Head to your nearest Omni Hotel before December 31st for their annual Flavors of the World program, which this year features ¡Destinación Chile!, a celebration of the food and beverages of one of the most fascinating but under-the-radar countries in South America. Partly as a result of being the best performing South American economy over the last 40 years, the diversity of food on Chilean menus has exploded. With due regard to the median member of their clientele, Omni stays well within the rails in the Chilean cuisine that it presents. No organ meat, goat, or more exotic of the species swimming the Humboldt Current (for that you will have to visit Santiago’s daunting Mercado Centrale in person.)
Omni are offering special menus paired with Chilean wines and even pisco cocktails (such as the famous pisco sour). This is no PR stunt. Chefs were trained in the recipes and techniques of the country through a three-day onsite course in June at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, its flagship for Latin American cuisine, with Chilean chef Rocío Alvarado Díaz. Plus, 30 food and beverage directors from Omni properties across the U.S. then travelled to Chile for a week in September for a comprehensive wine education.
I sampled the results at a media event at the Omni Fort Worth. There is a special ¡Destinación Chile! menu (in addition to the regular menu). Four appetizers, four entrées, and two desserts offer plenty of choice. Hearty appetites could start with an appetizer of Empanada con Pebre ($12), a medley of three empanadas that showcase the empanada as a container for a vast variety of ingredients. Pino contains chopped beef, onions, hard-cooked eggs, and green olives. Camarón Queso was the seafood variation with prawns and spring onions. Pequen was a traditional empanada with caramelized onions. It comes with a pot of extra pino egg and green olive condiment, a kind of Chilean take on tapenade. The protein and pastry combinations in this dish are sumptuously copacetic, almost making a meal in themselves. Try this dish with the by-the-glass sauvignon blanc from the Leyda region in Chile, where the climate and soil seem driven to produce assertively minerally versions of this grape.
We also raved about Milcaos con Pebre de Palta ($9) the Chilean take on fried potato cakes. The cakes are topped with avocados (a prolific fruit in the central valley region of the country), banana pepper, and tomato, and are seasoned with Chilean sea salt. Unusual ingredient combinations maybe, but they make for the comfort foods of their idiom.
Another appetizer, ideal for lighter appetites, Choritos con Pebre ($12), consisted of familiar steamed mussels with tomato, onion, bell pepper, and cilantro.
For entrées, we recommend Bacalao con Tomaticán ($32), Chilean sea bass seared and served with braised tomato, yellow corn kernels, and cilantro salad. The crisp-skinned fish had enough flavor to brave the concentrated tomato. Caldillo de Salmón ($22), grilled salmon placed atop sofritto, and potato in a seafood broth did not break any culinary frontiers, but did suggest to me a new idea for serving this popular fish at home (as winter comes in, soups and broths are seeming like such a logical choice for evening meals). Execution on this dish was excellent. The salmon was cooked crisp with just a hint of browning leaving the inside still soft and chewy. And the dish composition in the bowl photogenically highlighted the color contrast between the fish and the broth.
My favorite dish of the meal was, surprisingly, the vegetarian entrée Quinnoto de Champiñones con Pebre de Palta ($14). Golden Chilean quinoa slowly cooked with roasted mushroom and avocado. To put that at top of the stack is surprising because I am such a gobble-avore (I eat anything) and here is a dish with no animal flesh. But think of it as a risotto with quinoa substituting for the rice, and recall how the right mushrooms can infuse a risotto broth with rich sweet and earthy vivre. That is what you have here, so just hope that the Omni keeps it on their menu after this special event ends. The Carmen Carménère by the glass showed itself to be a more flexible wine than I expected, enhancing the quinoa and fish dishes. However, the chardonnay is a great substitute if you prefer your fish wines white, and it works as an example of the New World style of the world’s most popular grape in Chile.
Dessert offers Tres Leches Cake ($6), which was dutifully moist as well as sweet and got finished, along with its garnish of sliced strawberry. Arroz con Leche y Salsa de Manjur ($6) was a Chilean take on rice pudding with cinnamon, orange, and dulce de leche as its starring ingredients. It is a large helping, so we doggie-bagged it.
There is still over a month left of ¡Destinación Chile! and Omni Hotels has properties in 21 states, so check with your nearest one now for availability and then head there pronto!