Cartagena Day/Night 5 – From the Sea to the Land of the Expats

My original plan had already been scuttled as I was intending to do lunch at a popular spot called Donjuan and then dinner later somewhere casual.  However, it turned out that it wasn’t open for lunch on the weekends so I pivoted instead to trying out the new Spanish/Colombian fusion place that a couple of people at Marea had suggested.  Given how good the food was there, that was all I needed to know.  Plus, it was located in a different part of town called Los Morros that I had yet to explore.

After a somewhat circuitous cab ride past the airport and back along the water, I arrived at the gates of the Hotel Las Americas, where the restaurant was located.  The first of a couple of odd things was how fortified the gate was.  It looked more like a compound than the entrance to a hotel.  The second thing was that since I didn’t have a reservation, they had to call the restaurant to grant me entry.  After a few minutes, the guard gave my driver the OK sign and dropped me off at the lobby entrance.

The lobby and surrounding area was hardly impressive, looking more like a hotel that had gone to seed than anywhere a fancy new restaurant would plant its flag.  After confirming that I was in the right place, I was told to follow the path to the other end of the hotel.  There things finally began to change and soon I was in a different lobby that looked brand new and a sign pointing to the elevator to go up to the 10th floor.

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Erre by Ramon Freixa is the brainchild of a Spanish chef who spent time in several elite kitchens there, including Arzak and Mugaritz.  His goal is to combine Colombian ingredients (leaning heavily on seafood and vegetables) with Spanish cooking techniques.  It was a very nice room, filled with delicate touches that indicated someone had spent a boatload of money to get this up and running.

There were 3 different areas, two of which were closed since it was lunch, so only the main dining room was open.  I was ushered to a seat in the middle of the room, which had views of the water on either side.

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Since the concept was old and new techniques, I decided to try one of each for my meal.  First up was the crab salad with sorrels, jicama and potatoes with a “roasted vanilla powder.”

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It was a very beautiful looking dish and the crab was very fresh.  The jicama straws added some nice texture and while I’m usually not a fan of cold potatoes, with the powder sauce, everything worked very well together.

For my main course, I went with the “socorrat” with pork ribs and octopus.  The socorrate is the term used to the describe the best part of any paella, the crunchy rice bits that form on the edge of the pan that are normally scrapped up at the end of serving the dish.  I was expecting to get maybe a small plate of this, perhaps served table side for drama’s sake.  What I got instead was this magnificent beast.

image In a stroke of pure genius, I was presented what was basically a person paella pan along with a spoon with a jagged edge to scrape up the sides.  While it was massive (look at the glass of water and the bread in the background for size comparison), it was also thankfully very shallow so it wasn’t quite as daunting as it looked when it had arrived.

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This is what it looked like after I played around with it a bit, still huge but at least something I could mostly if not fully finish.  It was as good a paella as I’ve ever had.  The pork ribs were fork tender and the octopus was nicely charred nestling at the bottom of the pan.  But of course the real star was the rice.  It had just the right bite to it and I happily crunched along memories flooding back to paellas from my times in Spain.

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Knowing I was way too full but noticing one of my all time favorites on the dessert menu, what they called Marco’s Perfect Carrot Cake, I made the executive decision to get it BUT eat only half and have the other half later as a snack.  This turned out to be smart on my part because the piece of cake was both massive and dense.  The little side of mango sorbet helped ensure I didn’t eat the entire piece too.

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I needed to walk off my lunch so I took a leisurely stroll through my surrounding hood, which was aided at least at first by a massive winds.  This was great until I had to turn into it to head back and as their velocity increased even more, I was suddenly having quite a workout.  As I was walking back, I came across what appeared to be a birthday party for an older woman.  There were kids running around, music blasting and everyone was dancing.  Cartagena is definitely a city of haves and have-nots, with this group decidedly in the latter category.  Still, the pure joy and happiness that emanated from watching the party was universal.  I felt honored to have witnessed it, even from afar.

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I headed back to the apartment for some much needed deck time (yes, I have a rough life, I know) and to catch one of only two remaining sunsets from my magnificent view.  I will miss this for sure.

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I gave myself a bit extra time with a siesta since i knew I was in for a very long night.  I posted the previous blog entry and took off for the Walled City once again.  Donjuan was just off the Clock Tower so the cab drive pulled up in that main plaza, and I stumbled my way to it after that.

Known as a popular pre-nightlife spot for locals as the occasional tourist, Donjuan was owned by a famous Colombian soap opera star and featured many of his favorite dishes.  I had been told that the thing to get was the grilled octopus and since I hadn’t yet had that preparation, I was eager to try it.

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The octopus was very tender and the char was perfect.  An a new twist, it was served with potatoes and bacon, which gave it an even smokier flavor.  Delicious.

While I was waiting for my next dish, I noticed that I had been seated next to a group of four American DudeBros.  After eavesdropping about their various adventures for the day, I asked them where they were from – DC and surrounding area.  For the hell of it, I decided to ask this in a quasi Swedish accent and told them of my time here so far.  They didn’t speak any Spanish but didn’t seem to be troubled by that as they had some local fixer helping them.  One of them was bragging about their conquests from last night and that they would be there soon.  Shortly thereafter, two mildly attractive French women joined them at the table and introduced themselves to me in English.  Well, I guess options are limited for those who don’t speak Spanish here.

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Having learned my lesson on not overdoing it for dinner when going out after, I opted to stay light for my second dish and got the salmon tiradito (basically salmon treated with citrus but not quite a ceviche.)  This wasn’t quite as good as the octopus as it there was a bit too much acidity for my tastes.

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Instead of dessert, I asked my server for his favorite Colombian rum.  He excitedly pointed to La Hebichera from nearby Barranquilla.  Unfortunately, compared to mi amio Zacapa 23, this was a somewhat pale comparison.  When I told the server that, he shook his head and agreed that was the superior liquor.

My original plan post dinner was to go to a place called BarBar but in doing further research, it appeared to cater to a much younger crowd.  Wanting something a bit more upscale, I picked La Movida instead, which was located across the street from La Vitrola so it would be a nice full circle for my trip.  I had been told to be sure to get there before midnight as a large line starts after that.  I had carefully plotted my route in Google Maps but for some reason, it had disappeared when I tried to load it.  Fortunately, by this point, I was pretty familiar with the basic layout of that part of Centro so I was able to figure out where it was fairly easily.

The entrance was in the back via the patio and after getting a fairly close inspection of my worthiness, I was allowed inside after paying the $10 USD cover, by far the most expensive I had paid but oh well.  The patio was already starting to fill up but the lack of cool air made me quickly go inside the main room.  La Movida is a tapas bar until midnight when it becomes a true club so there were still a few tables of people finishing up dinner.  I immediately liked the vibe and made my way to the bar to get a mojito, this time choosing one made with Zacapa rum for only a couple of more dollars.

Almost immediately after I got my drink, I started getting a lot of people pointing at me and giving me the tall height signal.  I smiled back and raised my glass “salud.”  A few minutes later a decidedly not Colombian looking guy came up to me with the same expression.  He was pretty short so I bent down to give him the salud and that cracked him up.

He asked me where I was from and when I said the States, he replied he was from Boston along with two other guys and 3 Colombian women from Bogota they had met earlier that day.  The one he was with looked up at me with big eyes and yelled “WHY YOU SO TALL??”  The main guy, who was also named Steve, introduced me to their group and asked who I was here with.  When I said, no one ,he said “well you are with us now.”

I chatted with their group for awhile and we all danced as it was now really starting to fill up.  I noticed a taller guy motioning me over and when I approached he said “are those fuckers making you take pictures like a fuckin monkey?”  I smiled and said I didn’t mind it. His name was Forrest, an Expat from Holland now living in Bogota, here on business for the week.  He introduced me to his friend who was from Miami, and I had a nice chat with them after he graciously bought me another round.

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I bounced back and forth between those two groups, taking more pictures with “giante rubio” and forced my way back to the patio since now the main room was insanely packed.  The new DJ was playing a fantastic set of deep, funky house and there was a saxophonist along side of him – very cool.  As I walked through the patio, this boisterous and very drunk Colombian saw me and told me “you are too short for this country, go away!”  I mimed like I was leaving and he pulled me over to introduce me to his amigos.  “You need a shot” he said and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  I obliged and he said “another one!”

This time I was able to escape for at least a little bit when a few minutes later, he got on top of a chair with the shot, motioning me over.  “You’ll make history with this one!”  Well then, I guess I had no choice.  He excitedly poured the shot into my mouth with phones all around me recording the action.  Yes, it was that kind of a night.

The hours rolled by with me rotating back and forth to all of my various new friends when I noticed a guy almost as tall as me on the other side of patio.  I did the traditional tall guy nod and came over to say hello.  Turned out he was from New York and had moved to Cartagena 3 months ago to do high end property rentals.  Amazingly, he said he spoke no Spanish, which made me wonder how in the heck he did business here.  He said loved it here and gave me his contact info to hook me up on my next visit.

It was strange after almost 5 days of speaking almost no English, at La Movida that’s basically all I did.  I both wished I had discovered this place sooner but at the same time glad I didn’t as it forced me to be a lot more like a local, always my goal when traveling.  I could see the hermetically sealed environment of the earlier DudeBros (who not surprisingly also ended up at La Movida), hitting on fellow tourists versus interacting with real locals, and made me realize I want no part of that.

Trying to stick to my usual goal of getting home before sunrise, I said my various goodbyes and headed back to the apartment, enjoying the now cool sea breeze from my cab and smiling about all of the insanity I had just endured.  There was one more day/night to go and with an early departure Monday, I knew that this would be pretty much my final taste of the great Cartagena nightlife so it was a nice way to go out in style.

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