Open a fine-dining restaurant in La Paz serving only Bolivian produce and you might think the main challenge would be finding good ingredients.
Unless you were the sommelier.
Jonas Andersen, 23, a Dane, arrived from Copenhagen before the opening of Gustu this year to put together a list tapping unknown producers and finding wines to match dishes such as llama fillet with chuno (potato) glazed in apple-banana syrup.
The chef is another Dane, 30-year-old Kamilla Seidler. The fact that the two are friends helped, Still, friendship only goes so far. What to pair with poached rabbit and choclo (corn) with lime? Or how about pearls of quinoa real, walnuts, cherries and herbs?
“What surprised me the most is how hard it was to get in contact with the producers,” Andersen said in an interview at Gustu. The restaurant was created by Claus Meyer, who co-founded Noma, the Copenhagen establishment that was named world’s best restaurant for three straight years. (Noma’s owner, chef Rene Redzepi, said in an interview that his restaurant has no connection with Gustu.)
“I went to visit producers for the first time in December and drove round in a four-wheel drive for five days,” Andersen said. “You can’t agree anything here before you have actually met the person, tasted his wines and had a walk in the vineyard.
“Only then will you get the prices and discuss how we can get it to La Paz and all that. It took about four months of work to put together the wine list. I still have to go to the bus terminal to pick up my wines.
“The producer will send them on a bus, I have to transfer the money before he will send them, and then I’ll have them about two weeks later. And then sometimes, it will be a different vintage or it’s a different label.”
The restaurant, in La Paz’s upscale Calacoto district, is decorated with local woods and fabrics. It’s elegant without being fancy. Gustu seeks to train local people in preparing and serving gourmet food, using only native produce.
For Bolivians who associate fine dining with luxury ingredients, the familiar Bolivian potatoes, corn and other products may appear incongruous.
Andersen said he was surprised by the quality and range of the wines he tasted. Because Bolivia has been producing wines for centuries, they are in a distinctive style that is dissimilar from those of Peru and other South American producers. The altitude of the vineyards is another factor. So what are the influences, if not South American?
“Spanish, Italian, French, German as well,” he said. You will see that in some of the whites. But the altitude affects everything. It works in different ways. You may expect one thing and find the taste is something completely different.”
Grape varieties include Riesling, Torrontes, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Here is the Gustu wine list: http://bit.ly/18rjjbM. Most of the bottles cost between 100 Bolivian Bolivianos ($14.47) and 200.
“Bolivia has only been producing quality wines for a few years,” said Andersen, who worked at Geist in Copenhagen with Seidler. Before that, he was in Sydney, at Black by Ezard and Ocean Room.
When I dined at Gustu, Seidler served a 14-course tasting menu that featured macaron of peanut and palm heart; tender beets perfumed with hibiscus; pork belly on soft onions and butter; and soft chocolate bar with cacao sorbet and passion fruit.
Andersen matches the llama with 2010 Sausini Merlot, Tarija, because the meat is spicy with a hint of sweetness. The quinoa works with 2012 Torrontes from Uvairenda in Samaipata, an aromatic wine with flavors of apple and green herbs. Rabbit is paired with a 2011 Ugni Blanc from Kohlberg.
The menu costs about $135 with pairings, or $94 without. There are also five-course and seven-course menus. Seidler heads Gustu with Michelangelo Cestari and a largely Bolivian team.
(A 2012 report for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs analyzes Bolivia’s wine industry: http://bit.ly/Gzw1cS. The introduction of the first grapevine plantations in Bolivia goes back to the XVI Century in Mizque. International wine companies started to invest in Bolivia at the end of 2005, it says.)
Let’s not get too excited. Bolivian wines haven’t faced the full rigors of international competition. The industry is youthful, albeit with a history. Yet before too long, you may be able to try them without traveling to La Paz -- or eating llama.
Gustu, Calle 10 No. 300, Calacoto, La Paz, Bolivia. Information: http://restaurantgustu.com/
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)