April 21, 2008

The last hope... or is it?

I'm getting jostled left and right like I'm on an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster. While not quite as intense as yesterday's drive (where I'm sure I lost some brain cells), most of this ride over the unpaved roads is a rhythmic mix of myriad bumps and jarring lurches, shaking the sense out of me. And though I'm exhausted from the day before, this is keeping me from getting some needed sleep.

But I couldn't be happier. We're on our way to Torres Del Paines, and in front of me in every direction is probably the most beautifully dramatic, breathtaking and awe-inspiring place I've ever seen.

Chilean food sometimes gets a bad rap, and I suppose sometimes there is a certain lack of technique... but so far the quality of the ingredients have generally kept us happy. We stopped at a restaurant in the middle of the national park, Parrilla Pehoe, for a light lunch. The retaurant has a spectacular, unobstructed view of the mountains and serves simple, but good food.

Seeing the roaring wood-fired grill, we opted to share a steak, our first venture into the wonderful world of Chilean beef. The steak was perfectly cooked medium-rare with that fantastic wood-smoked aroma and was absolutely flavorful and juicy. I'm not sure if it was just in my mind, but the beef had a more intense flavor while at the same time tasting cleaner. I don't know if that makes sense... the fats and juices from the meat didn't seem to linger on the palate as heavily or for as long. It also didn't seem, though, that they had seasoned the meat at all prior to placing it on the grill. Just a simple step that would have made it a really outstanding steak. As it was, the pure quality of the beef still made it a nice lunch.

That night, we experienced more cooking with great ingredients in need of just a few minor tweaks in cooking style. The restaurant, La Ăšltima Esperanza ("the last hope," named after the province containing Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine) has been around for a long time and came highly recommended by our guide books as well as by John, our terrific guide for the day. I tried congria (conger eel), a popular fish in Chile -- fresh, moist and meaty, but overwhelmed by a cream-based sauce. Lav's lamb had great flavor, but certain cuts on her plate would have been better slow-braised; grilling made the meat tough.

While we were disappointed in the meal, in the end I'm still excited by the fact that even in a small town in the off-season, there is a lot of care placed on the quality and freshness of the ingredients.

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