By Susan Burke March
Every once in a while you’re lucky enough to have a dining experience unforgettable enough that you take the time to write a review on TripAdvisor.com. Recently when my husband and I visited La Caleta, it was on the recommendation of friends. Word of mouth is always the best recommendation. Check out some of the accolades.
Chef Diego Gutierrez Vivar is an innovator … sample his flavorful food … Delicious almuerzo in a warm, welcoming atmosphere … Amazin’ food … Amazing new take on Ecuadorian cuisine … Best meal in Cuenca!
And let’s add one more: La Caleta wine pairing dinners!
Last Wednesday we joined about 30 other diners at a special dinner, created by owner and creator Chef Diego Gutiérrez Valor and the Dos Amigos Sommelier Services.
This is a new event and they plan on holding them frequently at La Caleta, where expertly prepared cuisine is paired with special wines. The Chef works with the wine experts to select the menu to complement the wine, and it was a memorable experience. It’s the kind of evening that we walked away saying, “…can’t wait to do it again!”
If you look up “la caleta” in the Spanish/English dictionary, it translates to “the cove”. Diego related that in Cuenca and in Ecuador, la caleta translates to “home”. When someone says to you “vamos a mi caleta” they’re saying, “come to my home.”
Chef Diego is the type of person who will succeed at whatever he does. Born in a small rural city, he was only six years old when his family was forced to move to Cuenca due to economic difficulties. He well remembers the challenges of being a country boy in the big city but he persevered, graduating from high school and then becoming a professional futból player. However, thinking ahead and knowing that any professional athlete’s career is limited, he enrolled in the Instituto San Isidro to train in gastronomy and culinary arts.
For the next two years, mornings were devoted to class and study, and afternoons and evenings to working in kitchens around Cuenca. He spent all his spare time traveling around Ecuador learning about the many different cuisines, working in kitchens from the coast to the mountains, eschewing salary for basic room and board…and for invaluable experience.
He traveled twice to Philadelphia, first to do his practical experience requirement in the popular Italian restaurant Pazzo Pazzo, and then again back to earn money to achieve his goal, to open his own restaurant to showcase the fine flavors of Ecuador. Working days in construction and nights in the restaurant, he saved all his money and returned to Cuenca.
La Caleta is the welcome result.
When you enter the restaurant you notice first the colors and furnishings are contemporary and reflect the art and culture of Cuenca. The décor reflects Diego’s craftsmanship. He designed the entire restaurant, from the wood-plank floor to the wall designs…it’s charming.
Chef Diego’s love for local ingredients and his experience with regional food is reflected in the menu. His mission is to serve the best of Ecuador’s traditional foods with a modern and contemporary flair.
La Caleta features dishes plated with an artistic touch, using local ingredients and both traditional and modern cooking methods. In the small but efficient kitchen he and his team grills, sautés, and sous vide lamb, fish, chicken and cuy, (guinea pig), the traditional Ecuadorian delicacy — here it is served with chaucha potatoes in peanut sauce, roasted corn, and fresh salad. Sou vide prepares food to the perfect level of doneness while also retaining its nutrients.
The inspired menu reflects Chef Diego’s travels around Ecuador…other dishes include a simple chicken, expertly grilled a la plancha and served with a delicious uvilla sauce. Beef tenderloin, cooked sou vide, is served with home-made potato chips, avocado and fried eggs.
The food presentation is fascinating, a mixture of colors and textures…the way the food appears on the plate is what first appeals to our vision and makes you want to taste the flavors. Do save room for postres, such as the one we enjoyed, Ruta de Las Iglesias, inspired by guayaba fruit, made into a compote and plated with empanadas de viento, sauced with guava foam and garnished with edible flowers.
Chef Diego personally shops at Feria Libre mercado for all of the freshest of ingredients.
Paying It Forward
La Caleta is a training ground for upcoming restaurateurs in Cuenca. Each member of the staff is either a student or a former student of San Isidro culinary academy, working at La Caleta as part of their final semester practical experience, necessary for graduation. Although most practical experiences are limited to the back of the house, typically washing dishes and doing basic prep like chopping and peeling vegetables, the Chef’s goal is to have students participate at all levels, and gain experience in all that’s necessary to run a restaurant, from working in the kitchen to “front of the house” service experience. Chef encourages the students to contribute their thoughts and ideas with hope that they will create their own restaurants, to better expand the palates for Ecuadorian cuisine.
To Chef Diego, this is the essence of La Caleta, or “his home”, the place where he creates, serves, and shares the experience and expertise to create the very finest of Ecuadorian cooking. It’s quite special.
La Caleta is open from Monday through Sunday, serving almuerzo daily from 11 – 3 PM. The very well-priced lunch includes soup, rice and potatoes, a delicious meat entree, dessert and fruit juice.
Dinner is served Tuesday through Saturday evenings from 6 till 10 PM.
There is a full bar, and of course, delicious wines, plus fresh juices, teas and sodas.
Oh, and don’t forget the wine experiences: Chef Diego pairs the most delicious dishes with selections by Dave and Esteban’s Dos Amigos Sommelier Services. This past Wednesday we enjoyed a delicious array of white, red, and rosé wines. Check out this video for a taste of what you’ll experience.