Entering a Wok restaurant is a lesson in Asian minimalism. The walls have few decorations. The wood tables are simple and undecorated, with an emphasis on community dining.
The menu, available in English or Spanish, changes monthly and is a mini-course in Southeast Asian cooking. Don’t be put off by the unfamiliar terminology; if you don’t know what a satay or yakitori is, the menu explains it well and the knowledgeable staff can give detailed descriptions. The ingredients and country of origin are listed for each dish, plus photos of some of the main dishes, and tongues of fire give clear warning of spiciness. And no guilt here – diners are invited to steal the menu.
Benjamin Villegas left Colombia as a teenager to study gastronomy in London, and his travels later took him to Thailand. Working for three years in a restaurant there brought him into close contact with Asian ingredients and cooking techniques, which he took back with him to Colombia. In 1998 he opened Wok, a restaurant based on Southeast Asian cuisine featuring 14 countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and China.
At Wok emphasis is placed on sustainable practices. National, organic ingredients produced using artisan methods are used whenever possible. They work closely with the communities and micro-businesses that provide their products. Not surprising for a restaurant with a large sushi menu, fish gets a central role on the menu; diners will find references in the menu to artisanal fishermen from the Colombian coast who still use traditional hook and line fishing.
Taking a closer look at the ingredients Wok uses is a fascinating trip not only through Asia, but through Colombia as well. Wok supports indigenous communities from up north in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta who provide galangal, honey and dried shrimp. Artisan fishing in Bahía Solano provides white fish, and their lemongrass is brought from Quindío. In Tumaco they support a project to produce coconut milk. All the way down south in Putumayo indigenous communities have replaced illicit crops with turmeric, hearts of palm and pepper, and chili comes from the Amazon.
From the savanna of Bogotá, areas with exotic names like Choachí, Cajicá and Tenjo produce potatoes and fish, while organic trout comes from the mountains of Duitama, Boyacá. Japanese ingredients such as shiitake and shiso leaf are grown in Colombia. Nama shoyu, a traditional artisan soy sauce, is made in the Valle del Cauca by Japanese immigrants that arrived in Colombia in 1935.
The tour of Southeast Asia begins with the dishes. From Thailand there’s Phad Thai, from Cambodia Lok Lak, and the Ban Xeo sandwich represents Vietnam. Nasi Goreng is an Indonesian fried rice dish, while the inspiration for the Penang curry comes from Malaysia.
And for those wanting to taste Colombian fish, there are plenty of sushi, maki, temaki and oshisushi options. The menu also has gluten free, vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as a children’s menu.
Wok’s juices are a declaration of love with Amazon fruits: arazá, camu camu, asaí, copoazú. They also have the less exotic but very popular coconut lemonade and a refreshing mint lemonade smoothie. Sake can be ordered by the drink, bottle, or transformed into a cocktail. My personal favorite is Moshiso, made with sake and shiso leaves, with a lemony twist.
Desserts also celebrate Colombian ingredients, such as the soursop and araza ice cream sundae. Wontons filled with caramel and cheeses are balanced with a tart blackberry compote.