Uruguay: the land of red meat, wine, futbol (soccer), and beaches

When we originally planned this trip, Santiago and Buenos Aires were the two main destinations we were going to visit. But after a closer look on the map, Chris realized that we could probably add in one additional city (and country) to the itinerary, especially given we’d be in South America for about two weeks: Montevideo, Uruguay. Uruguay is South America’s second smallest country, with about 3.44 million people (the smallest country in South America is Suriname). Montevideo is about a three-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires, so Chris made a quick decision to add a ferry ride to our trip! So instead of flying from Santiago to Buenos Aires, we flew from Santiago to Montevideo via LATAM, then will take a Buquebus ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires for the last segment of our trip.

I’m American, so I think it goes without saying that I didn’t know much about Uruguay. I knew it was a small country, that people speak Spanish here, and… that was about it. Given the geography, it’s easy to see and understand how Uruguay can get completely overlooked from a tourist standpoint in South America, especially given it’s flanked by the two largest countries in the continent: Brazil and Argentina. International tourists love Brazil for endless reasons, from the mix of beaches, forest, and nightlife in Rio, to the excitement and glitz of its biggest celebration of the year, Carnaval. And for Argentina, its capital city Buenos Aires has been known as the “Paris of South America” given how European and cosmopolitan it is. So when you have all those exciting elements of larger countries that surround Uruguay, it’s easy to overlook Uruguay. But as I did more research, I realized that Uruguay has a lot of the things that make Brazil and Argentina so popular and loved: the gorgeous beaches, the incredible wine culture, and the European feel and vibe (and apparently, Uruguay has a Carnaval that is the second largest after Brazil!).

Regarding the wine in Uruguay, wine production was started in the country in the late 1800s by Italian and Spanish immigrants. Similar to how in Chile, enjoying bottles seems to be more the norm than ordering a glass of wine at a restaurant, Uruguay also enjoys imbibing. And given that most of the wineries here are small, family-owned establishments, I think I’d be safe to assume that the wine here is likely very high quality and made with love and passion.

After we dropped off our bags at our hotel yesterday around midday, we went to Es Mercat, a seafood restaurant close to Mercado del Puerto, and ordered our first Uruguayan bottle of red wine: a Garzon Tannat Reserva 2022. Tannat is a red wine grape, historically grown in the southwest of France, but is now one of the most prominent grapes in Uruguay. Funnily enough, tannat is considered Uruguay’s national grape (who would have known that countries have national grapes as a thing)! The wine was very easy to drink, a bit on the lighter side and quite fruity. Although we had a seafood meal, the wine somehow did not detract from the food and was delicious on its own.

For food at Es Mercat, we ordered the langoustines sautéed with garlic, the grilled merluza negra (also known as Chilean sea bass, or Patagonian toothfish, and the pesca bahia made with the abadejo fish, which is local and like a local white pollack fish. The chef-owner, Facundo, was extremely hospitable from the moment we entered the restaurant. He guided us through the menu, written by hand on chalk boards, and gave us advice based on what we were looking for. We also had some fun chats about Uruguay, wine and food culture, and eating in general in Uruguay. He was quite modest about both himself, the restaurant, and Uruguayan cuisine in general: “Uruguayan food isn’t that complicated. We just grill everything. That’s it,” he said with a half smile and shrug. The langoustines were extremely garlicky with a Spanish-like paprika butter sauce that I almost licked up to get the last drops. The pesca bahia was prepared Brazilian style in a luscious stew, and the merluza negra was likely the best fish I’ve eaten in the last year. It was so unbelievably buttery and flaky until the very last bite. Kaia was obsessed and ate a ton of the merluza negra during this meal; she barely even looked at the pesca bahia.

It was funny that Chris chose this seafood restaurant as our first meal in Uruguay, a country that is known for its high red meat consumption, just like its neighbor Argentina. It’s been said that the average Uruguayan eats about 220 pounds of red meat in a year, but only 15 pounds of fish. Given this, Es Mercat tends to be a bit more popular with tourists and expats; Facundo says that he and his father (they both run two restaurants) have a lot of connections with the Embassy and meet with diplomats often. So if we would anticipate eating more red meat on average during this trip, it would probably be a good start to begin on the lighter side with seafood and then work our way from there. Needless to say, Es Mercat was beyond delicious, and I was obsessed with the entire meal, from the starter to the wine. It was not a cheap meal, but it was more than worth it for the quality and quantity of food, as well as the exceptional and personalized service we got.

A funny side story is that the power suddenly went off in the middle of our meal, so Facundo just came over and spoke with us for part of that time. No big deal, no panic, no fuss. It’s just another day dealing with another challenge running a restaurant.

Children and playgrounds in Chile

When doing research for our trip, all I could read was how child-friendly countries like Chile and Uruguay were. There was a blurb I read in a blog that said something like, “In Chile, children are not a nuisance; they are part of our family and thus our lives. Thus, they go everywhere and anywhere with us.” In Chile almost immediately, we saw children of all ages literally everywhere. We saw large families walking on the streets together, children giggling and playing, and lots of large, colorful playgrounds across neighborhoods. Near our hotel, there was this massive park called Parque Centro where, around 5-6pm, we saw endless families and children everywhere. There was a huge grass area with lots of tables where families could picnic while comfortably seated, with overhead covers to protect from the sun. There were multiple play structures in all colors of the rainbow that catered to different age groups and stages of development. The one that we personally enjoyed the most was an adult-toddler swing: the adult and toddler face each other seated, and they swing together! Kaia’s gotten mad at swings in the last year, but in the last couple of months, she has slowly re-warmed to them. We have a hunch it’s because she hates feeling contained and stuck, much preferring to be free to roam around. So when we first placed her in it, she kicked and yelled… until a few swings passed, and she realized that yes, this WAS actually fun! She giggled with glee each time we swung. It was enjoyable to see a family friendly environment in most places that we visited in Santiago and the surrounds.

We also noticed that businesses seemed more comfortable letting children roam around. In our hotel breakfast area, there’s a walkway that connects to a fine-dining type establishment that shares the same kitchen as the hotel breakfast area. Kaia, being cheeky as always, kept running away from us and trying to hide in that area. Multiple staff members saw this on many occasions, but none of them said anything to us. Instead, they smiled and laughed and let us keep going. No one scolded me or suggested that I remove my child. My child was just allowed to be that — a child. It actually felt really nice and less restrictive. I always feel like in the U.S., I have to have a leash on Kaia when in places like restaurants, but not here.

South American fruit: fantastical as always

A lot gets me excited about food. But I think that in the food world, when you push pastries aside, fruit gets me really, really excited, especially tropical fruit. Sometimes, I get sad when I think about all the fruit that’s considered “normal” in the U.S., like apples, bananas, and oranges, when there’s such a vast variety of fruit across the world that the average American would never even fathom. And even within the banana world, there are over 600+ varieties (most found in India) that are far more complex in both texture and taste that they just make the Cavendish banana (that’s your mainstream supermarket banana variety) seem blander than bland. I never rank countries, but I will say that of all the places we have visited, Colombia was definitely the biggest eye-opener when it came to the sheer variety of exotic fruits that exist in the world. I still reminisce about all the incredible fruit we ate there and all the different textures, tastes, and colors.

Unfortunately, we came in the fruit low season to Chile, which meant that the prized fruit (for me) that is quite “normal” here in Chile, the cherimoya, was not in season. During high season in Chile, you can find cherimoyas for the equivalent of a couple of USD per kilo. But as we browsed the fresh food markets in Santiago, they were nowhere to be found. I asked a fruit vendor, and they told us that cherimoyas are not available until November or December.

On the other hand, what I did find that we enjoy were fresh passion fruit (maracuya) and pomegranates. The pomegranates were huge and slightly cheaper than the ones we’d buy during our autumns in New York. And the passion fruits… wee, the passion fruits were fat, fragrant, and CHEAP. You can get a pound of passion fruit for the equivalent of $1 USD. I was so excited! We didn’t have too much time left in Chile, so I only bought four fat passion fruit to share. Kaia ended not remembering it and refused to try it, but that just meant more for the two of us to eat.

I’d wash the passion fruit in our bathroom and bring them down to breakfast to cut. And these were at their peak, with pulp that was bright orange, thick, and extremely fragrant and sweet, with a good hit of tartness. They were nearly FILLED with pulp, unlike some previous sadder ones we’d gotten that only had a little bit, while the shell was much larger. We definitely scored big with these babies.

So while we didn’t get to enjoy fresh cherimoyas, we did get to have cherimoya juice, and we also got some of the best passion fruits of our lives. And the pomegranate was also quite perfect, with almost all the seeds perfect and plump. We shared with Kaia, but let’s be honest… she definitely ate the majority of this heavy pomegranate and kept demanding more and more.

Chilean wine culture: Get the bottle

Being in the U.S., I am used to seeing high prices for wine in restaurants. At even casual restaurants, you can expect to spend somewhere between $8-20 for a glass of wine. If you want a bottle, you’d be lucky to get one for less than $50. If you got that same bottle at your local wine shop, it would likely be somewhere between $8-20. But that’s the price (markup) you pay for enjoying a bottle while dining out, and you just accept it. Bottles are pricey, so it’s more common here to order wine by the glass, if you choose to have wine at all. You’ll often see a longer list of wines by the glass, and then a smaller selection of wines by the bottle. Or, if you’re at a place that has a sommelier, you may have a completely separate menu for wine that has long lists of wine by the bottle.

So when we first went out in Santiago, I was a bit surprised when I noticed that when we were given wine lists, the prices listed… were for the bottle. You’d have a long list of about 10-20 Chilean wine bottles with extremely reasonable (under $20 USD) prices noted next to them. And then, on the bottom of the list, you’d see one or two “copa” (glass) options and their prices. The prices for the glasses were usually somewhere between $4-7. But when you have bottle options that are between $10-20, it would actually be a better value to just get the full bottle. Even if you aren’t good at math, you can see the bottle price works out better. So just live a little and get the freaking bottle!

Chileans enjoy their wine. They enjoy their company with wine. And so, given that, they will order the bottle and enjoy it. Plus, it’s relatively affordable to do so (I’d assume it’s like this because we’re closer to the source, wine is just part of their culture, and there are likely far fewer middle men involved). And while we’re here, we’ll enjoy more bottles, much to Chris’s excitment. I haven’t been drinking much at all, barely a drink a week, if even that, since I started consciously trying to lose weight back in September of last year (weight I somehow gained after weaning from breastfeeding; the fun never ends in postpartum, does it…?! It made me wonder: when does “postpartum” ever end, if ever..?). So this will be a temporary change for me. So while in South America, I will imbibe and enjoy!

A wine bar in a country that didn’t have wine bars

Twelve years ago when the wine bar Bocanariz opened in the historic and bohemian Lastarria neighborhood in Santiago, Chile, wine bars were completely unheard of in the country. When Chileans drank wine, it would be at home, bars, restaurants, and wineries, but the concept of wine-only bar was unheard of. And when Bocanariz also started making food that pretty exceptional to go with their wine flights, that was also seen as odd. But people started taking notice. This wine bar has won a lot of accolades globally not just for its wine, but also its food. When I was doing research for our South America trip, specifically for Santiago, I could not see restaurant recommendation lists that did NOT have this spot on it. The reviews were quite enthusiastic, and it was hard not to take notice of it. On top of that, the food menu looked pretty enticing, with an emphasis on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. The prices seemed like a relative bargain to the equivalent I’d find in New York. Since traveling with a young child, I’m cognizant of the annoyance of babies/young children to other diners, so during our travels, I’ve been hesitant and avoidant to make any reservations at any “fine dining” type establishments. But Bocanariz seemed amiable to younger children, with their restaurant noting that they have high chairs, and some photos posted on Google where I can clearly see people have brought littles. So I decided to make a lunch reservation and see how we’d go.

The food in Chile has been delicious, but this meal and wine experience will definitely be a highlight. For our starters, we enjoyed local Chilean oysters, small and exceptionally creamy. I had just had a number of (East Coast) oysters at a customer dinner the previous week, and while they were delicious, they completely paled in comparison to these Chilean morsels of delight. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had sweeter or creamier oysters than these. We had fish ceviche in a creamy dressing, with avocado, roasted corn, and sweet potato chips; I could have drank all that sauce by itself without the fish. And we also had fried bao with roasted tongue beef: the bao itself was slightly crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside, while the tongue was incredibly tender and well seasoned.

And for our mains, we shared the duck confit with sweet potato puree and orange dressing, plus the scallop linguine. Both were delicious, as we savored every bite, but I will say that the linguine was quite exceptional. Some of the scallops were served in their shell (which I LOVE; I usually only see this in Australia or certain parts of Asia, and we NEVER see this in the U.S.), and the sauce was so buttery yet light. We nearly had to fight Kaia to get just a couple bites of this linguine.

We also had three different wine flights: one was Carmenere for both of us (since it seems to be the specialty in Chile and not common outside of the country, though this grape did originate in France), and the second, we split: we had one “author’s flight” and one “classic” flight. I didn’t come to Chile knowing much at all about Carmenere or Chilean wine in general, but I can say that 1) I can’t believe how relatively inexpensive they all are, and 2) they’re truly delicious and underrated — lots of pleasant complexity and fruitiness in each sip. Somehow, we managed to get through all that wine and food without Kaia squirming out of her high chair too often. It was like a little miracle.

I’m so happy I found a special place for us to eat here that had delicious food, a crazy large selection of local wine, and good service in a relatively casual setting for all three of us. Maybe for our future trips, I should look for places that are more like Bocanariz, though it does still seem to be quite a gem, even in Santiago today. In a time pre-Pookster, I loved finding one splurge or tasting menu-type restaurant for us during our trips, but now, we have to adjust and find other delicious places that will accommodate her. And clearly, different places are not lacking for these at all.

Pisco: the key ingredient in a pisco sour

The first time I had a pisco sour cocktail was when I was 21. I was dining out at a Peruvian restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts, with my then boyfriend and his then roommate and friend, and they introduced me to the pisco sour. The roommate was Chilean, originally from Santiago, and was at Harvard doing his PhD in astronomy. He told me he missed Chilean food, and since there weren’t any Chilean restaurants he could find in the Boston area, he had to settle for Peruvian to get his “home food” fix, as it was the next best and closest thing. Pisco was one of the best things to come out of Chile, and he loved making them and drinking them.

The pisco sour is a fairly simple cocktail: pisco (a brandy-like, grape-based liqueur), fresh squeezed lime juice, simple syrup, topped with a fresh frothy egg white and a dash of bitters. It was a revelation in my mouth, as I was experiencing two new tastes and sensations at the same time: it was the first time I was tasting pisco, and the first time I was enjoying a raw egg white in a drink. And I was in heaven. It was frothy, luscious, sweet, tart, smooth, with just a hint of bitter (from the bitters, duh). I couldn’t believe how delicious and complex this drink was!

Pisco is essentially an un-aged brandy that is the result of distilled fermented grape musts and juices. Some say it’s like the Italian grappa since both are made from grapes. But what I did not know then, which I know now, is that pisco (and the pisco sour) are not just Peruvian, but they are also considered Chilean. There is quite the rivalry when it comes to the question of which country does it better.

A few differences exist between the two: Chilean producers grow grapes in desert conditions with very low humidity. Peru requires producers to use only grape eight varietals, while Chilean producers have 13 different varietals to choose from. Chilean producers can use semi-fermented young wine as their Peruvian counterparts do, but they prefer to use fully fermented wine.

The first key difference is that Chilean producers grow grapes in desert conditions with extremely low humidity.  Unlike Peru that requires producers to use only eight grape varietals, Chilean producers have13 varietals to choose from. Chilean producers can use semi-fermented, young wine like their Peruvian counterparts…but they typically use fully fermented wine. Chilean producers can also age piscos in wooden barrels for a more cognac-type color and flavor. Chilean producers can also add water at the finishing stage to bring down alcohol content. In Peru, pisco can be distilled only once, and no water is allowed to be added.

I suppose what we could do is to try to do a tasting of Chilean pisco and Peruvian pisco side by side, straight up, to see how they compare. But this would be pretty tough given there are so many varieties and ways of distilling, aging, etc., that I mentioned above, so you’d need to do a lot of research to do a true “apples to apples” comparison. So instead, while we’re here, I’d like to just drink as many pisco sours as possible and enjoy how delicious they are, along with that luxurious frothy egg white top. Who would have ever thought an egg white, frothed raw, could make a drink so darn exciting? We each had a large pisco sour at a fun restaurant that was next to a major art museum in Lastarria today, and it was just as enjoyable and delicious as it looked.

Default juices in Chile: passion fruit and cherimoya (custard apple)

Juice in the United States is a sad affair. It’s one I’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog in various capacities. But I think it’s particularly embarrassing to discuss and confront it when in the company of those who grew up in cultures and countries where, if one chooses to consume juice, one can get it fresh squeezed. If you grew up in that type of culture, you’d be disgusted and aghast to find out that in the U.S., while the label on your orange juice carton from the grocery store may say “100% juice,” what it really means is… an orange that has been completely deconstructed, pasteurized, squeezed, and broken down into so many different forms that it no longer has any flavor that resembles the original fruit. To recreate the taste of “fresh orange juice,” juice companies add “flavor packs,” which are essentially chemical flavorings that are derived from orange essence and oil. Somehow, these do not need to be labeled as separate ingredients since they are derived from oranges, and hence, your juice can be called 100% juice with only “orange juice” as the ingredient. Sick, right?

I’ve never been a big juice drinker as an adult, as I prefer to eat my fruit. But, I do enjoy the occasional fruit smoothie. I’ve gone through phases when I’ve regularly made smoothies at home. Sometimes while on work trips, I’ll get cold-pressed juice (usually green) as a treat. But, when in countries where the fresh squeezed juice culture is strong, like Brazil, Colombia, or in Southeast Asia, I am happy to enjoy them… because they’re freshly squeezed, not heavily processed. They actually taste like what the fruit should taste like.

When we arrived at the Santiago Marriott Hotel this morning, where we’ll be spending the next five nights, we were invited to breakfast. And Chris was excited to see that the “default juices” in the beverage section were passion fruit (maracuya) and cherimoya (custard apple). Both were delicious and tasted like the real fruit, even if they weren’t actually fresh squeezed. Because we are in South America during the Southern Hemisphere winter, we’re not here during peak cherimoya season unfortunately, which is during November-December. So I was a bit bummed about that given how much I love cherimoya, though I rarely eat it because it’s such an expensive fruit almost everywhere we’ve been. Cherimoya’s home is actually in the Andes Mountains, somewhere between Peru and Ecuador. It’s thought to be just a regular summer fruit here in Chile, so when you come here during their spring/summer, you can find it for cheap at any local market. It’s okay, though: I’m still happy to enjoy the juice!

Customer service wins – Burlap & Barrel

I found out about the spice company Burlap & Barrel about three years ago. The Sambal Lady was coming out with three different spice blends that she created in partnership with this spice company, and I was intrigued. They work directly with farmers to get to the source. There’s accountability for things like farming practices, ethical treatment of workers and wages, and the spices are just fresher. You’re closer to the source. Of course, this comes at a much higher price tag, but occasionally, especially when it comes to the ingredients I cook with, I am definitely willing to splurge. What we put into our bodies is really important.

Last year, I bought this really rich, pungent sumac from Burlap & Barrel. It was totally different than the last sumac I had purchased from Fairway. The color was this really dark, deep burgundy color. The fragrance wafted strongly out of the bottle. And the feel on my fingertips of the sumac flakes was really rich and oily. I was really blown away by the quality almost immediately. They even suggest starting with half of what a recipe recommends for a given spice because their spices are that much fresher and richer. And I believe it. I’ve done just that and never felt like I was skimping out on spicing my foods with their spices.

But this past Sunday, I had a total snafu. I was about to roast a tray of vegetables and was sprinkling sumac directly from the bottle when the little shaker top on the bottle fell off. And plop! Almost half of my beloved, rich, and expensive sumac came pouring all over my tray. I tried to salvage as much as I could, but it was already too late. It was contaminated, and some sumac flakes even got some olive oil on them.

I sent an email to the B&B customer service, and within minutes, someone from their customer service team responded and said they would send out a replacement bottle immediately. Given shipping would be free, she asked me if I wanted to add anything to my order. Free shipping on just two bottles? Ummm, yeah! So I added a bottle of herbes de Provence, which I’ve been wanting to try. She even threw in a free kitchen towel! I was floored.

Now, if every customer service team could be that responsive and empathetic, while also taking immediate action, every single person on earth who buys anything would be happy.

3.5 bulbs of garlic, minced and frozen

When most people think about travel prep, they think about booking logistics, creating schedules, and packing. While all of that is true and needed, what no one seems to talk about is… making sure your house is in order and that no food rots or gets wasted in your absence. Well, that was me this morning: skinning and mincing about 3.5 bulbs of garlic (I didn’t even bother counting how many cloves that was!) and about six inches of very fresh and juicy ginger.

It took ages to do. Even though I have my method, doing that much garlic and ginger in one standing takes time. It’s annoying, tedious, and makes me wonder why I rarely plan ahead enough to NOT buy too much of these aromatics before a long trip. But then I look at the bright side: when I come back in two weeks, I will have endless amounts of already minced ginger and garlic ready to go. All I will have to do is pop them out of my ice cube trays, defrost them, and throw them into a hot pan — that’s work up front for true enjoyment (and speedy meals) later!

Hidden cafes in Philly

Yesterday, I came to Philadelphia for a quick overnight trip to have a meeting with a customer. The only real alone time I would get to walk around and explore would be early Thursday morning before my flight, so I walked around Center City and Rittenhouse Square before getting into an Uber going to the airport. In the last several weeks with the hot weather and my obsession with having cold brew / iced coffee in the morning, I was definitely in a coffee mood. So I did a quick search for places walking distance from my hotel where I could get a unique coffee drink. I found a place that was about an 8-minute walk from my hotel. It was completely nondescript; if I didn’t map it or look it up, there was little chance I would have stumbled upon it, especially since it was barely marked from the outside and was in an alley.

I walked inside the cafe, and it was huge. Even though I travel quite a bit, because I am so used to the small, cramped spaces and limited seating in New York, I still always marvel at the space inside cafes in other cities. The floor space was so wide, and the tables were large with lots of walking space between them. I ordered an iced strawberry oat milk latte plus an almond croissant from a local nearby French bakery. The oat milk was blended with pureed strawberries and infused with beet juice, and it really complemented the espresso well. I love finding unique drinks like this when traveling, even on short notice.