By now, just about everybody has heard that Chile is the success story of Latin America. Its economy has been in continuous boom for a dozen years. Politicians heatedly debate each other over who is more centrist. Crime and unemployment are low. Church attendance is at record highs. And given the slightest provocation, Chileans will explain what the rest of Latin America should be doing to achieve a similar level of contentment.
I suppose Chileans are entitled to a bit of smugness. Yet sometimes, on my frequent visits to Santiago, as I walk out of my luxury hotel--so lovingly restored to its original Art Nouveau splendor--I confess to secretly being tempted to scrawl graffiti on a freshly painted wall or litter the tidy streets. When this kind of rebelliousness against enforced gentility takes hold, the best antidote is to head over to Puro Chile, a zany restaurant where youthful bravado coexists with seriously good cuisine and wines.
The name of the establishment has a double meaning--pure Chile or cigar Chile. The blue-white-red patterns on the walls are the colors of the nation's flag, a gentle dig at exaggerated patriotism. The aroma of Cohibas and Coronas backs up a tobacco motif. Although the restaurant does not have a humidor, cigar smoking is actively encouraged.
While most new restaurants have sprouted amid condos and malls in southern California-style neighborhoods closer to the snowcrested Andes mountains, Puro Chile is located in a some-what rundown central barrio dating back to Spanish colonial times but now undergoing gentrification. The youthful owners--a former photographer, an architect, a videomaker and a business school student ranging in age from 23 to 35--all live and work in the district's low-slung townhouses and lofts.
Puro Chile occupies a former house that has been partitioned into several free-flowing rooms. Patrons can either stay put, or move from one area to the next during the several stages of their meal. My friends and I choose mobility and begin our culinary odyssey at the curving bar near the entrance. Wine is served by the glass, from a cellar unmatched by any other Chilean establishment. Try a Casablanca Chardonnay, Casa Lapostolle Merlot or Don Melchor Cabernet; you are unlikely to find them even in the best New York wine stores.
Savoring a crunchy, breaded squid appetizer, I look down and discover papier-mâché sculptures of fruit and vegetables beneath the thick glass floor. Pablo Boron, one of the owners, explains that the art exhibit, replaced every couple of months, is more likely to be noticed under foot than on the walls. Boron, whose promotional flair has helped give Puro Chile a renown that belies its two-year-old existence, also came up with the notion of inviting a "famous personality"--an actor, writer, artist--to prepare a favorite dish once a week. "Of course, I make sure they know what they're doing in the kitchen," says Boron, 28, a former commercial photographer and amateur chef himself.
We move on to the ceviche bar in the back room. A cook standing behind the counter like a Japanese sushi master prepares large helpings of marinated sea bass and shrimp, and recommends an assortment of premier Chilean Sauvignon Blancs by the glass to accompany the ceviche.
We now settle into the third room for our main courses. Steak and chicken dishes are listed on the menu, but this is Chile, with a 2,600-mile-long Pacific coast justifiably famed for its seafood. So we choose the pastel de jaiba (crab cake), salmon carpaccio and steamed swordfish, and switch back to Chardonnay. For dessert, there is ice cream, made in the kitchen from an assortment of exotic fruits. With business appointments early in the morning, we head for the door without a nightcap, slightly envious of other patrons enjoying a snifter of Cognac and a good cigar.
Jonathan Kandell is a former correspondent in Latin America for The New York Times.
Calle Maipu 363
Phone: (56) 2 681-9355
Dinner: $25-$30 per person, without drinks.
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