Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fusión Andina

The photo above is a glimpse of one of my favorite restaurants in Cuenca.  Tiestos is one of the newest and most popular dining establishments in town.  I'd venture to say that if you live here in Cuenca and are known to splurge from time to time on a pricey but delicious meal, you've probably already eaten here at least once.  That being the case, if you do live in Cuenca, maybe you need read no further.  Unless you want to get hungry.  For the rest of you, here's my review of a top-notch restaurant that I'm happy to have discovered along with everyone else in the city.

I've had the fortune to eat at Tiestos twice now with my wife and otherwise fine dining companion.  The first time the two of us went, we modestly selected two of the mid-range items on the menu: a half-bottle of Chilean red and of course a shared dish of the restaurant's signature offerings.  The centerpiece of any table at Tiestos will invariably be an elevated ceramic platter bearing your choice of thick and tender medallions of meat, simmering in a generous portion of one of many delicious sauces to choose from.

Our first experience there was with steak in a red wine sauce, each steak delectable and cooked a perfect medium per our request.  Our waiter, a slim costeño in a Panama hat, presented us our meal with flair, first revealing the sizzling earthenware platter before serving each of us one of the six juicy cuts, and then drizzling them with a hearty helping of the steamy sauce they were basting in a moment before.  Ready to dig in, we helped ourselves to a selection of the many accompaniments to the plato fuerte: bread with a variety of spicy sauces and oils, perfectly cooked baby yellow potatoes, mote (read: whole hominy-style corn), white rice, and a sort of round pasta not unlike israeli couscous.

It is in the accompaniments that Tiestos' chef Juan Solano pays homage to his cuencano roots.  The sauces, grains and other side dishes are nearly all either variations or direct borrowings from typical Ecuadorian cuisine.  The tiesto itself, the glazed earthen platter used to both cook and serve the meal, is a method of preparation which I've seen put to use by street vendors in Ecuador and Mexico alike.  Tempered to withstand direct heat and naturally non-stick, these shallow ceramic dishes add traditional flavor to a contemporary meal.

As we savored our tender steak medallions and helped ourselves to more, we also took in our surroundings.  Tiestos is located in a historic building in Cuenca's downtown, and that night all three of its thick-walled dining areas were bustling with clientele.  When we had arrived there were still a few open tables remaining, but by the time our meal was served all of the dark and heavy wooden tables were full, and the waiting area was already brimming with anticipation.

From where we were sitting we had a view of all three of the dining rooms as well as the kitchen, an open concept in architecture dating back at least a hundred years.  Chef Solano made his rounds throughout the evening, spending time chatting with the larger groups but also saying a few non-intrusive words to couples such as ourselves as we ate.  As we departed that evening we were both already making plans to try one of the other promising choices on the menu before long.

As we stepped in the door to Tiestos more recently, we already knew that our days in Cuenca were numbered in the low double digits, and that this would be our last chance to dine there.  So this time, we decided we wouldn't hold back and treated ourselves to the coveted high-ticket items on the menu we'd been eyeballing from our first visit.  We ordered our steak medium rare in a cordon bleu sauce with mushrooms and bacon, a robust offering which was rounded out nicely by the full-bodied, full bottle of Chilean cabernet sauvignon from Misiones de Rengo we asked for.

The steaks were served a smooth and tender medium rare, the red interior lending itself perfectly to the thick and flavorful sauce.  Each sip of wine offered a refreshing and bold compliment to the main course.  A full bottle of strong red wine may have been an ambitious choice for a couple, and I'll admit that over time the longer-ranging effects of so much to drink may have begun to interfere with our unbiased appreciation of the meal.  But looking back, and recalling clearly my empty plate, empty glass and nicely filled belly, I have no regrets.

With our choice made to go all out before we walked in the door that evening, dessert was a foregone conclusion.  We ordered a dish called "chocolate temptation," and what we got was chocolate mousse with chocolate fudge on top and a chocolate brownie below.  It was served with a generous spoonful of fresh passion fruit, an unexpected inclusion whose tart flavor contrasted impressively with the smooth and rich chocolate.  Equally unexpected and impressive was the artistic presentation of our dessert, served atop an edible still life.  It was a shame to ruin such a sight to behold, an act made much easier by how tasty it was.

My only real criticism of a restaurant where so much attention has been paid to presentation is that dinner was served with your regular, store-bought paper napkins.  You might find this to be a minor point, and such a small detail certainly doesn't detract from the appreciation such delicious food.  But from a design standpoint, ample cloth napkins that complemented the colorful Andean tablecloths would complete the experience down to the last moment.

With our first, more humble outing running us around $30 and our second shameless binge topping out at more than double that, Tiestos is reserved as a rare and much-anticipated dining excursion in the minds of ordinary people living in Cuenca like ourselves.  Tiestos is located at Juan Jaramillo 7-34 in Cuenca's historic downtown.  Its three dining areas offer an intimate ambience and consequently, limited seating.  Due to this and its surging popularity, it is usually full for dinner, but they do accept reservations.  They serve lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday and are open Sunday afternoons.  Whether you are in Cuenca for months or only a few days, a night or afternoon at Tiestos will give you a taste of Cuenca at once modern and authentic.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How I learned Spanish

Back when I was living in Santa Fe, I discovered Allá, a bookstore downtown that specializes in rare books from Latin America.  I would have probably never wandered into its hidden upstairs location if I hadn't first become fascinated by a book in Spanish that I was determined to find.

I first heard of the book during my first trip to Mexico, where I had been on an immersion Spanish course during the summer.  Little did I know before leaving that my trip to Mexico would occur during the infamous teacher strike of 2006.  News traveled slowly enough about this strike that tourists were still obstinately crawling through the historic center of Oaxaca, attempting to go about their regular tourist business while ducking under the tarps and canopies of the teachers' makeshift campgrounds that lined virtually every downtown street.

The institute where I was studying was just a few blocks from the focal point of the teachers' demonstrations, and one day after our morning classes were over, this sight greeted us just outside the walls of our quiet language school.

The protest was truly impressive, with people marching in a line as far as the eye could see in both directions, and featuring hundreds of signs and dozens of paper mache symbols of what the teachers were rising up against.  For someone like me, experiencing Latin America for the first time, I found the energy and the sheer number of people involved to be at once exciting and frightening.  One thought resonated with everyone in the small group of foreigners I happened to be standing amongst: this protest isn't going to just fade away.  Either they're going to get what they want, or they're going to be forcibly silenced.

In the end, it was the latter that brought the ongoing protests to an end.  The first of the government's military responses occurred just a week after this picture was taken when thousands of police entered Oaxaca's downtown area.  With the use of helicopters, tear gas, rubber bullets and flame throwers, the protesters were systematically driven out and their lean-to dwellings on the streets were destroyed, effectively wiping out the infrastructure of their live-in demonstration against the state government.

That particular day we still had classes, and within the walls of the institute life felt just about normal, with tea and biscuits next to our notebooks as we commenced our lesson for the day.  Our professor Luis relentlessly steered our conversation back to literature throughout our barrage of endless questions about what was going on outside.  Despite my own deep curiosity about the teachers and police, a moment came when my interest was definitively captured by our day's reading, and it was at that moment that my fascination with Latin American literature was born.

We were reading about one of the first encounters between the Spaniards and the people of the mainland American continent.  11 ships are burning and they burn too the rebel soldiers that are hanging on the captain's ship.  While the jaws of the sea open devouring the flames, Hernan Cortes, on foot upon the sand, grips the pommel of his sword... 700 men in Mexico, towards the mountains, the volcanoes and the mystery of Moctezuma.  So went this bold tactical move by one of history's most notorious conquistadores according to the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.  As I wrapped my mind around the words of this unfamiliar language, I witnessed fleetingly the unfolding of 500 years of history between the moment we were reading and the moment of the battle outside.  I decided then that I wanted to read more from this book we were sampling, and that I wanted to know as much as I could about the long history of the Americas, all the Americas, especially Mexico and the many countries of Central and South America.

With that intention I stepped into Allá bookstore for the first time, and bought Los nacimientos, volume 1 of the series Memoria del fuego.  From that day on I didn't leave home without that little yellow book and my fat Spanish-English dictionary.  Knowing already that I had another trip to Mexico and a subsequent one to Ecuador ahead of me, I set about studying that book, reading passages over and over until I could understand them in Spanish without thinking about the corresponding words in English.

As it turned out, I don't think I could have picked a better piece of literature for my purpose of studying both Latin American history and the Spanish language at once.  Galeano's three volume set begins with dozens of pre-Colombian creation stories which culminate with the founding of the mighty Aztec kingdom and the many prophecies of the coming Spanish Conquest.  It then shifts to documented moments in history, beginning with Columbus' 1st voyage and continuing throughout history until the final decades of the 20th century in volume 3.  Each moment is a story that stands alone as well as it fits in with the sweeping chronology of the discovery, conquest and colonization of these continents by the European nations, and the subsequent revolutions and development of the distinct countries which color modern maps of the Western hemisphere.

Each story is told as if it were happening in the present, each moment is taken from real history, and none of the stories exceed 3 pages in length.  A perfect way to take a basic understanding of Spanish vocabulary and verb tenses and shape it story-by-story into a broad perspective on Spanish language, history and literature.  The series has its critics, especially from professional historians who scoff at its brief accounts and lack of detailed footnoting.  But Galeano has crafted a work that lies somewhere between non-fiction and literature, and also provides one or two primary sources for each of his hundreds of historical cuentos.  For someone like me, a novice when it comes to Latin American history, I've found countless reference points from his stories which I can further explore when I choose to.  More often than not, I let these moments in history sift through my mind and am content with the fact that when I need to know more about them I can pull these books from the shelf and reacquaint myself with the story.  Then I can investigate further, either using the references Galeano provides or by simply punching some key words into a wikipedia search.

Hats off to Eduardo Galeano.  As I often find from truly good literature, a good story hooks me from the first line.  I've also thought that life is too short for too much fiction and daydreaming.  In a series that contains hundreds of stories drawn from the real history of the world, I get hooked by these first lines over and over again.  To leave you today, I give you my pale translation of the first lines from Volume 1, a veritable Genesis story in what could be considered a kind of Bible of American history and prehistory:

The woman and the man dreamt that God was dreaming of them.  God dreamt of them while singing and shaking his maracas, enveloped in tobacco smoke... and together they will live and they will die.  But they will be born again.  They will be born and they will die and again they will be born.  And they will never stop being born, because death is a lie.