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Santiago’s Culinary Boom

Valle de Casablanca

Photo by National Geographic Creative/Alamy

Valle de Casablanca

At Peumayen, a three-year-old upscale restaurant in Santiago, Chile, my server sets down an amuse-bouche to start my meal. As folk music softly sounds overhead, he explains how the kitchen aims to reintroduce ingredients and cooking techniques used by Chile's indigenous, pre-Hispanic cultures and present them with modern flourishes. He waves his arm like an Oscars presenter toward the chopped hillock of ruby-colored morsels resting on a rustic wooden spoon, dotted with edible flowers.

"Horsemeat tartare," he announces proudly. "It's a delicacy in Chile."

I wince. But without giving myself too much time to deliberate, I delicately place the spoon in my mouth. The taste, I must admit, delights with a clean flavour akin to lean beef.

The rest of the meal—Chilean hazelnut-crusted hake and lamb shank in a brothy stew among red, yellow and purple potatoes—careens along without any more potentially disquieting proteins. At one point, the waiter presents a rectangular slate board arranged with ancient variations on breads, including potato fritters resembling palm-sized stones and a square of sweet-savory cake baked with banana. They all taste fascinating—and delicious.

This mingling of the elemental and the urbane serves as one seductive example of the new class of culinary pleasures in Chile, which is fast becoming one of South American’s most tantalizing foodie destinations. Last decade, Argentina beckoned with its steakhouses, serving chops laced with herbaceous chimichurri and Malbec wines from Mendoza. A few years back, Peru rose to fame with its nuanced ceviches and cutting-edge cooks weaving the influences of European and Asian immigrants into homegrown cooking. Now Chile steps up to the plate, led by chefs determined to showcase the country’s bounty of produce and seafood in ways that honor the local culture but also tempt worldly palates.

My first day serves as a primer for Chile’s food culture. Two hours after landing in Santiago, I embark on a walk with FoodyChile. The food tours operator takes visitors to local markets to see and shop before returning to a kitchen for cooking lessons on the native cuisine. On this afternoon, we head to the city’s La Vega Central market, an approximately 60,000-square-foot complex with 500-plus stands, where visions of rows of radiant, colorful fruits and vegetables fill my eyes.

My guide darts to his preferred food stalls, gathering provisions for lunch. We stop to sample small bowls of caldos (typical Chilean stews). While we indulge, he fills me in. “If you had come to Chile six years ago, I would have said, ‘Hey, we’ve got great steakhouses and Italian restaurants here for you,” he says. “But there has been a change in the last couple of years. Chefs in Santiago are taking pride in the land and the native food culture, elevating simple dishes into something more extravagant. Or they showcase our abundance by focusing on the taste of the ingredients, without muddying them with sauces.”

This is a lesson I learn well along my Santiago food odyssey. Dinner that night is at Boragó, Chile’s most lauded restaurant. Last year, it was No. 2 on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. Rodolfo Guzmán and his staff forage Chile’s countryside for ingredients, which serve as inspiration for the sculptural dishes they serve in daily changing tasting menus. The meal itself comprises 18 courses, including picoroco, a barnacle served in its shell with a conger eel broth, and venison tartare with maqui, a Chilean wild berry.

But Santiago’s elevated food scene is not solely limited to the realms of fine dining. One afternoon, I head to Providencia, where I join the long line at Hogs Salchichería. The unassuming spot at the base of an apartment block serves up a gourmet take on one of Chile’s national obsessions: hot dogs. And it’s easy to see why the line stretches on. Hogs’ artisan hot dogs closely resemble gently spiced Cajun boudin blanc.

Chileans typically eat dinner around 10 p.m.; on my last night, I set off for dinner at 7 p.m., the only reservation available at the next stop on my dining hit list. A 20-minute cab ride to the residential end of the Vitacura district brings me to Ambrosía, a grand temple of gastronomy in a renovated modern house that was No. 32 on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. There, chef Carolina Bazán’s compositions look like miniature gardens. For my entrée, my server picks out a Chilean cabernet franc to match tender veal flank steak, cooked sous-vide for 40 hours so it practically melts in your mouth. And as I wind down my trip, sipping on the poetic, violet-scented wine, it’s easy to see how for Chile, the country’s culinary future is plenty bright.

WHERE TO STAY: Find boutique charm at The Aubrey, housed in a 1920s mission-style mansion in boho-chic Bellavista, where you can enjoy a dip in the heated pool before a pisco sour in the Piano Lounge. For a more modern stay, head to the W Santiago, located in a sleek modern glass tower filled with smart technology in snazzy Las Condes.

WHAT TO DO: Consider heading to the Chile’s nearby Casablanca Valley for a wine tour in this cool-climate coastal region, which turns out some of the country’s best chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. Schedule bodega visits with tastings at renowned vineyards like the all-organic Emiliana or scenic Casas del Bosque.

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