The First Lunch
La Caleta restaurant in Cuenca Ecuador was so good the first time we went that we had to go back a second time to convince ourselves that the first time was not just a fluke. Yes, I know. It’s tough work, but someone has to shoulder the burden! In this case, our dedication paid off because the second trip was just as enjoyable as the first.
The restaurant, which has been in existence for almost a year and a half, is focused on presenting traditional Ecuadoran dishes, using primarily Ecuadoran ingredients, in a contemporary, sophisticated style. This became clear from the very beginning when M. ordered sopa de tubérculos (or soup of root vegetables). I was expecting a variation of the traditional, and commonly served, locro de papas, but the soup at La Caleta was nothing like it.
The thick mix of root vegetables and spices had a richness and depth of flavor that is impossible to guess from something so simply named. It’s fair to say it just about knocked our socks off. The piece of bread at the bottom of the bowl alone had a complex and enjoyable flavor profile that was almost worth the price of admission by itself.
Comparatively, my appetizer (Andino) of mixed papas chauchas, mote (white corn) and other Ecuadoran ingredients, all flavored with pork, came second best, but still had a satisfying texture and pork flavor that I much enjoyed.
We ordered langoustines and lamb for the main courses. The lamb (cordero) had been roasted and the meat pulled into pieces that had then been pressed back together into a rectangle. The rectangle was then sautéd. This produced different flavors and textures with the center tender and juicy and the surface slightly crispy. It was served in a lamb gravy supplemented with butter and a pinch of brown sugar. The dish was finished with cherry tomatoes, sweet, roasted plantains and black quinoa. What I remember most is a complex and rich depth of flavor as well as cooking and presentation that paid attention to all the details.
Our other plato fuerte had four grilled langoustines beautifully presented on a rich, semisweet, white coconut sauce with ground peanuts. The pairing of flavors was just about perfect, but I have to say I preferred the meaty richness of the lamb dish.
I don’t remember what we ordered for dessert, but what came out was presented with amazing flair. When chef Diego Gutierrez Vivar says he want to provide people with a complete experience, not just a meal, he is serious.
Dessert was presented under a glass filled with wood smoke. I can’t remember ever having had a dessert presented in that way. When the glass was lifted and the smoke dissipated, our dessert was revealed to be two scoops of ice cream (one lemon grass and the other coconut) with two small pieces of cake all in a rich, creamy sauce with a couple of pieces of candied uvilla (and a couple of things, all good, that I either didn’t recognize or can’t figure out how to spell). It was a dramatic and delicious end to our first lunch at La Caleta.
The Second Lunch
The second lunch started, as did the first one, with a small plate of chips and dried plantains. There was an avocado and lemon dipping sauce for the chips in the first lunch. The dipping sauce for the chips for our second lunch was quite different and spicier.
After the chips, we split an order of patacones. Patacones are usually presented as dry, chewy disks with a satisfying texture, but not much flavor and we were curious to see how this traditional dish would be handled. We were not disappointed. These patacones arrived at the table still warm and covered with a mild sauce (possibly from tree tomatoes). The presentation also had onions and a mild roasted red pepper sauce. Both of us enjoyed this dish, even M. who is not usually a fan of patacones.
We both selected ceviches as the next course. M. had ceviche manaba which she quite enjoyed. The flavor had, besides the expected citrus, a more earthy quality which paired well with the peanuts and the seared tuna. My ceviche de pescado had a brighter quality that highlighted the flavor of the fresh fish. The ceviche de pescado was also well spiced and almost, but not quite, too piquant for my taste. Both ceviches were delicious and, at this point we had to admit that the quality of our first lunch at La Caleta was no fluke.
We continued with fish for the main course. M. had a light and delicately flavored piece of trout which was dressed with two sauces. One was mildly spicy and flavorful. The presentation was first rate, and was completed with pickled and roasted vegetables and an avocado and lemon sauce.
My tuna was presented with a topping of ground squash seeds, peanuts and coffee, which gave the dish an unusual, and delicious, earthy flavor. The fish had been cooked to completion, which is more than one normally sees for tuna, probably to provide a flavor and texture more compatible with the robust topping. Completing the presentation of the tuna dish were pickled vegetables and a mild, roasted red pepper sauce. There was also an impressive slice of potato which had a taste and texture unlike any I have ever experienced.
Side dishes and vegetables are sometimes treated as mere filler to complete a plate, but those presented at La Caleta were prepared with as much care and attention to detail as were the main offerings. This, for me, is a mark of a fine restaurant.
Dessert was similar to the one we had at our first lunch, but without the dramatic presentation.
If forced to give a criticism of La Caleta, I would suggest a more extensive wine list. The one currently listed on the menu is fairly slim. We chose to have beer with our lunches as the restaurant has a selection of Latitud Cero craft beers. Pairing beer and food is a new area for us, but our waiter was very helpful and suggested appropriate and enjoyable beers to accompany our food selections. There are also a few mixed drinks on the menu, but we have not yet tried them.
The service at La Caleta matched the food in quality. Our waiter was efficient, professional and engaging. He took time to explain each dish to us. Further, the chef came to our table during both of our visits to discuss the food and his approach to cooking.
In summary, we very much enjoyed our experiences at La Caleta and plan to return. It has become one of our favorite restaurants in Cuenca and, if you have not already done so, I warmly recommend you try it soon.