Searching in vain in Vina

Vina del Mar is Chile’s principle beach resort (very built up and modern)and is the biggest  tourist attraction in the country. Driving into town over the hills on a sunny day, the golden beaches can look stunning but sadly the weather changed on me after the first day (mid-November) and it was grey and cloudy for most of the time I was there. Not that I would have got any beach time anyway, and the water is apparently pretty cold.

Vina is the fourth biggest city in Chile and has a population of just over quarter of a million. It’s an expensive place and I didn’t eat well once while I was there, so whenever possible, I went to Valparaiso, Vina’s much older and more interesting neighbour (see next post). The two cities are in two neighbouring bays separated by a narrow headland.

On my first night I took a walk along the long seafront to check out the beautiful sunset, framed by two lit up freighters parked out in the bay on one side and the backdrop of low, steep hills on the other. You can get a good walk or run in along the waterfront here.

Enjoy del Mar (Advanced C-), Peru 100

At the end of the promenade on Peru you can stop off at this place (a satellite building of the Hotel del Mar/casino complex. It has an attractive outside terrace with glass walls to shield you from the wind with a great view of the sun setting over the faux castle on the point separating the two bays.

After a Campari (minus the soda which I’d asked for) I ordered the cerviche, hoping for something similar to the amazing experience I’d had the night before in Buenos Aires (see previous post). Sadly what I got was three deep ceramic tubs of white fish, crab and salmon swimming in citrus juices of various kinds and no discernable taste (D), except for the salmon in orange juice which wasn’t too bad (C). To be fair the nice female waitress asked if I wanted something else by way of compensation but I had lost my appetite by then.

Delicias del Mar (Advanced C), San Martin 459

Hoping for a decent meal after two days of sub-standard fodder, I put my trust in this reputable Basque-influenced restaurant on the main San Martin drag. The ambience is pleasant with low lighting and polite bow-tied and waist coated waiters, my young chap being particularly friendly.

His recommendation of a fragrant Sauvignon Blanc reserva (Leyda Valley 2010), amongst higher priced options was a good one (A), and eventually saved my evening from being a disappointment.

The starter of smoked salmon blinis with capers, citric cream and grated Parmesan, was a good choice (B+)  too and I was hopeful that the next course would be a good one.

Unfortunately however their ‘house speciality’ of Paella Vinamarina with seafood, chicken and pork, supposedly in the classic Spanish style, was over salted and had a strange after-taste I found hard to describe. The veg seemed half raw and hadn’t married well with the rice. After picking out and eating the seafood and meat, I left most of the rice and vegetables (D). Other customers seemed to have left theirs as well.

After mentioning it to the waiter however he offered me an alternative and I kept it simple with some grilled Salmon(B) and Papas Duquesas aka croquettes which weren’t to my taste either (D).

This place may be better on other nights though. I made mistake of coming on the night that Chile were playing Paraguay in a qualifier for the 2012 World Cup and all the kitchen staff were busy cheering their team on in the back room. Had I known I would have gone straight to the crowded local bar I passed on the way but after finishing up quickly I managed to catch the last 20 minutes there, and the second goal in Chile’s 2-0 win. Chi-chi-chi le-le-le!

After a hard week of grafting (and not eating particularly well) I was in need of a treat so took myself off to Savinya, recommended by the local teachers (thanks for taking care of me Claire and Lydia) and which likes to think of itself as one of the best restaurants in the area.

It’s above the casino (entrance at the rear of the Hotel del Mar on San Martin) but once you get up to the second floor ask for it by name as it’s not well signed and it’s easy to confuse it with the more downmarket place on the same floor. Neither place batted an eyelid when I showed up in jeans, trainers and t-shirt. The view of the short-lived sunset over the bay from the window tables is fantastic but I had to sit in the smoking section to get it.

Christian the effusive English-speaking sommelier with a caustic laugh, wearing a huge official looking medallion the size of a mayoral chain, recommended a local Sauvignon Blanc (William Cole 2010) from the nearby Casablanca valley which he told me, along with the Leyda wine-growing area, is where the best Chilean whites are from. As one of the cheaper options, it was very fragrant and dry with a subtle flavour (B).

After nibbling on their excellent brown bread (A), and an amuse bouche of salmon and unagi sauce with too much parsley (C),   I ordered the white fish cerviche (C).

This involved clams au gratin (B) served in Chinese spoons, tiny seared scallops (A-) and king prawns (B). The taste of the scallops was really brought out with a smear of reduced balsamic, but I couldn’t for the life of me discern the oysters or the pil pil sauce included in the description on the menu.

For my main course I ordered the conger eel, another recommended local ingredient, with ‘lightly fried, basil-flavoured vegetables with garlic-seasoned shrimps and Chiloe potato chips’ however the next thing to arrive was an unexpected palate-cleansing lemon sorbet (B+) delivered by a grinning insane-looking waiter who Christian described as ‘my friend the monkey’ and who grasped my hand in an iron grip.

The prawns were battered, potentially with garlic (B) and sitting in a rather rank tasting foam (C-). The seared conger eel was pretty good (B) and came on a bed of slightly undercooked but fairly flavoursome (C+) legumes (chick , butter, black, and green (ava)) and cherry tomatoes. The circular chips were interesting (B). I wasn’t keen on the whole affair at first but gradually warmed to it. I appreciated the heated plates which needed to be warm in the chilly air-conditioned atmosphere.

Christian said he would talk to the chef about what was best for dessert and marry a digestif with it, then promptly forgot about me, although I did get a complimentary mousse as a pre-dessert from a waiter, which was nice, but only a mouthful.

The principle dessert was very poor, a tasteless (C) passion fruit concoction next to something looking like a Chinese dumpling in an even more flavourless (D) swimming pool of orange sauce, a modernist take on the traditional dish of Mote con Huesillo.

The complementary  ‘lemoncello’ was another letdown, unchilled but with a few ice cubes thrown in as an afterthought, it wouldn’t happen in Italy.  And there’s another thing. Although they are quick to tell you the chef is Italian, when I asked which part he was from, it turned out he wasn’t on the premises. Perhaps he just oversees things but none of the preparation seemed Italian to me, more a hotchpotch of influences that doesn’t quite work.

Conclusion: this place pretends to be the best but is really all about image and no content.  Nothing on the menu actually seems to exist as described. Total cost was only about £45 though so could have been worse.Keep searching…

Other possible places to try in this culinary wasteland (see picture) might be:

A high class Italian place recommended by Rough Guide which I didn’t have time to try is Divina de Pescado at San Martin 180.

A cheaper Italian is Panzoni at Paseo Cousino 128.

Also Jerusalem (Middle Eastern cuisine) at Quinta259 might be worth a try.

A Chilean place recommended by a teacher is La Flor de Chile at 8 Norte and 2 Poniente.

Good luck!

An excellent personal driver, should you need one is Edgardo (personal mobile 8967 1786). As a remise (a pre-ordered taxi) recommended by the hotel, he’s a lot more expensive than a normal cab but his car is modern and comfortable and although he does speak some English, he’s a man of few words and concentrates on his driving, which I like.  In South America, it’s easy to end up with a complete speed freak or someone who will fleece you after pointing out a couple of monuments on the way, so when you find a good one it’s best to hold onto them. When work wasn’t paying however I got the bus or metro into town, or you could share an ordinary cab with other people going in the same direction, as the locals do.

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