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If you're looking for the ultimate quirky, unusual, unexpected dining experience, two restaurants stick out in Santiago. The first comes in the form of comfort food at La Jardín; and the second is haute cuisine at Zully, a 1912 mansion so romantic you expect to see Romeo and Juliet at the next table.
Inside, it's like a garden shed crossed with a Wendy House, and outside the large garden resembles a scrap yard or antiques shop. There's nothing quite like this in Santiago, and you might be thinking you know why, but La Jardín has tapped into something and it works.
New in June 2012, the restaurant took six weeks to put together, and is run by two Chilean brothers and an English artist. The trio started by making "pop up" restaurants in Buenos Aires, London and Berlin - a concept where you find an unused location, collect whatever furniture you can find (or buy on the cheap) and open a restaurant for about a month.
The difference with La Jardín is that it is permanent, and the reason it works so well may come down to the creative eye of one of the owners, London born artist Tony Hornecker. Not everyone could stitch together some old shirts to make a canopy, suspend it over bare mattresses and make it look appealing. But the attention to detail here is mind-boggling and everywhere you look you spot something new: be it a coffee pot and crutches hanging overhead, multiple chimneys sprouting from the roof or a hot water bottle undergoing a reincarnation as a lamp.
"Lots of people come, I'm wondering why!" said Chilean co-owner Cristóbal, "I think it's because the place is living - the plants are alive, everything moves and I'm always repairing things and building more. Everything is very organic."
As for the food, Chilean chef, José Ignacio Puentes, derives his recipes from typical Chilean dishes. Highlights include Pan de Campo, a loaf of bread filled with cheese fondue, tortilla espanola, coffee mousse and the bar menu which has delicious, imaginative drinks like the frozen mint, mango and whisky cocktail.
This is creativity in the rawest sense and the experience is somewhat like stepping into a Tim Burton movie.
www.lajardin.cl; (562) 2223 0667; Bilbao 497, Barrio Italia
As for Zully, again theatrical comparisons spring to mind as you enter this 1912 medieval-style mansion in the mini neighborhood of Concha y Toro. Sitting with pride of place on the plaza - a small picture-perfect square with a fountain in the middle - the restaurant was originally a family house. As the years rolled by, the walls have witnessed many a historic event, including becoming the home of Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro (1893 – 1948).
The latest owner, however, is Joseph Westrate, an American from Michigan who bought the crumbling mansion in 2002. With an eye for architecture and a degree in civil engineering, Westrate painstakingly restored the building, transforming it into a restaurant and naming it Zully after his mother.
Open for 9 years, Zully is standing the test of time and, as the only gourmet restaurant in Concha y Toro, it really is in a league of its own. Niche, high-end and highly romantic, an evening in this Downtown restaurant, is escapism in its truest form.
The restaurant has five different dining rooms, all with original parquet floors, wooden shutters and ornate cornices, but each with very different decoration on the walls. From large, stylized 1920s-esque paintings, to blown-up sports photos taken by Westrate, or an intimate dining room just for two, the size and style in each dining room is very different. Then there's the downstairs wine cellar, and a rooftop area for events with the most incredible outside balcony complete with original Italian-style arches along one edge.
Chilean chef, Ronald Colhuinca, whisks up traditional dishes with a creative twist. The trio of tartare, with locos (Chilean specialty, similar to abalones), ceviche and tuna is one of the best starters in Santiago, especially the ceviche. Meanwhile, the salmon with polenta is crispy and well seasoned, and the steak in plantain risotto hits the spot if you're crazy about banana, but is a little intense otherwise.
Joseph lives in the mansion, and is currently transforming the first floor into a seven-room boutique hotel. Watch this space...
www.zully.cl; (562) 2696 1378; Concha y Toro 34, Santiago Centro