By Christopher Lux
I first visited the French-style La Brasserie restaurant for a special dinner to celebrate my wife’s birthday. The European-feel of the restaurant paired nicely with our house steaks — filets served with a slightly sweet mushroom sauce, grilled vegetables, and mashed potatoes. My wife had a Pisco Sour and I had a Malbec. For dessert, we had creme brûlée and white chocolate mousse.
I returned the next week for lunch. An affordable and savory almuerzo is available daily, along with the regular menu. I had a grilled chicken sandwich, house-cut fries, and water.
The restaurant is on the first floor of the Forum Hotel on Presidente Borrero, and you enter just to the left of the hotel entrance. It’s narrow with the front door on one end and the bar and kitchen on the other.
When I went for lunch, Thomas Klatte, the owner and manager, sat down with me.
“I don’t think my other guests will mind me sitting down,” he joked as he motioned to a mostly empty dining room. “In Cuenca, you can never predict when you’ll be busy and when nobody will come.”
But Thomas doesn’t mind having an empty house — it gives him a rare chance to relax. Because of the hotel, which he also owns and manages, he’s open every day for all three meals — even Sunday mornings. His concept is to offer high-quality meals in a sophisticated setting, as well as full bar service, for the local community as well as for hotel guests.
“Before I moved to Cuenca, I travelled a lot. I was a business consultant and I stayed in a lot of hotels around the world. I always liked for the hotel to have a nice bar,” he said. “I liked to know I could take a cocktail to my room or have a drink at the bar.”
A native of Germany, Thomas studied in Quito when he was in his 20s, but never imagined he’d be back in Ecuador. Then, when he came to a friend’s wedding in Cuenca, he was so impressed he decided to stay.
“I love Cuenca,” he said. “And I needed a change in my life. I realized my life was just passing by. I was making more and more money, but that’s not what life’s about.”
Thomas left his job in Switzerland, sold most of his belongings, and moved to Cuenca with only a few suitcases.
He soon met his future wife, a Cuencana and, after the wedding, he found out that his new mother-in-law owned a building in El Centro and wanted to make it into a hotel.
With his knowledge of the hotel business, Thomas took on the challenge. Located just blocks from Parque Calderon, the building needed major renovation. While the structure of the building remain basically the same, Thomas did a full renovation, including the installation of new plumbing and electrical wiring. With the help of his wife, he added some new design features as well as new decoration.
The hotel has twelve rooms. “When I travelled, I stayed at a lot of big hotels,” Thomas said. “I always liked the smaller ones, though. I liked when the receptionist recognized me and knew my name.”
As we waited for lunch to be served, Thomas offered to show me the hotel. We walked upstairs to a beautiful second floor, well-lit by a large skylight, and he told me, “This is the type of hotel I would like to stay in because of the personal service. I like the personal service.”
The guest rooms are comfortable and elegant. They open up to a courtyard. Though the building has been restored, the rooms and courtyard feature many original elements: adobe walls, wooden balconies and wrought iron elements, and traditional tiling. As we left one room, Thomas wanted me to see a bathroom. He pointed up to a shower head. “Do you notice something about this?” he asked as he pointed into a shower. “Our shower heads were installed higher than what you have in these older buildings.” He smiled. “I really like hotels with small, thoughtful touches.”
Outside the rooms, we walked to a classic sitting room with a hand-painted ceiling. He looked toward a piano in the corner of the room. “We had a small piano concert here for our guests recently,” he said.
When we got back to the table, my food was served. “This is a hotel,” he said. “The restaurant is not my only focus. It is the chef’s only focus, though. The restaurant must have its own right to be here. It’s not just a hotel restaurant.”
Thomas hired professional chefs to help create dishes that combine French and Ecuadorian influences. Himself a hobby chef, Thomas gives his opinions and suggestions while the chefs provide the culinary expertise. “They have liberty with the food, but I eat here and provide feedback like a very critical customer.”
“I helped develop the menu. Before we opened, I worked with the chef cooking things at my house. I put what I’d eat on the menu, then we added more to cater to different tastes. I could never be a professional chef, but I started cooking when I was 11. My mother cooks good food, and I like good food.”
He added, “I want to use good ingredients, but I don’t want it to be too fancy. You should be able to taste a dish and distinguish every ingredient in the sauce.”
La Brasserie is located at Antonio Borrero 10-91 and Mariscal Lamar, inside the Forum Hotel. It’s open every day from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. for breakfast, and noon to 9:30 p.m for lunch and dinner.