So, even though I was dead tired Monday night, I went for a walk around the neighborhood. The old hostal sits on a block of old houses, apartments, and guest houses. The street, Carlos Andwandter, parallels the river and also ends at the river. As I strolled down the street, I passed two small restaurants on my right. The tiny Thai restaurant had a couple of people seated and eating, but the restaurant next to it looked open and empty. I wanted to have a look at the river, and I was curious about what other restaurants might be lurking in the neighborhood. I kept walking, and as I approached the end of the street, I smelled a strong fish odor, and heard a host of coughs, snorts, roars, and belches coming from the direction of the river. As I walked across the pavement and neared the water, I saw a large wooden platform in the river, within three or four feet of the riverbank. On the platform was a crowd of sea lions. Ill-tempered, cantankerous, and belligerent, they heaved around on the wooden structure, protesting and threatening one another as they decided who was going to sleep where. I watched the show for about a half hour, and then walked back up Carlos Andwandter to the two restaurants. I decided against eating Thai.
I looked across an empty gravel parking area at a plexiglas door. The restaurant was lit, so I passed through the gate, crunched across the gravel, opened the door and looked in. A man dressed in black greeted me, and motioned me to come on in. As I entered I passed a wooden counter to my right, and behind the counter flamed a wood fire in a rather large grill. At the far end of the counter a jamon serrano displayed itself tastily in a wooden rack. I suspected that I had entered a temple of deliciosity.
I walked across the stone floor to a bar where two men stood – one a young waiter, the other a slightly round and mature bartender. I spoke in Spanish, explaining that I studied but spoke limited Spanish. Both men spoke a little English. So we communicated, me with English and broken Spanish, the men with Spanish and broken English. They were extremely accommodating, explaining menu items that I had never seen, heard of, or imagined. Finally, I decided on La Trucha y Ensalada Valdivia. Then I was given samples of two beers produced by a local brewery – one a stout, the other a golden ale. I elected to drink the ale, then returned to my table.
I sat down at a table facing the bar, with the front of the restaurant to my left, and the back of the restaurant to my right. Behind and overshadowing the bar sat a massive wine rack, burdened with many bottles of wine. Chilean wine. I looked around at the other tables, all nicely set with silverware, napkins, and wineglasses. I have to tell you, Chileans are serious about wine.
I sat listening to traditional Chilean musica de campo. The tall, slender man in black, the man who motioned me into the restaurant, walked from the kitchen carrying a trout. He was El Cocinero. He carried the fish to the grill I had passed as I entered, and began sharpening knives and stirring the fire. A small firepit was filled with coals from the grill, and then taken, with the fish, out the front door to be sat in the gravel. And it was there he created a little bit of smoky heaven. It was there he grilled the trout.
The young waiter brought me the salad. It sat in a large, cold, stainless steel bowl. I’m certain the bowl held enough salad for six. Inside the bowl gloriously red peeled and quartered tomatoes sat in a bed of various greens and herbs, with a layer of exquisitely thin sliced onions over the top. Bottles of balsmic vinegar and olive oil accompanied the bowl. A small dish of aji for the fish appeared. Fresh rolls and butter were placed on the table, and then the front door opened. El Cocinero strode in proudly, and presented my fish, deboned, opened like a book, and grilled to absolute teary-eyed perfection. And if that wasn’t enough, he went back outside and then returned with the little firepit, which he put on the floor near my table for me to gaze at as I ate and contemplated la trucha. It was my first meal in Chile, and I knew that I would be back.