Few experiences are like this. Let’s begin with the location. In a quiet and peaceful area in the northern part of the city, far from the “gastronomic” neighborhoods like La Floresta or La Mariscal, Zero Lab is easy to locate in every sense.
Like if made with Venetian granite, the walls stand out amidst dozens of simple, white residential homes with their gates and garages… You don’t expect it at all. Like everything at Zero Lab, it’s an absolute surprise.
The door opens, and you are immediately struck by the colors; the lights, gleaming glass, and a huge flag, embroidered by the Carmelite nuns that crafted the presidential house flag. The maitre d’hote—yes, on one hand, it’s that type of restaurant… on the other, it’s quite the opposite—welcomes us with a pink drink and a verse in Kichwa: ‘alisha mushka yupanchi wasi.’ ‘Welcome to the house of Ecuadorian produce.’
Instead of paintings, bottles. Sparkling wines in what they call the ‘sparkling room,’ the entrance lobby of this completely unique restaurant, where you settle in with an aperitif in hand, waiting for someone to take you to your table.
An Education During Dinner
As soon as you sit down, there are ‘activities’. You can read the menu and order your dishes, of course… but Juan Sebastián Gallardo, co-mentor of the project and son of the second co-mentor, renowned chef Carlos Gallardo, suggests waiting and proposes a tasting extravaganza with his uncle, Juan José. A sommelier graduated from the Real School of Sommeliers in Madrid—specializing in Iberian wines—offers an excellent explanation to help you understand the differences, subtleties, and specificities of various wines from Portugal and Spain. One can’t help but be amazed by their own tasting abilities, noticing every detail, a true complementary ‘wine course’ that allows you to identify reserve wines, grand reserve wines, wines of different years, etc…
Another activity is entering the kitchen. Yes, the most taboo thing a restaurant could offer, the ‘do not touch’ of a museum, is very much welcomed here.
Perhaps, due to having worked in so many restaurant productions, we at Ñan have the idea that kitchens are not always the most proper places. While they are clean, they usually reveal some degree of chaos. This kitchen, howeer, must be one of the most meticulous in the country, and that’s why inviting diners is not a problem.
The sous-chefs are in full hustle; one quickly realizes the operation that a restaurant requires. This, I must say, could be bothersome for them. However, that’s not what we’re here for. We go further inside. Because an education on what a restaurant truly is and what its foundations are can only lead us to the essence, the base of its pyramid. In this case, it was explained to us at the beginning of our visit. Remember the poem, ‘alisha mushka yupanchi wasi’? Well, the heart of Zero Lab is nothing but Ecuador and its spectacular array of “produce”.
The Laboratory: A Living Museum of National Produce
It all starts right where it should: the back door. We say that it’s where everything starts because this is where produce comes into the restaurant. This is where the restaurant’s process to rescue, manipulate, give them new value, and reinvent them… begins.
Several bowls —twenty, perhaps more— reveal some of the great diversity of ingredients we have in our country. ‘It’s not the same every day… it’s about what arrives and when,’ explains Juan Sebastián. Today, we see apples, pepinos (an Ecuadorian fruit), pears, roses, passion fruit, tree tomatoes (another Ecuadorian endemic)… ‘It’s a museum for visitors. We let them taste a taxo, a babaco, a chirimoya… authentic, endemic fruits; even Ecuadorians sometimes come across something they’ve never seen before. All organic, brought from small local producers…’
Then… we witness what is created with this iconic produce. Well… everything. They’re marinated, pickled, turned into vinegar, fermented, smoked… Through various stations, we see all that can be done with such a variety of flavors and colors that represent us in terms of our culinary traditions. Dried, crushed or cooked; chocolate made from seed to dessert, unique liqueurs, created on-site, used at the bar for signature cocktails… this laboratory is a magical place.
Now that we have learned so much… it’s time to enjoy. Amazed by everything that goes into making the most of the fruits of our sacred land… we set to return to our table and finally order our food. As we pass by, the staff shouts, ‘yes, chef’… because he who can walk like that into a kitchen is also in charge. Now, we set out to taste everything we’ve seen: the experience, without a doubt, will forever change your perspective on what a restaurant is and everything it can be…
Text: Ilán Greenfield
Photos: Carlos Puga