PUNTA ARENAS (Chile), Aug 24 — No restaurant could hope to encompass the entirety of a nation’s tastebuds.
The great cuisines convulse like a map of flavours, tracing the breadth and depth of a country’s diverse geography, climate and bounty.
And so it is with Chile. The South American nation (which most of us first learned of at school as “the longest country in the world”) oscillates between barbecued alpaca steaks in the north to sweetcorn pies stuffed with hard boiled eggs from its central region.
We’re heading south, really far south, to Punta Arenas. Considered the southernmost city in the world (at least by the Chileans), Punta Arenas has Antarctica on the horizon.
With the cold coastal waters, there is plenty of fresh seafood to sustain folks during the chilly months (which is to say most months of the year).
Asking the locals — as we always do — where best to eat and where best to savour the flavours of the region, everyone has the same answer for both questions: La Luna, a Chilean seafood restaurant and bar famed for its colourful décor and lively atmosphere.
The owners, Mario Navarro and his wife Marjorie Kusch, were famous for opening the cultural hotspot Café del Cerro in the 1980s and much of that magic has been carried over to La Luna.
The restaurant is easily found, clearly visible from the street thanks to its crescent and stars logo. It’s a promise of maritime tales and the influence of a custodian moon.
Once we enter, we are greeted by a wall of beers and wines behind the bar: Mendoza wines from the Andes, Patagonian dark ales and all the Chilean pisco sours (sans the bitters and egg white found in its Peruvian cousin) you can manage.
Further inside, another wall awaits us, this time of postcards and letters from around the world. Most are handwritten notes from past diners; a celebrity here and there but most of them ordinary people like you and me. For this isn’t food for kings and starlets but sustenance for simple, humble folk.
And nothing, at least this far south, warms bellies up better than wine and butter, than beer and cream. Besides the hundreds of bottles we spotted earlier behind the bar, there’s plenty of alcohol employed in the cooking too. Everything has a little bit more of a kick, even though you can’t always put a finger on what it is.
If the aromatic wines and the rich fats invoke the joie de vivre of a full moon celebration, then the abundance of freshly caught fish, shrimp, squid and shellfish is a testament to the generosity of the jagged coasts surrounding Punta Arenas. It’d be a shame, nay, sheer lunacy not to pair such sumptuous ingredients together.
So we sit back and enjoy Chilean specialties — some which sound familiar, others less so — as recommended by our server. For appetisers we begin with Picante de Camarones or spicy baked shrimps; Chilean ceviche where fish from local waters is served raw, cubed and marinated with herbs and citrus; and Calamares a la Romana, the garlicky rings of squid stewed in its own juices, an altogether different creation from its Italian counterpart which is more fritter-like and dipped into smooth aïoli.
We feel the rhythm of the Pacific Ocean imbuing every dish with its imprint. The sound of waves crashing upon rocks, the invisible pull of the tides. The moon and the sea, the moon and the sea.
Nothing encapsulates this culinary and geographical spirit better than La Luna’s signature Chupe de Centollas, a baked casserole made from shredded king crab meat. In Chile, chupe refers to any type of stew made with poultry, meat or seafood. In Punta Arenas, chupe is nearly always made with whatever is carried in by the Humboldt Current – fish and shellfish, squid and crustaceans — and enriched with generous amounts of cream.
The king of all chupes is, naturally, the Chupe de Centollas considering the teeming numbers of the southern king crab (Centolla Chilena) in the coastal waters. Equally plentiful are scallops and the restaurant serves these as Ostiones a la Parmesana: dangerously hot and almost cloyingly cheesy.
Miss the spicy notes of dishes back home? Here in southern Chile, the regional cuisine is heavily influenced by the indigenous Mapuche community. One staple is merkén, a piquant Mapuche condiment made from both dried and smoked red chillies and coriander. It’s not quite cili padi but it’d do in a pinch (or many pinches of the fine powder for extra oomph).
We ask for some and our server is delighted we have even heard of merkén, mildly surprised we could handle its heat. We haven’t the heart to tell her it’s hardly fiery, given our palates trained on asam pedas, chilli pan mee and som tum. This far from home, every little bit counts.
La Luna’s menu is filled with other seafood delicacies: fried king fish with roasted potatoes, conger eel with shrimp sauce, salmon served with coriander rice and lemon sauce, and more king crab in the form of stuffed pancakes or Panqueques Rellenos con centolla.
Wash it all down with a cold beer by the Patagonian brewery, Austral. Their Austral Calafate, in particular, has a malty sweetness with fruity notes of the local calafate berry. Seafood, cream, beers — what a trinity!
When we get home, our friends will ask us: What does Chilean food taste like? Barbecued alpaca steaks are no truer an answer than sweetcorn pies stuffed with hard boiled eggs. But what we do know, down south, far down south in Punta Arenas, where you could almost see Antarctica, the food tastes of the moon and the sea, the moon and the sea.
Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins 1017, Punta Arenas, Chile
Open daily 12pm-11pm
Tel: +56 61 222 8555
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