There's no fancy silverware, no tablecloth, and no dress code. In fact, most diners, fresh from a hike, show up at this low-key lodge's dining room in flip-flops and shorts. Based on the setting, you might not guess that you're about to eat one of the most complex meals in all of Colombia, or, more importantly, that Chef Joseph Romero was sous chef at Spain's now-closed El Bulli, often called the world's best restaurant. But the real question on diners' minds, as they start their 10-course tasting menu with an appetizer like free-range hen salad with coconut biscuits and kefir is, "How can this all possibly cost $20?"
After 25 years at upscale restaurants in his native Barcelona and elsewhere, Romero tired of typical fine dining—instead, he wanted to share with the world his so-called "gastronomic revolution." "Our scheme is to demystify 'luxury' and still create luxurious, local food at a reasonable price," he says. He traveled extensively before setting up camp at Dapa Hostel, a rustic ecolodge 30 minutes from Cali in the mountains of the Valle del Cauca. He found the area to be the ideal spot for his culinary coup—its natural diversity means a bounty of fresh ingredients, all sourced from farms and markets within a 50-mile radius.
The result is a firsthand education in the region's distinct tropical fare. You'll find papaya in the béchamel sauce, or tropical fruit steamed with sage, thyme, and rosemary on a blackberry coulis for dessert. His trio of ceviches—based on the recipes of El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià and top Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio—come with a local twist, courtesy of his 23-year-old son and sous chef Mikhail: passion fruit vinaigrette and citrusy lulo fruit foam.
You don't have to be a guest at the lodge to enjoy Romero's meals, but book early: Dinners are kept to 25 or under so Romero can interact with his guests, often sitting down to explain the dish's subtle flavors or local origins. After the delectable 10 courses—from French bean soup with an orange and purple basil sherbet "floating island" to yuca and corvina fish stew to potato and plantain waffles—it's pretty hard to believe that the check is so low. "Ferran Adrià says every product has the same gastronomical importance regardless of its market value," Romero says. "A potato and caviar don't have to be different in gastronomical value. If a potato has been grown properly and is well cooked, it can be as good as lobster." Dapa Hostel, Valle del Cauca, dapahostel.wix.com/dapahostel, for reservations call 011/57-318-349-9710 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, 10-course tasting menu $20.