OK guys. Prepare yourselves for an over-the-top review . . .
Do you have an anniversary coming up? A graduation? Mother’s day? In need of a romantic evening out? I have the place: La Caleta, Estevez de Toral 8-17 y Mariscal Sucre, just a block and a half from Cuenca’s San Sebastian Plaza.
It is a modest little restaurant, only three tables in the front room, three more in the back. Clean, modern lines inside, decorated by indigenous masks on the wall and book shelves displaying coffee table cook books. Indirect lighting, soft music. On Tuesday night, we (Jackie and I and our friend Bob Bradley) were the only ones there, enjoying a quiet night of good conversation, excellent service, and what was probably the best meal I’ve ever had. No, I’m serious. The absolute best. Ever.
And you have to go there and see, taste and smell for yourselves. Do it. If you don’t like it, let me know, and I will gladly hunt you down and slap you upside the head. You’re welcome.
The chef — not just a good cook — but a real honest to goodness culinary artiste to all the senses, including some I didn’t know I had, is a 32-year old Ecuadorian named Diego Gutierrez. He has been cooking for 8 years, had his early culinary training at the University of Cuenca, and learned his artistic techniques from a time at Agern Restaurant, a 2-Michelin-star restaurant in Manhattan; and a month at Central Restaurant, rated as the 4th best restaurant in the world. With this background, he could be working anywhere in the world. But he returned to Cuenca and opened La Caleta. At this restaurant, he applies all the techniques he has learned to create a truly Ecuadorian cuisine, using only local ingredients.
And man, the word “good” doesn’t begin to describe it! If you’ve ever watched Chef’s Table on Netflix, you will have some idea of the level of expertise this man brings to Cuenca.
First, there was a pleasant young man, Emanuel, who ran the front desk and was our waiter (see photo). He knew some English, and was able to answer our many questions about the ingredients in the various dishes. The service was impeccable without being intrusive. The menu was in both Spanish and English, and we all agreed we would each order different things and share. Thus, I was able to sample three appetizers, three entrees, and three desserts. All the dishes were artistically presented with surprising, complex flavors and just plain delicious! Even the coffee was a treat.
We got some appetizers: Bite-sized pieces of grilled plantain, topped with cream cheese and sprinkled with powdered blue corn. These were presented to us on a flat stone (see photo). Right away, we realized that we were in for something very special. Another appetizer consisted of fava beans with a cilantro puree, avocado and corn. The final appetizer was pig foot cubes with roasted potatoes, red cabbage, tree tomato, mushrooms and edible flowers. And other stuff I can’t describe.
I ordered the beef tongue dish. Yes, there were tender slices of beef tongue in there on what was probably a squash puree, but it was all covered by slices of babaco, potato chips, onions and a small dollop of peanut ice cream. Peanut ice cream! And it all worked! Gorgeous, surprising and delicious.
Bob had the lamb dish, which came with fried plantains formed into cubes, offset by the sour taste of capers, very tender chunks of lamb with a complex sauce, the ingredients of which I couldn’t identify other than to say I wanted more of it (see photo).
Jackie has the langustinos, perfectly cooked, with mashed potatoes, yucca cubes, plantains with avocado paste, topped with caviar and sliver of melon peel. Again, the presentation and taste was amazing.
For dessert, I had sweet figs with kombucha, with a strong pickle flavor that nicely offset what would otherwise have been an overly-sweet dish. (That’s my wife’s job, the sweet dish part.)
Jackie had the chocolate dessert, which had three kinds of chocolate, a mousse, syrup, and nibs over a small brownie.
The big surprise was Bob’s dessert of five kinds of ice cream, brought out one at a time. Pineapple ice cream with cilantro! WHAT? Yes, boys and girls, an initial sweet pineapple flavor followed by a very distinctive jolt of cilantro, and IT WAS REALLY GOOD!! Also fig ice cream, and mandarin orange ice cream, and fermented corn and nibs, and finally peanut ice cream and pine nuts.
Afterwards, I sat stunned, scratching my belly, sipping my coffee, and wondering why the hell this place didn’t have a Michelin star of its own.
Now the tough part. It ain’t cheap, but meals like this would be in the hundreds of dollars back in the U.S. For all that we had, i.e., appetizer, entrée, one glass of wine and dessert, you can expect to pay $25-30 per person at La Caleta, about half of which was the wine and dessert. But that’s part of the whole wonderful experience, so don’t be a tightwad when you’re taking your sweetie out on the town. You need to do this. Really.
La Caleta, Estevez de Toral 8-17 y Mariscal Sucre
Seating: For perhaps 20
Cost: Expensive for Cuenca, but worth every penny
Credit cards: Accepted
Quality: Outstanding. International standards
Hours: Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 11 p.m.;