Why Not Eat Insects? asks the title of Vincent Holt’s distinctly avant-garde 1885 cookbook. His magnum opus includes a recipe for fried cockchafers with wireworm sauce: given current food trends, it may be a dish of the future as well as the past.
José Rubio-Guevara, the Colombian head chef of the splendid Paladar restaurant in Elephant and Castle, clearly shares Holt’s sentiments: a bonne bouche of salsa with plantain crisps is topped with a brace of fat, black hormigas culonas (big-bottomed ants, literally), a speciality of Santander, the Andean region north of Bogotá. I found them pleasantly crunchy and savoury, which may have been as much to do with the cooking and seasoning as their innate flavour.
Those who prefer more conventional forms of protein may rest assured that Paladar’s wide-ranging Latin American menu esteems meat and fish even more highly than our six-footed friends. There are crisply chewy lardons of pork belly, for example, tossed with herbs, charred corn kernels and chilli sauce; empanadas stuffed with ropa vieja (“old washing”): slow-cooked brisket with a terrifically tangy hot-sour sauce; and ajiaco – the famous Colombian chicken, potato and corn soup – reworked as croquetas and topped with capers.
There are various ceviches, too, all based on seabass: one with passionfruit and lemongrass, which sings with acidity; one with the earthy note of beetroot in the dressing; and one made with lulo (a pleasingly astringent, citrussy Colombian fruit) and the gentle punch of jalapeños. There’s also a tian of tuna tartare, white quinoa and guacamole, served on a smoky chipotle mayonnaise enhanced with the nuttiness of toasted quinoa. It is a splendid dish, and one that made me resolve never to eat quinoa again unless it has been cooked by Señor Rubio-Guevara.
He is also partial to an excursion to Mexico: self-assembly carnitas of hauntingly smoky, slow-cooked pork arrive with a stack of soft, fragrant blue-corn tortillas and a pineapple salsa. I can report that the carnitas go very well with Intipalka, a Peruvian Syrah, one of the oddball gems on Paladar’s excellent wine list, also available at retail prices in the restaurant’s smart bodega next door.
I have enjoyed many memorable meals in London’s South American restaurants – at various branches of Ceviche, Martin Morales’ top-notch Peruvian joints, and at Arepa & Co on Paradise Row in Bethnal Green, where the eponymous Venezuelan flatbreads arrive warm and fluffy, stuffed with shredded beef, black beans and cheese. But Paladar has a quality all its own: a very civilised, friendly, laidback space in which Latin rhythms mingle with the sweet aroma of roasting corn. Should you fancy dining alfresco this summer there is a lovely hidden terrace too.