El Choropán: Bravo!
CHOROPÁN, the menu said. Well, I thought, these guys are not off to a very good start. A big mistake on the menu; it surely should have said CHORIPÁN, that well known sausage (chorizo) sandwich the Chileans borrowed several years ago from the Argentines.
Our group of seven had just been ceremoniously escorted into the new Viña Montes restaurant, Fuegos de Apalta, for us a pleasant surprise. A few days earlier we had reserved a table at their Cafe Alfredo, and were not expecting to be participants in the opening day of Montes’ new spectacularly situated, soon to be popular, destination restaurant in the Apalta valley. But there we were, and after Jorge met us at the entrance and explained how the open fire pit cooking was going to work, we were seated at a table with a wrap around view of the Montes vineyards. Fuegos de Apalta is a truly spectacular location that offers a very attractive option for vineyard dining in the Colchagua Valley.
It’s not surprising that in this Francis Mallmann inspired cookery, many of the dishes offered at Fuegos de Apalta are based on meats and vegetables roasted or smoked over the fire pit in the center of the room. It’s a bit unusual to see whole cabbages hanging over a fire, roasting slowly, and whole carrots and large hubbard-like winter squash softening up next to the coals where they slowly cook, unless of course you have read “Tierra de Fuegos, mi cocina irreverente”, which features the Argentine celebrity chef Mallmann’s approach to fire-roasted meats and vegetables. Like so many other new restaurants in Chile, this one is trying to add spark, sparkle, and flavor to the otherwise straightforward classical Chilean cuisine, but without becoming Peruvian or too off-the-wall fusion.
But back to the choropán. It was not a mistake on the menu. The description of this dish explained the name; the choropán is made with mussels, choros or choritos in Chile, garnished with roasted carrots and other vegetables, presented on homemade bread. Ever since I got my introduction to mussels, now about half a century ago, and after a good dose of moules frites in Brussels during one of my trips to Europe, I have searched out good mussels, in markets, fishing villages, and restaurants. My frustration, though, as I explained several years ago in two postings in this same blog, is that in Chile good restaurants that feature or consistently offer fresh mussels are still few and far between, even in the face of an abundance of wild and farm raised mussels in this predominantly coastal country.
My view, which has only marginally changed over time, is that Chileans all claim to love choritos, their smallest mussel, and can tell you any number of times they have eaten raw and steamed mussels until they could eat no more. And probably all those stories are true. Still, though, few restaurants consistently offer dinners based on or including mussels, and very few homes will serve mussels to invited guests. That’s just the way it is. So, it is pretty special when a restaurant like the Fuegos de Apalta offers a special dish based on mussels, in this case, the choropán.
Of course I ordered the choropán, and it was spectacular: steamed mussels served cold, with roasted vegetables on a fresh roll, accompanied by a glass of Montes Alpha Carmenere. While we waited for our food, we were served a special pisco sour with shaved lime peel, and red wine with Aperol, the latest fashion in low-alcohol drinks in Europe-conscious Chilean society.
The wait staff were anxious to please, carrying out their tasks with teamwork and precision. So much so, that we gave them an ovation at the end of our meal, this being their first day in this spanking new restaurant.
So, after a wonderful meal we moved on to our next destination, a tasting at the Laura Hartwig boutique winery. But I’ll surely be back to Fuegos de Apalta, for the vineyard view, the friendly service, the crispy sauvignon blanc and smooth carmenere, maybe the smoke infused beef, pork or lamb, but certainly for the choropán. It’s a first class mussels meal in a first class setting.
Posted in Santiago, Chile. March 14, 2017