you remember this place in years to come, your eyes will glaze over, you’ll look into the distance, and people will wonder what’s wrong with you.
The Colombian capital is a bit of a dump. Around a few of the central squares near the Gold Museum, remnants remain of the Spanish flair which informed the city hundreds of years before, but largely, it is a dump. Or am I being a bit harsh?
It’s chiefly a question of infrastructure – or lack thereof – and the eternal bane of a shortfall of cash. Petrol is so cheap, public transport so chaotic, and the traffic congestion so horrific, that it can take a full hour to travel a couple of miles. Add to that the rather pernicious pollution, and getting about can leave you exhausted, fraught and crotchety.
Lingering questions about safety still cause concern, but if you avoid the southern slums (why would you go there anyway?) and don’t walk around at night three sheets to the wind waving the latest iPhone around, then you should be fine. And in terms of location, try and find a place to stay in the Zona Rosa – that way you’ll minimise the need for a tortuous taxi trip to gastronomic points of interest.
And these certainly exist in no small measure. A mid-range but highly successful option was a restaurant we chanced upon for our first lunch in the city after arriving from the UK. Handily situated on Carrera 13, #85-14, It is called Central Cervecheria.
The smell of butter, garlic, and the charring tentacles of a young octopus is about as inviting as it gets, and a good indication that the seafood joint you’re debating whether to venture into is probably a safe bet. It’s basic but stylish inside with a semi-open kitchen, but the most social and fun option is to sit on the wooden terrace edging onto the pavement – covered and heated, of course, to protect you from the regular torrential downpours which anoint this part of the world.
Cocktails are a speciality here, so we kicked off with a great Pisco Sour given a raspingly acidic counterpoint by a few drops of the bright orange juice of the revered lulo fruit (google it). Then you’re more or less duty-bound to start with the eponymous ceviche. Made with uber-fresh white fish, often the native corvina (bass-like and excellent), octopus, or large raw prawns, this now very popular Peruvian style of curing with lime or lemon juice and involving no heat whatsoever is a simple way to enjoy seafood at its purest. The choice of accompanying flavours is extensive; we had a Picoso combining yellow garlic, rocket, cilantro and grilled sweetcorn (it gets everywhere in Colombia) and a ceviche al coco made luxuriously creamy with coconut, ginger and roasted garlic. And you should try the arroz con coco, a sweet and sticky dish of short-grain rice cooked slowly with coconut milk, unrefined brown sugar and cinnamon – a sort of dry, Latin American rice pudding, which offsets the tart notes of the citrus perfectly.
Next, a simply cooked fillet of sea bream a la plancha with wild mushrooms, and the main event – a parillada de mariscos – a celebration of seafood, bringing together grilled octopus, squid, mussels, clams, prawns, and langoustines on one heaving platter, and delivered to the table with a broad smile by the waiter, not to mention the palpable menu-envy from the diners close by who hadn’t been so bold as to plump for the polpo.
Such was the value for money and the jovial atmosphere that we went back – twice.
A final word. I don’t really do desserts, but if you can steel yourself and press on at the end of a meal, the Flan de Coco, although it sounds rather dull, will make you grin like a Cheshire gato.