Fine Dining in The Sacred Valley: El Albergue de Ollantaytambo
April 28, 2014
Many visitors to Machu Picchu will breeze right past El Albergue’s restaurant on their way to South America’s most visited sight without even realising it is there. Located right on the platform at Ollantaytambo’s railway station, the world-class restaurant at El Albergue is reason alone to choose Ollantaytambo over Aguas Calientes (or Machu Picchu village as it is now officially known) as your base when visiting the Inca citadel, or at least scheduling a stop at the delightful, ancient Sacred Valley village before or after your visit. From here the train journey to Machu Picchu is just an hour and a half.
How to find El Albergue
To get to the restaurant you will first need to resist the enthusiastic food and souvenir stall-holders on the bumpy road running alongside the river as it tumbles down the gentle slope from Ollantaytambo’s centre to the railway station. Once you have convinced the station’s ticket collectors that you are not trying to sneak onto the train without paying, stroll along the platform to the 1925 building – originally the Hotel Santa Rosa – and enter the rather sophisticated world of El Albergue.
The softly-lit restaurant with its dark wood floors and matching furniture makes for a relaxing spot to enjoy dinner, accompanied by the gentle sounds of a local harpist in typical Andean dress singing traditional Quechua songs. The airy, beamed room is decorated with vases of fresh flowers and the walls adorned with original art works by the American owner, Wendy Weeks, who has owned El Albergue since 1976.
Real Teamwork – A Kitchen with No Head Chef
From the dining area you can watch the team of talented chefs creating original and tasty food in the open kitchen. The menu is a fusion of Peruvian and international cuisines, created using fresh, local ingredients with most of the vegetables and herbs sourced from El Albergue’s own on-site organic kitchen garden.
Watch El Albergue’s team at work in the open kitchen
There is no single head chef, instead each of the kitchen staff – all of whom are from Ollantaytambo – take it in turns to manage the team in keeping with the Andean management school of “Ayni” or reciprocity which means that each team leader knows that the people working for him will one day also take their turn at being the boss. It encourages team spirit, engenders a sense of equality and fairness, and whatever your view of this management style, the results from the kitchen suggest overwhelmingly that it is one to be embraced.
Inventive, Organic, Delicious
Having had the pleasure of dining here on more than one occasion I can happily recommend many of the delicious dishes on the menu. Before you even start to enjoy whatever you order you will be treated to a plate of dense but crispy deep fried yuca chips with a light and creamy ocopa dip made from cheese, onion and minty Andean huacatay herb. There may be secret ingredients in there too but Jennifer, our charming, English-speaking server on my latest visit was being too coy to give it away.
To start with you can choose from a range of fresh salads made with ingredients from the garden. The Albergue salad is a veritable mountain of colourful leaves with caramelised pecan nuts, crispy bacon and a tangy-sweet dressing. If you are looking for something a little more filling to start there is also a range of more traditional and equally generous starters to choose from.
Peruvian classic causitas (pictured, top) come as three beautifully presented stacks of perfectly mashed native potatoes with toppings of guacamole, fried trout and aji de gallina – traditional chicken in a slightly spicy yellow chilli sauce. And for a slightly less daring take on anticuchos – usually pieces of grilled cow’s heart on a skewer – El Albergue’s anticucho de pollo consists of more palatable tender chunks of chicken breast, courgettes and peppers with a refreshing mango chutney and yellow chilli sauce.
Healthy size, healthy ingredients – anticuchos de pollo
Main courses are mostly based on Peruvian classics but do include a good selection of vegetarian and pasta dishes too, such as vegetable lasagne and a rich seasonal vegetable stew with quinoa and a dash of spicy rocoto – hot Peruvian chilli – sauce.
For carnivores the selection is mouth-watering and several of the dishes come in two different sized portions which is a fantastic idea given how good (and large) the starters are. And of course for those who just don’t feel they have been out to dinner if they haven‘t had a dessert, no matter how full they after the first two courses. All pasta dishes are available as full or half portions too.
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The lamb medallions with chimichurri herb topping really are melt-in-the-mouth, as is the very flavoursome alpaca tenderloin with elderberry sauce. Although my companion initially felt that her medium-cooked lamb looked rather rarer than she would have liked, any thoughts of sending it back evaporated as soon as she tasted it. The lamb comes with a light and subtly flavoured quinoa risotto with parmesan, and although the alpaca steak is normally accompanied with mashed potato with fresh huacatay, the kitchen was happy to replace mine with the quinoa risotto since I had started with causitas, which are of course mainly mashed potato.
Melt-in-the-mouth lamb and refreshingly light quinoa risotto
I can also recommend the alpaca and beef burger if you are feeling really hungry bit still want a taste of something a bit more Peruvian. This is one of the dishes that is offered as one-size-only, and that size is definitely large. Served with salad, a stack of big fries and a selection of relishes, this apparent concession to “fast food” is just as much fine dining as any of the other main course on the menu.
Desserts at El Albergue also come highly recommended, but to date I have only ever had room for one. And that had to be shared with two friends. I can, however, report that the cheesecake with aguaymanto – a raisin-like dried physalis – was the perfect combination of good old American cheesiness with a local touch. If you do over-order and can’t bear the thought of leaving anything behind, then the friendly staff will happily give you a doggy bag.
Worth leaving room for: Cheesecake with aguaymanto
Starters, soups and salads are priced from 15 Soles (£3.25 or US$5.50) to 29 Soles (£6.25 or US$10.50); Mains range from 22 Soles (£4.75 or US$8) for pasta with pesto up to 49 Soles (£10.50 or US$17.50) for a large serving of lamb medallions with chimichurri. Desserts start at just 9 Soles (£2 or US$3.25) for home-made rice pudding with cinnamon, and the fabulous cheesecake is 16 Soles (£3.50 or US$5.75). Wines start at a very reasonable 55 Soles (£12 or US$19.75) a bottle.
For something completely different you can actually spend the morning working in the kitchen garden with Albergue staff and help with preparation of your own lunch which you can then enjoy in the restaurant or the peaceful gardens. Enquire for costs for this unique “farm-to-table” experience.
An outstanding restaurant in a magical setting, El Albergue is all the more enchanting for being so unexpected. Moreover the owner’s dedication to working with the local community and to sustainability – without compromising their standards of cuisine – should make it a top priority for any visitor to The Sacred Valley. Its location, literally en route to or from Machu Picchu also makes it the ideal place to spend an evening after visiting Peru’s world wonder – and the perfect way to stave off that virtually inevitable post-Machu Picchu come-down. If you don’t like having far to go after a good dinner, there are also 15 delightful rooms from $79 a night. Review to follow.
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner – reservations strongly advised