Leo – Bogota – Every City Needs a Leo

Leo is a restaurant in Bogota, Colombia, and ranked 99/100 on the World’s 50 Best list and #10 in Latin America.  The chef is Leonor Espinosa.  She created the menu, which changes every year, based on the different ecosystems of Colombia, and according to what is written on the menu, with the “…support of biologists, producers and growers, this menu is based on local products and ancestral knowledge”.

Many restaurants claim to be some variation of farm to table and/or highlight local cuisine, but I believe Leo has done these things in the truest sense.  The effort that has gone into the carefully chosen ingredients and dishes, is evident from looking at the menu you are presented.  Each ingredient, and its location in Colombia, is listed.  Every city needs a Leo.  It would be amazing to eat at a place that goes to the extent of using local ingredients and dishes as Leo.  I learned a lot about the country, and was introduced to many things I had never had, throughout the meal.

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Certain things from the menu stood out at me immediately as I had never had them before including: crocodile, rodent, and worms.

The meal started with a horchata type palate cleanser.  It had a mild pleasant flavor.

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Next was a Colombian bread and butter combination (not on menu).  The taste was very unique, and a bit sour.

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For the first amuse, a duo – crayfish (leftside – you eat the top first and then drink the coconut milk below) and yogurt cheese sprinkled with limonero ants in a potato crisp.  The yogurt muse was delicious.  The ants had a surprisingly natural lemon taste.  The server told us this was all natural and a defense mechanism for the ants.  The cray fish was also delicious.  These dishes were also very beautifully presented.

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Next up was a signature dish of the chef.  Albacore tuna with ants and molasses.

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The last amuse was a seafood rice dish which was coconut rice with fish and sea snails.  It was wrapped in a banana leaf in what reminded me of a Chinese sticky rice dim sum dish.  I was excited to eat this because we had a very similar dish classically prepared in Cartagena, and it was nice to see the chef’s interpretation of it.  Coconut rice is very prevalent on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in contrast to Bogota, which is more towards the center of Colombia at a very high elevation.  We had coconut rice with many dishes in Cartagena.  I learned that a lot the coconut rice you will eat in Cartagena is cooked with soda to lend sweetness, where as at Leo, they used actual coconut milk to lend the flavor.

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The next dish was the start of the main courses and began with a ceviche type preparation of fish.  This dish was a miss for me.  The dish was over seasoned and had too much acidity which overpowered everything.  Could not taste fish.

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Next, the crocodile tail.  I was very curious about this dish as I have never had crocodile before.  I was kind of glad it came out the way it did (the crocodile in the picture is the white and yellow center that looks like an egg) to kind of ease one who is not used to eating crocodile into the dish.  In general, I found that this restaurant did this often with less familiar dishes.  They did not actually prepare the ingredient in its “normal” form, but transformed it.  This dish was OK.  The crocodile had a meatball texture to it.

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The next main was another fish dish – Pirarucu.

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The fourth main course was my favorite.  It was basically a duck taco.  Lots of umami and unique flavors which all worked well together.  The corn “tortilla” was outstanding.

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Lastly, the wild rodent meat dish.  When I read about this on the menu, I was a bit anxious about trying this dish.  The description of “rodent” kept making me think of rats.  I am someone who will try anything at least once, but the word “rodent” on the menu was off putting.  When it came, I was glad that again, they did not serve it in its “true” form.  The only part of the dish that was rodent was the sauce which they made out of rodent (it was like a demi-glace) and the fried skin on top.  The rest of the dish was red bean (like a mash) topped with a crisp of the rodent skin.  The skin was delicious but the thought of rodent made it a struggle to eat.

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As a pre-dessert or cheese dish, they had a Colombian cheese and incorporated the worms into it.  Another dish I was curious about and glad that the worms were not in true form.  I did not enjoy the taste of this dish.  There was something strange and unfamiliar about the taste, and I do not know if it came from the cheese or the worms.  It was very pungent.  In general, I did not enjoy the local cheeses I had in Colombia.

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Next came two desserts, both delicious.  Good flavors and textures.

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…and a chocolate truffle…

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…I finished the meal with some aguardiente, which was flavored with some fresh herbs.  The main one which came through was mint.

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Overall, this was an outstanding meal.  The effort they have gone into to source local Colombian ingredients and turn them into Colombian dishes is evident.  The service is excellent and well coordinated.  The presentation is beautiful without being overly fussy for the sake of being fussy. The server’s passion for explaining each dish in terms of the history, geography and ingredients was impressive.  The dining room is modern though if you are staying near the more common parts of the city like where tourists stay like Zona Rosa, the location of the restaurant will require about a 20 minute Uber or Taxi ride towards a less frequented at night area of the city. 9.5/10

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