El Cielo Restaurant: Molecular Gastronomy in Medellin

Table setting at El Cielo
Table setting at El Cielo. Each course is served with its own utensil, which is placed on the wooden block, versus the table.

I first learned of El Cielo restaurant in 2009, from a magazine profile of chef Juan Manuel Barrientos, who was bringing the art and science of molecular gastronomy to his home town of Medellin.

It took me two years, however I finally found an occasion to dine at El Cielo when Phil, a fellow travel blogger and chef from California, suggested it on the recommendation of a European friend who’d eaten there recently.

Arriving at the restaurant around 8 PM on a Thursday night, I was slightly surprised to find it was only a few blocks away from Calle 10 and Parque Lleras.

Between the location slightly away from the main Zona Rosa, and the humble sign and entrance, little of the exterior gives away the fine dining experience that exists within.

Walking inside, I crossed my fingers that we wouldn’t need reservations to be seated.  I asked the host if he had room for 2 unexpected diners, and after he checked with the Manager, I was lead to a romantic 2-person table in the rear of the restaurant.

Moment #1 is a dehydrated towel
Moment #1 is a dehydrated towel.

Three of the four corners of the dining room were already taken with large parties, and a few other tables soon filled up in the remaining corner.

Large leather chairs offered comfortable support, which is necessary when the average meal will last at least a few hours (our time at the table lasted 4 hours). For those who sit against the wall, there is a kind of bench seating with optional pillows to sit on.

Phil arrived soon after I was seated, and the whole production got under way.

Our waitresses name was Isabelle, though other staff would assist throughout the night.  Both Isabelle and one other waiter who helped us were bilingual, which I appreciated considering the uniqueness of the dining experience.

I knew in advance that there were two tasting menu options, however we were not presented with a menu straight away, but rather an oyster shell holding a small item.

Neither of us knew what to make of it, until our waiter explained that we were to use the provided tweezers to dip the small object into the provided bowl of water for five seconds, until it expanded.

We could then use the towel to wash our hands.  Welcome to Moment #1 at El Cielo restaurant.

Moment 2: Shot of margherita with passion fruit and chocolate.
Moment 2: Shot of margarita with passion fruit and chocolate.

Moment #2 arrived in the form of a margarita shot with passion fruit and chocolate dusted on top.  We slurped our first food course, the fruitiness of it helping to cleanse our palettes for the next dishes.

Moment #3 was a croissant with chocolate and cheese, served alongside a small shot glass of pureed squash.  Chomp, gulp, next please!

It was after the first three moments that our waiter provided a wine menu, and presented us with the two dining options for the night.

We could choose from an 11 moment meal (which includes 1 large entrée) for about 65,000 COP ($37) or the full 20 moment meal (which consists of the same amount of food by volume, but without a single large entrée) for about 95,000 COP ($53).

I looked at Phil, my eyes alight with excitement that such a sophisticated tasting menu could be had for so little.

We both opted for the 20 moment menu. Plus, we ordered a bottle of Loma Larga, a Pinto Noir from Chile for 115,000 COP ($65). We both liked the wine, and I felt it helped enhance the overall experience.

[Note for budget travelers: sticking with water would be an easy way to keep the overall cost of the meal down.]

Moment #4.  After ordering, two large basins (much bigger than regular bowls) were placed on the table, and the waiter instructed us to hold our hands over them.

He proceeded to pour a mixture of melted chocolate and coconut milk over our hands, which we rubbed together. Next, he poured cold water over them to wash off the sauce, and then we dried our hands on a provided towel. They were left smelling absolutely delicious.

The next edible Moment was a #5, a brioche with leek butter that was decadent to say the least.

Moment #6 was a cucumber soup, beautifully presented, with tangerine and strawberry, and a dash of sesame oil.

Moment 7: Scallop with softshell crab.
Moment 7: Scallop with softshell crab.

The scallop with softshell crab was Moment #7, and this was possibly the most photogenic moment of the night.

Moment #8 was a giant prawn stuffed with artichoke and grape, and served over strawberry sauce.

Moment 9: Close-up of salmon and white risotto with truffle oil and avocado sauce (not shown: tomato jelly).
Moment 9: Close-up of salmon and white risotto with truffle oil and avocado sauce (not shown: tomato jelly).

Moment #9 was salmon and white risotto with tomato jelly, truffle oil and avocado sauce was cooked perfectly. In terms of flavor and presentation, it was one of my favorites of the night.

Moment #10 was a dollop of mango fruit with merengue on top, served on a chilled spoon. Another pallete cleanser, and we were about halfway through the menu.

Moment #11 was a breast of chicken covered in white chocolate sauce, served with a pistachio salsa on the side.

Moment #12 was pork with portabella mushroom, a flavored foam, and small serving of ice cream.

Lucky Moment #13 was another protein, beef tenderloin served with Serrano ham, and a cracked sesame seed chip.

Next, it was time for the desserts, and Moment #14 was mango stuffed with cream cheese in a smoked sweet sauce. No bigger than a single bite, many of these delicate dishes were packed with flavor, and did well to highlight the essence of individual ingredients.

Moment 15: Macaroon with lemon flan ice cream and champagne jelly.
Moment 15: Macaroon with lemon flan ice cream and champagne jelly.

Moment #15 was the macaroon with lemon flan ice cream and jelly champagne you see in the photo above. A little homage to France, from a Colombian kitchen.

Moment #16, a small square of cake with mandarin ice cream, lychee, and white chocolate sauce.

[Moment #17 – I can’t recall]

Moment #18, and the last of the desserts, was a small candy wrapped in plastic wrap. I believe the candy (if not the packaging as well) had been dipped in liquid nitrogen before it arrived at the table, and thus when we unwrapped it, it made a funny crackling noise.

Looking around at the other tables, this novelty was enjoyed by everyone, though a few weeks later as I write this up, I can’t recall what exactly the candy tasted like.

Moment 19: Rose petals used to wipe your hands (and leave them soft and feeling fresh).
Moment 19: Rose petals used to wipe your hands (and leave them soft and feeling fresh).

I was in heaven by this point, and the wine had dwindled dangerously low.

All along, I was enjoying the atmosphere of the restaurant, including the lounge/chill music being played over the stereo, the smiles and laughs of the other patrons, and the service which was excellent even by Western standards.

Moment #19 arrived in the form of rose petals covered in a naturally occurring moisturizing lotion. We rubbed the petals between our hands, and it left them not only soft, but smelling of roses of course.  It was a nice way to end the meal, though we then proceeded to order coffee.

It was after 11 PM by now, and some of the other tables began to depart the restaurant. We noticed another table with drinks that had what appeared to be smoke drifting out of them. Or dry ice.

I’m not quite sure how they accomplished the effect, but when we asked our waiter about them, he soon brought out two of the amaretto after dinner drinks, complete with the smoke effect, compliments of the house.

I count this last drink as Moment #20, as somewhere along the way I think I lost track of a moment or two.

Seating at El Cielo
Seating at El Cielo

After the coffee and amarettos were done, and we paid our bill ($100 each, including tax and tip), Phil asked if he could see the kitchen.

Given he is a chef, this didn’t surprise me, and since all the other customers had left already, and the staff were cleaning up before heading home, it was an opportune time.

Phil pointed out the induction stove top which is cool to the touch, and uses technology I can’t explain to do cool things with food.  It’s a necessity in kitchens that specialize in molecular gastronomy.

The cleanliness of the kitchen was a sight to behold, and seems to be a common trait among higher end restaurants.

El Cielo's kitchen features an induction stove.
El Cielo’s kitchen features an induction stove.

Inspired by Ferran Adria, the famed chef behind El Bulli in Spain (which for a long time was considered the best restaurant in the world), Medellin’s own Juan Manuel Barrientos is bringing cutting edge cuisine to Colombia.

And he’s just 28 years old.

Eating at El Cielo restaurant was one of the best dining experiences of my life. Phil, who is familiar with the California restaurant scene, and has dined at well-regarded Napa Valley institutions such as The French Laundry, suggested the meal could easily have cost $300 – $400 in the US or Europe.

If you skip the wine, and stick to the 11 moment menu, just about any budget traveler can afford the $40 to splurge on a unique dining experience at El Cielo.

Slideshow of All 20 Moments


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    • Good question, and I knew you were a foodie too! The prices aren’t on the website, so I just assumed nobody I knew would want to try it out.

      And if I didn’t mention in the article, they asked from the start if we had any food allergies, so I’m sure they also cater to vegetarians. 🙂

  1. Fantastic post Dave! The chef’s table at Jaleo in Vegas (serving a similar meal I think) starts at $250/person. As you mentioned, you discovered an unbelievable value in Medellin!

    • Thanks for the perspective Phil. 🙂

      FYI to everyone – Jaleo is a tapas restaurant started by Jose Andres in Washington, DC….and it appears to have extended to Las Vegas.

  2. Great post, Dave.

    Apart from the amazing food and incredibly good value for money, I was particularly impressed with the hand towel! I think that would have blown me away before a dish was ever served!
    I was lucky enough to meet the great Ferran Adria at El Bulli recently and to taste a tiny part of his creations but I had never heard of El Cielo…until now. Thanks for widening my culinary knowledge and getting my gastric juices flowing – if only I didn’t live so far from Medellin 🙁

  3. hi dave, my name is juan manuel barrientos, I’m the chef and owner of elcielo, first of all i wanted to thank you for you comments and tell you we just opened in bogota, my personal mail is , I’m very happy you enjoyed elcielo

    • Hola Juan, thanks for checking out my article on Medellin Living.

      You’ve done a wonderful job with El Cielo, and I was happy to return with a few of my friends as recently as July.

  4. I took my wife and her friend my first night back in Medellín. It was by far the most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for (+388,000 COP) but one of the best dinning experiences I can remember. And the look on my wife’s face during and weeks after those 18 moments was completely worth it. Thanks for the recommendation Dave.

  5. Excuse me to put some Cologne-water (!) into your Chilenian wine, but I find it to be pathetic to get 20 dishes served (not only because they are called….”moooments”. To me that sounds as cheap as their “ancient” tables looked like! Pictures do not tell anything about taste, but the whole “thing” sounded very much like a adolescent-surprise kitchen from Las Vegas!

    Sorry – I prefer serious restaurants!

    • I don’t know what you’re referring to by “Cologne-water into your Chilean wine” — nobody put anything into our wine.

      A tasting menu is normally comprised of multiple courses with smaller portion sizes. I’ve had tasting menus with 11 and 13 dishes before.

      El Cielo plays with the concept by calling them moments so that a few can be an experience related to the other senses beyond taste.

  6. Yeah – this seems to be a fun place for kids, who dunno much about the world (even less about “Iron & Wine”) of dining. Chocolate and coconut sauce to clean your hands – …oh did we laugh. Let’s face it – only teenage girls (and their boyish male friends with a hat (hahaha) – who been away from Mommy for the first time, enjoy such a gimmick place!

    Instead of pill-sized towels and nitrogen, the owners might invest into a couple of proper chairs.

    Grow up, kiddos!

    • You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with infusing playfulness, novelty and surprise into a meal.

      I also suggest you look at it from the local perspective. Medellín is a city that has been for all intensive purposes closed to foreign influences for decades due to war and violence.

      I was just talking to Carmen of Carmen Restaurant yesterday, and she said lettuce wasn’t even available here 15 years ago.

      El Cielo’s Bogotá location, which opened a few years after the original Medellín restaurant, has been ranked one of the Top 50 Restaurants in Latin America the last two years.

      So it seems more than teenagers find the value and appeal in what they’re doing.

    • Haha you are a silly person. I have traveled to over 40 countries and lived in 5 continents.. and i can assure you I have been to some of the world’s best restaurants.. and this place is very unique, fun, and tasty. But hey, fun is not a word for everyone.. some prefer to be judgmental and snobby “Iron and Wine” lol