Wash Your Hands With Chocolate Before El Cielo’s 25-Dish Modernist Colombian Tasting

Chef Juanma Barrientos' anticipated restaurant debuts at La Cosecha on Sept. 17.

The "tree of life" at modern Colombian restaurant El Cielo. Photography courtesy of El Cielo

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After two years in the making, lauded Colombian chef Juan Manuel “Juanma” Barrientos is ready to open El Cielo DC, a branch of his Medellín-based modernist Latin restaurant.  The chic venture, with sister locations in Miami and Bogotá, opens with a limited menu at La Cosecha on Thursday, September 17. It’s the first full-service restaurant to debut in developer Edens’ Latin marketplace near Union Market. In celebration of Latin Heritage Month, the kitchen will offer three types of menus prior to El Cielo’s full launch on October 15: a la carte offerings in the main dining room and 30-seat outdoor patio; two fine-dining tasting menus in an intimate room off a chef’s counter; and limited-time carryout kits.

Chef Juan Manuel “Juanma” Barrientos. Photograph courtesy of El Cielo.

Barrientos, a Medellín native, isn’t just a fine dining chef—his empire includes 12 restaurants ranging from pizza to Japanese, bars, clubs, and a charitable foundation that works with social justice and environmental causes. He made a name for El Cielo—and an A-list celebrity following—combining Colombian ingredients and culinary traditions with a whimsical approach that’s on par with José Andrés’s Minibar. At the DC location, two tasting menus span 15 courses ($135 per person for food only) or 25 courses ($195 per person), and include “sensory immersion” experiences. Take “choco-therapy,” an introduction to the prix-fixe where guests “wash” their hands in liquid chocolate to awaken their senses.  In the pandemic, the experience is optional, and guests are asked to sanitize their hands first and wash with water after. “They don’t have to put their hands in their mouths,” Barreintos clarifies. 

In a similarly dramatic vein, the tasting might conclude with “cafetal,” where Colombian coffee is accompanied by native plants ensconced in liquid nitrogen vapor to mimic the misty mountains and coffee plantations in Colombia. Other bites entice the eyes, like the “tree of life,” a crispy canopy of yucca bread that’s proffered on a delicate trunk-like structure that, overall, resembles a bonsai tree.

Such courses are well-documented (and Instagrammed) throughout Barrientos’ El Cielo locations, through the chef’s work with local and seasonal ingredients for each restaurant. Barrientos says his team is experimenting with several varieties of crab for DC—you’ll find crab arepas on the a la carte menu—as well as local produce and grains. 

Multi-color arepas. Photograph courtesy of El Cielo.

The a la carte menu, abbreviated for the opening weeks, isn’t without its own thrills. That bonsai tree makes an appearance, or you can splurge on Osetra caviar with spicy sour cream and yucca crackers. Plates are almost entirely dedicated to seafood or vegetables. Guests can pick between several styles of Colombian ceviches and crudos, including a vegetarian mushroom “ceviche.” Shareable items run small to medium and family-style, such as whole salt-crusted branzino or lobster with Colombian rice “atollado,” a kind of sticky rice with pickled apples, garam masala, and chives.

Ceviche with tropical fruits. Photograph courtesy of El Cielo.

A four-course takeout kit ($49) will be offered through October 12 and include dishes that require simple assembly at home like ceviche, atollado rice with prawns, and chocolate curd with “chocolate textures.” (The packages all come with instructions from chef.) Sadly there’s no choco-wash to-go —you’ll have to stick to hand sanitizer outside the restaurant.

Reservations for tasting menus and to-go kits are available via Tock.

El Cielo DC. 1280 Fourth St., NE.

Lavender lava cake and chocolate. Photograph courtesy of El Cielo.

See a sample a la carte menu here:

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.