Quito, Ecuador Experiences
- Alan Gardner
I was in Quito for a Saturday and Sunday but 1 week apart. In response to a previous post, I was recommended to go to La Choza for Ecuadorean food, and Casa de mi Abuela for kooky steak.
On the Saturday, we wanted a last fine meal before heading off for the Galapagos so, based on several guidebook recommendations, chose Mare Nostrum (Tamayo and Foch) by repute possibly the best restaurant in Quito. As it was only 2 blocks from the hotel, I checked it out first a gorgeous renovated mansion with good wine list and attractive menu choices. Expensive by Ecuadorean standards but reasonable for North America. We put on our finest and returned about 7:30, and were escorted up the path by an armed guard to the front door. There we rang the hanging doorbell and a small flap in the door was opened to survey us (reminded me of all the speakeasy entrances in gangster films). We must have passed, for we were admitted and ushered past various antiques to one of several rooms where we were seated and promptly served. The restaurant is noted for its seafood, so we chose a Chilean Sparkler and browsed the heavy, steak-house style leather menus. We both chose from the House Specialties section, and I ordered sampler-style dishes to taste as many as possible.
So far, so good in fact, excellent until the food arrived! My 4 course sampler was served simultaneously on what looked like a cloverleaf each dish on its own plate. Not a problem really, except that each dish was worse than the last. The octopus was so chewy I was unable to finish a single piece overcooked to destruction. The two gorgeous looking jumbo shrimp had been overcooked to chewing gum consistency. My stone crab crepe had been made without separating the ligaments, which couldnt be seen (lighting was extremely romantic), so although the taste was passable, each mouthful was an adventure of separating the objective from the debris how do whales manage this? I alternately choked and removed pieces stuck between my teeth. The sea-bass was dried out.
Catherine had ordered the lobster, which appeared to be a large crayfish. Again, so overcooked it was rubbery, although a little flavor remained.
My Spanish was not good enough to complain to the waiter, who probably wouldnt have noticed anyway as he was listening to a Walkman every time he served us (no it wasnt a link to the kitchen we heard the music).
For dessert (hey, I was still hungry) I had a spectacular sorbet, made from Naranjilla if anyone gets to Ecuador, try this fruit which tastes something like a cross between a lime and passion fruit.
Finally, the most disturbing part of the evening. They wouldnt let us leave without calling for a taxi. We had walked there (twice; once to check out the menu earlier). It was only 2 blocks, but we were told it was too dangerous. It wasnt a matter of cost (only $1 for the cab), but the thought that this would be necessary. There is crime in Quito after dark, but mostly in the Old City whereas we were in the New City. Pure conjecture on my part, but it may be that people exiting from Mare Nostrum have been targeted as rich tourists and robbed in the past. At no time in the New City did we see or hear anything that was threatening (including walking after dark to/from other restaurants). Suddenly, the armed guard, the need to ring, the inspection door then another locked door became ominous.
Returning a week later, we had hoped to pre-order Ecuadorean specialties at La Choza (12 du Octubre and Cordero), but it was not to be. On Sunday theyre only open for lunch, so we deferred our hoped-for cuy until Cusco. We tried for Casa di mi Abuela (Juan Leon Mera a couple of blocks N of Colon) but it also was closed on Sunday. We ended up at Adams Rib (Calama just NW of Reina Victoria), which is essentially a comfortable steak house. For under $15 we had an onion ring loaf (slightly greasy but so are most onion rings), a Filet Mignon cooked perfectly as ordered, but a little bland; and smoked ribs an excellent version (cost included 2 large beers). Remarkable value. And we walked back to the hotel from there, after dark, without any hints of danger.
A traveling companion had to have a McDonalds fix, so we visited with him again a security guard (but no locked doors). But only a couple of blocks away was a restaurant (take-out) we didnt try, which always had line-ups every time we passed it. Called El Leñador Burguer (corner of Geronimo Carron at Amazonas) the food looked excellent ($1 for a hamburger) and is half the price of McDonalds. Everything was cooked fresh.
Ahh, the streets of Mariscal Sucre in Quito, New Town as you call it, and Gringolandia as many of the people who live there call it. I had the great joy to spend about 4-6 weeks moofing around the neighborhood you were in and recognize all the restaurants that you mention.
It is indeed a shame that you missed out on both La Choza and Casa de mi Abuela. La Choza does not provide the best meal I have ever had, by a long shot, but it was the one place I found in Ecuador that did somewhat upscale and at least mildly innovative andean cuisine. The setting is large and very airy, preferable during the day actually, the service good, the food bordering on excellent, and they are also one of the few venues that serve the traditional fermented mead, which I did not find to my liking, but was happy to have tried.
La Casa de mi Abuela I remember as fantastic (keep in mind that I had been in S. America for some period of time however). As I recall I ordered steak, and they asked whether I would like steak for one or two (reminiscent of Peter Lugar's, don't even get me started on that little piece of heaven), since we were two, I of course suggested the steak for two. We were presented with the entire filet, grilled to perfection, and beautifully rare on the interior, but not to the point that the meat becomes extremely difficult to chew. May I mention it again? We were served the entire filet! Fantastic. And I am sure anathema to the vino purists out there, but we washed that filet down with some of the coldest, yet not frozen, deliciously refreshing beer I have had outside of a beach in the Dominican Republic. If you have a chance to go back....
Mare Nostrum? I can only concur. The most expensive, and one of the worst meals I had in Ecuador. The only thing I have to add to Alan's description is that all of my overcooked seafood (was it fresh? God knows, it was so overdone, they might as well have dropped a frozen squid in a deep fryer and brought the product right to the table)seemed to be swimming in mildly rancid butter. I still shudder to think of it. I can even still taste the crab crepe, like a thick paste against the back of my throat.
On the security issue, I am sorry that you had such an intimidating experience. It is true that many of the better restaurants in Quito (and much of South America for that matter)have guards, but in the many days and nights I spent in that neighborhood I never encountered a problem, even walking alone late at night. In fact I often wondered whether the guards were more of a status symbol than a necessary precaution.
On a last note, one of the pure cultural syncretic joys of Quito, which I would recommend to anyone, is to find a shwarma stall (there are many of them for all you Londoners on the board, hugely popular, and in fact I fell in love with a shwarma more than once after a heavy night of drinking), preferably one populated with a healthy mix of arabs, scruffy backpackers and locals, strike up a conversation with whichever of the groups suits your fancy, and spend a few hours on a quiet Quito street kickin back with your new friends, the hookah and some flavored tobacco, wondering exactly how you got there.
Both of you seemed to have escaped with your lives. I ate Mare Nostrum's seviche on my last night there. I was dying from shellfish poisoning for six days in Bogota. Quito's chronic blackouts makes eating any kind of seafood a real gamble. As far as cuy was concerned, I ate the little buggers in every place I could find them from Otavalo to Latacunga, from Quito to Cuzco. I had it baked, barbequed, sauteed and deep-fried. I was underwhelmed. They all tasted like dried-out, overcooked rabbits.