A tribute to Colombian cuisine, Elcielo has some visual and taste sensation cards up its sleeve.
Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos, who opened his first restaurant in Medellín by the age of 23 and enjoyed a spot on the Latin Best restaurants list from 2013 to 2015, was the youngest chef ever to be included at the time.
Branching out and feeling he had something different to offer, he decided to be in Miami, the most exciting city he had ever seen. He found a superb location – right on the Miami River on the ground floor of a luxury condo building. The river walk is dotted with bubbling fountains, benches, and superb views of passing fishing boats, large yachts, barges, and many electric billboards. It’s a lively scene and very Miami.
Recently, Elcielo’s Miami location was awarded the first-ever Michelin Star in Florida, in great company with 14 other exceptional establishments. Just last year, Chef Juanma’s other Elcielo location in Washington DC made history by obtaining the first star for a Colombian restaurant abroad and was just repeatedly awarded for its second year in a row a Michelin Star last month for that same location.
Combining a variety of sensory experiences with one-of-a-kind flavors and textures, Chef Juanma, has revolutionized traditional Colombian cuisine by combining his avant-garde cooking techniques with his passion for neurosciences. Having trained under world-renowned chefs including Spain’s Juan Mari Arzak, Juanma combines classical training with modern techniques, resulting in a dining experience that is in a league of its own in Miami.
The white restaurant interior is dreamlike with billowing curtains, white roses along the back wall, and an onyx bar lit from within that glows with a soft cosmic light. Tables are wood and sturdy, with leather-backed chairs and leather buckled napkin holders standing at attention in the center. Settle in, as diners are in for a meal that can last up to 3 hours.
A swarm of waiters arrives with a water and drink menu and a printed menu of the evening’s meals. This is no ordinary menu as the same courses, with substitutions for vegetarians, are given to all diners on a rotating four-month basis.
“We offer a fine dining tasting menu – THE EXPERIENCE – that is a tribute to Colombian Cuisine,” Chef Barrientos says. “Our team strives to create a unique and carefully crafted experience that taps into all your senses. The food and ambiance will transport you to the beautiful beaches of Cartagena and the mysterious corners of the Amazon jungle. The menu includes 20 moments, steps, and dishes of varying size and composition as well as surprising sensory moments.”
Barrientos began the restaurant with a company called Mindcode in Mexico that measures and studies emotional peaks and reactions in the brain that are caused by certain foods and experiences.
“The entire menu is designed around that,” he says.
But not all courses are edible.
“Some are just for pure sensory, like the rose petals you will receive at the end, and the choco therapy.”
We started with an innovative Colombian cocktail, the Spicy Green Margarita made with Tromba Tequila, Lime, Jalapeño, and Black Salt. A foam dollop was made with citrus for a creamy sensation, and the crunchy black salt made for a graphic look.
Then the courses began to arrive. A small vial of Passion Fruit Mistela arrived corked, meant to be gulped in one strong shot. Then small bites came out, with various flavors of fish and caviar. A crab-shaped crab empanada was a delight, with spicy tomato dipping sauce.
After a few courses, the waiter brings a large bowl you hold our hands out over. Then he pours warm chocolate over them for a brief hand soak spa-like treatment. A warm cloth allows you to wash it off, as the scent of warm cocoa wafts in the air.
The bread tree is a charming touch – a wire-wrapped tree anchored by a rock holds aloft a warm baked flatbread, begging to be torn off bit by bit and dipped in the herb butter next to it. Okay, definitely different and fun.
A yellow and black soup made from squash and onion ash looked great but suffered from a bit too much salt.
The Lobster Hot Dog is not a sausage, but a Lobster roll in a black bread bun. I could have made of meal of that, but the two bites of it would have to suffice.
Courses of seafood with shrimp and clams in a saffron broth followed along with a show-stopping rack of lamb with lavender and yuca.
Deserts came in several tastings – raspberry and mint ice cream came in a small cone-like a fruit roll-up, and orange ice cream with honey was indulgent. A final plate with butterfly-shaped cookies and an “emerald” made from green-covered vanilla macaron was sweet and unusual.
Coffee is a big deal in Colombia so the presentation here is paramount – the waiter brings a silver tray with ground coffee in a bowl along with a drip filter carafe and boiling water. He slowly wets the filter, then spoons in the coffee, then the hot water, letting it seep through.
To complete the desired rainforest scene, he places a potted coffee bean plant on the table and a bowl with liquid nitrogen that erupts with a gentle white mist all over the table. It’s quite a show, though I would have liked some milk with the brew, something the server said was not traditional.
Barrientos’ modern, hyper-creative style has been inspired by the molecular gastronomy movement and his deep roots in Colombia but also a desire to meld the schools of cooking and neuroscience. Chef Barrientos says he is concerned not only with making his food taste heavenly but also with how it makes his customers feel and the emotions it awakes in them while dining.
As you depart they bring you rose petals on a tray dotted with oil. Rubbing the petals together in your hand produces a lovely waft of roses and leaves your hands feeling soft and fragrant.
Multi-sensory dining indeed.
Online at elcielorestaurant.com
Elcielo Miami: A 20-course feast on the river