We’re in Quito, Ecuador, thousands of miles from anyone who knows us. We’re passengers in an unmetered taxi, making our way back to Casa El Eden from Zazu — widely regarded as the best restaurant in Ecuador.
Our driver’s cell phone rings. He answers it, listens, and looks back at me. “Is your name Mark?”
I raise an eyebrow. “Yes.”
He hands me the phone. “It’s for you.”
* * * * *
By the time we arrive at Zazu, we’re an hour late for our dinner reservation.
Our first taxi driver of the night dumps us at El Ventenal — a beautiful restaurant with a jaw-dropping panoramic view of Quito at night — but our reservations are for Zazu. The helpful staff at El Ventenal calls us another taxi, which we wait for in a gloomy, isolated parking lot at the end of a long, dark alley. The new driver arrives about the time we hear an altercation start up a block or so away (screaming, wailing, and security guards shouting, “Que pasa? Que pasa?”). We jump in the taxi pretty eagerly, and the new driver speeds us to the other side of town as quickly as possible.
Zazu, though, is pretty hard to find: just off a main road but wedged into a side street. After loaning the driver an iPhone so he can follow Google Maps while steering (an experience in itself, given how people drive in Quito), we finally pull up to the front door an hour late.
We expect to be turned away– and, indeed, no seats are available in the elegant main dining room. But after consulting his charts and shuffling some papers, the maitre d finds us a table upstairs in the rooftop bar. It’s not the ambience we hoped for, but the space is pleasant enough, and, honestly, we’re just happy to be here.
We both decide to blow it out and go for the chef’s $60.00, seven-course tasting menu. We’re starving, so we scarf down the pangora — a stone crab cake, served atop a tiny bed of ceviche — so quickly I forget to photograph it. (It’s a shame, because this little bite is truly a work of art.) But I do have my camera handy when the second course — the rock sole carpaccio — arrives:
This chilly “soup” of yogurt, cucumber sauce, and olive oil comes drizzled over a fresh, tender bite of rock sole and garnished with black olive confetti and bitter arugula. It manages to be rich and refreshing at the same time — no small trick.
I’m looking forward to the next course — lobster in passion fruit vinaigrette, with tangerine — and it doesn’t disappoint:
That’s just a bite of lobster — but what a bite! It’s perfectly cooked and melts in the mouth like butter … and the pairing with a tangy tangerine sauce is a surprise, but a delightful one. The word that keeps coming to mind here — other than “Yum!” — is balance. So far, every single course is a perfect balance of pure flavors, artfully combined, but also distinct. The result is the culinary equivalent of listening to a complex symphony and being able to appreciate every single note played on every single instrument.
We make short work of the mushroom tortellini that follows, but we are wowed by course five: the encocado — striped bass with plantain, enrobed in crispy pork, riding a wave of coconut foam and sprinkled with peanut salprieta (an Ecuadoran condiment usually made with ground corn, salt, and chili pepper).
This is the star of the show, by far — one of those dishes you eat slowly, savoring it. Suddenly, you realize you’ve run out of it, and you start eyeing the bite or two left on the plates of your dining companions and scheming about how to steal their food without them catching you. (Clyde sees the look on my face and quickly cleans his plate.)
There is a “hornado” of suckling pig and corn puree — delicious at the time, but not memorable — and, ultimately, dessert: a small serving of dark chocolate cake, topped with a praline and accompanied by a sidecar of Nutella mousse and dollops of raspberry puree.
It’s one of the most finely-tuned, perfectly balanced progressions of flavor I’ve ever enjoyed in a meal, with each of the seven courses positioned as a little surprise, just for us. When the bill arrives, we have another surprise: while the seven-course meal is $60.00 USD per plate, the restaurant — sympathizing with our story of how hard we’ve worked to get there, perhaps — has applied a discount to our tab. For this excellent meal, we pay only $48.00 per head — and our drinks are free!
* * * * *
I take the phone.
“I am calling from Zazu. We have your credit card. The taxi driver will bring you back to collect it.”
It takes me a few seconds to put everything together. The taxi is one of several Zazu keeps waiting outside the restaurant as a way of making it easier for customers to get back home. They have the cell numbers of their drivers on hand, which has enabled them to track us down and let us know I’ve left my card behind.
The driver giggles, turns around, and drives back to Zazu, where a staff member is waiting on the street with my credit card in hand. Minutes later, we’re headed back to Casa El Eden, marveling at our luck … and happier than ever that we made our way to Zazu tonight.