The Elcielo Experience
by Bill Babash, Vicé Charge de Presse
It was an evening of joyful culinary discovery on April 6, 2022. as the Bailliage of Greater Washington, DC, gathered at Elcielo, located in La Cosecha, a market in the city’s Union Market district that celebrates Latin American cuisine and culture.
Chef/Owner Juan Manuel Barrientos (also known as Juanma), a native of Medellin, Colombia, owns ten restaurants and bars, including four Elcielo locations – Medellin and Bogotá in Colombia and Miami and Washington in the U.S. The nation’s capital is fortunate to have Elcielo’s Executive Sous Chef and Corporate Chef for the US Sebastián Moreno leading the kitchen in the DC restaurant, which earned a Michelin-star for its refined, sophisticated, and often whimsical interpretations and presentations of Colombian cuisine.
Members and guests gathered in Elcielo’s airy main dining room, reserved exclusively for them, where a glass of Charles Heidseick Brut Reserve Rosé NV began the evening. Heidseick is the smallest of the Grandes Marques Champagne houses and with new owners since 2011, has honed its sourcing of grapes from 120 villages down to 60 of the finest crus., creating an exceptional cuvée. Conversation (and more bubbly) flowed as attendees caught up with each other and eagerly anticipated the culinary journey to come.
Once seated, attendees began “The Experience,” as Elcielo’s extraordinary tasting menu is known. For this evening, Chef Moreno had curated a menu of 19 delights exclusively for the bailliage. Kicking things off was a small shot of Mistela presented in a tiny, corked bottle. Elcielo’s mistela is a fermentation of aguardiente (a sugar cane and aniseed spirit from Colombia) and berries with rosemary. The Spanish term aguardiente combines aqua, meaning water, and ardiente, meaning burning – or in English, “firewater.” Elcielo’s version was bright and flavorful – and, yes, potent – making it a great palate-opening aperitif.
Dinner began with a series of single-bite canapés that creatively introduced some of the diverse flavors and ingredients that distinguish Colombian cuisine:
- Compresso; apple compressed with tequila and roses, covered with pop sugar and apple blossoms;
- Buñuelo: a fritter filled with herb cream with mango vinegar and sweet pepper;
- Aborrajado: layers of sweet plantain, fresh cheese, guava and avocado ají inspired by the traditional snack of Valle del Cauca, which is located on Colombia’s Pacific coast and may be most familiar for its capital city, Cali; and
- Chicharrona: a savory pork belly fritter with tartare sauce and pork skin with cumin.
Accompanying the canapés was Pazo Señoráns Albariño 2020 from Rías Baixas in the Galicia region of Spain. Its vibrancy, floral notes, and hint of salinity made it a great accompaniment to the full range of flavors and textures of the canapés. The albariño grapes for this wine are native to the Galicia region and are cultivated on a pergola system on the winery’s 47 acres of vines. To retain albariño’s bright, fruit-forward character, the winemakers block malolactic fermentation and age the wine on the lees for a minimum of 5 months.
The “tree of life,” a yucca flatbread with basil, paprika, and fresh cheese inspired by the Amazon cultures of Colombia arrived next. The gluten-free bread was presented on a wire bonsai tree from which diners could pull pieces of the dense, warm, and flavorful bread to enjoy with the accompanying spreads. This was followed by “onion and white chocolate” – a roasted onion soup with onion ashes into which servers spooned white chocolate “nitro rocks.” Ultra-cooled by liquid nitrogen, the chocolate shavings created a dense fog when they hit the warm soup. More importantly, perhaps, the cocoa butter added further luxurious mouthfeel to the already velvety soup and a hint of sweetness that amplified the flavor of roasted onion.
Dinner then progressed to Colombian ceviche. The thin slices of beautifully fresh hamachi were joined by golden berries and various Colombian fruits in a dish that was delicious for both the palate and the eyes. The light-bodied and fresh Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvée Colette 2017 was a great match. Grapes for this wine are from more than 40-year-old biodynamically managed vines from south-facing slopes at the base of the Schlossberg hill, the first terroir in Alsace to be classified as Grand Cru. The wine is aged for 8 to 10 months in large old oaks vats, which impart no oak taste.
Next was an incredible seafood composition with mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid served with a robust seafood sauce, pickled coconut, parsley oil, paprika cracker, and lime foam. The medium body and citrus and herb aromas of the Paul Hobbs Crossbarn Chardonnay 2019 paired wonderfully with the extravaganza of seafood. Paul Hobbs earned a degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis, and after an illustrious winemaking career in California and South America, launched his namesake winery in 1991 in Sonoma County California and his nearby Crossbarn winery in 2000. Hobbs’ focus on terroir is reflected his approach to winemaking. For this 100% chardonnay, fruit from diverse vineyards along the cooler western reaches of the Sonoma appellation is harvested by hand and each parcel’s grapes are fermented separately in stainless steel and aged on the lees for five months.
Chef Moreno continued to showcase his talent with seafood with halibut cooked sous vide with coconut rice, tamarind gel, sea beans and green plantain crackers – accompaniments that elevated the delicately cooked halibut in a distinctively Colombian style. Wine for this course was the Domaine François Mikulski Meursault 2016. This 100% chardonnay features grapes from several of the domaine’s parcels, each vinified individually and undergoing 10 to 12 months of élevage in the cellar before being blended – a technique that enables each parcel to impart its distinctive characteristics to the wine. The winemaker limits the use of new oak to less than 20% to ensure the wood des not mask the full expression of the Burgundian terroirs.
Dinner then progressed to hearty yucca gnocchi, inventively served with sweet plantain honey, Appalachian cheese, shitake mushrooms, and black truffles. The crisp exterior texture of the gnocchi contrasted with the soft interior which practically melted in your mouth.Floral and well-structured, the Domaine Heresztyn-Mazzini Chambolle-Musigny 2012, was a worthy accompaniment to this Colombian reinvention of the classic pasta dish. The wine’s pinot noir grapes come from old vines on limestone-rich plots and undergo extended maceration before fermentation with natural yeast. The wine is aged for 16 to 18 months in 30% new oak barrels. 2012 was the estate’s first vintage and produced fewer than 1,000 bottles of this noteworth pinot noir.
The savory courses culminated with two spectacular dishes. First was duck cured for two days in mango and barley miso, then served with sunchokes, maitake mushrooms, and kalamansi sauce – a fusion of Colombian and global tastes that created a remarkable dish. This was followed by a lamb chop marinated in green onions and garlic, smoked with thyme and rosemary, and served with goat sour cream, arugula sauce, onion, and artichokes with a delicateraw sugar cane sauce. By using both techniques of marination and smoke, the chef transported the lamb to new levels of flavor, all further enhanced by the creative accompaniments. Failla Occidental Ridge 2019 was a dynamic pairing for both the duck and the lamb. The wine features cool-climate pinot noir grapes that were cloned from Dijon stock and grown in the Occidental Ridge vineyard at an elevation of 800 feet along California’s Sonoma coast. Aging 11 months on the lees in 20% new French oak, followed by two additional years in 30% and then 40% new French oak, yielded a wine with ample fruit, hints of spice, and plush tannins – mirroring the complexity and depth of the two sophisticated dishes.
As an introduction to dessert, servers presented diners a dish playfully entitled “Lick me!” Chilled plates held a schmear of green mango sorbet accented with kaffir lime cream and key lime powder. Key to the presentation was that there was no silverware. Diners simply licked the sorbet directly from the dinner-size plate. All enjoyed this whimsical break with upscale dining traditions and laughed as they licked up the flavorful palate cleanser.
The evening’s dessert celebrated the spring arrival of Washington’s famous cherry blossoms. Elcielo’s “Cherry Blossom” was mascarpone cheesecake crémeux filled with a cherry compote and finished with a white chocolate cherry blossom glaze, accompanied by cherry sorbet and a cherry blossom yogurt tuile. Presented on a black plate, the dessert was visually stunning and even more delicious. Braida Vigna Senz Nome Moscato d’Asti was a great match. Braida has been producing wine in the province of Asti in northwest Italy since 1961 and the moscato grapes for this wine are from-20-year-old vines. The wine undergoes a second fermentation of about 20 days at a controlled 39°F and is then aged in the bottle. The result is a lightly sparkling wine with restrained sweetness and just 5.5% alcohol, making it a superb choice with the evening’s dessert.
Colombia produces over 70% of the world’s emeralds, so it was fitting that diners were presented with emeralds as dinner concluded. Elcielo’s jewels are edible – rock-shaped truffles filled with white chocolate and lulo, a fruit native to western South America with a taste similar to pineapple or lemon. The evening’s second mignardise was inspired by the novel 100 Years of Solitude by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Regarded as one of the most important works of Latin American literature, the novel follows seven generations of a family. One of the characters is constantly swarmed by yellow butterflies. Elcielo’s yellow butterflies are made with dark chocolate curd, with butterfly crackers, coconut gel, and Maldon salt arriving at the table under a glass dome.
Colombia is well known for its coffee, and at Elcielo coffee is an experience unto itself. Elcielo features San Alberto coffee from Quindio, in western Colombia, which is famous for the quality of its coffee. Coffee is brewed at the table using an elaborate Japanese siphon system that precisely controls the temperature of the water and extracts more complex and refined flavors than other extraction methods, enabling diners to discern nuanced flavors and aromas in the brew, just as they would when enjoying a fine wine.
Fresh flowers are one of Colombia’s biggest exports – the roses at your local florist quite likely are from Colombia. In recognition of this important part of the Colombian economy and culture, “The Experience” concluded with servers offering each diner rose petals that held a dollop of hand cream with which they could give themselves a bit of a relaxing hand massage. It was an unexpected and sensual conclusion to a remarkable meal.
To conclude the evening, Bailli Judy Mazza introduced Angel Guillen, Elcielo’s Chief Operating Officer, USA, and presented him with a Chaîne plate to thank him and the entire team at Elcielo for creating an extraordinary and memorable experience for the bailliage. She spoke for all in attendance in noting how much fun the evening had been, discovering new flavors and enjoying the playful aspects of the presentations. She in particular thanked Chef Moreno for his and his team’s creativity and hard work in crafting and executing the evening’s menu along with Pedro Mendoza, Elcielo’s Public Relations Manager, for his behind-the-scenes role in organizing the event. She presented both Pedro and Chef Sebastián with a silver Chaîne wine coaster as a token of the baillage’s appreciation. Gastronomique Pat Carroll presented the kitchen and service staff with Chaîne pins in recognition of their flawless execution of such a complex dinner.
Conversations continued among attendees as they compared notes of their favorite courses and reveled in their new-found insight into the wonderful traditions and flavors of Colombian cuisine. Among the measures of a successful event is when guests linger. No one wanted to leave. Everyone continued to bask in the warmth, hospitality, and remarkable camaraderie of a wonderful Chaine evening done with Colombian style and flair.