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.


Negra said...

Muy delicioso!! Los aperitivos y el pan: excelentes. Variedad de vegetales y frutas en vinagre o en diferentes salsas picantes.

Ame said...

Oh my gosh, that just made my mouth water... and added extra bonus points to Cuenca as possible future home :)

Thomas said...

Well, I'm officially starving and wishing I could return to Cuenca.