El Cielo

Image: Tuna “Empanada.” Some assembly required.

Last Updated: October 2023


El Cielo at La Cosecha is one of four branches of the acclaimed Bogotá restaurant that garnered a Top 50 Restaurant in Latin America prize.  Miami is the other U.S. locations, Medellín rounds out the list.  The D.C. location has a Michelin star and made the Washingtonian Top 100 this year.  The menu is a set tasting menu, with an option for a long or short version.  They also offer a cocktail tasting at the bar with select dishes.  As you may have surmised it will be big production, and it will be expensive.

The food can be transcendent, it can be whimsical, it can be deeply satisfying even though most of the twenty or so courses are a fleeting bite or two.  They tend to come quickly at the front, and we would suggest pacing yourself to make sure you get to the end. 

Early courses are smaller like the truffle buñuelo that is a single bite of black dumpling with intense truffle flavor in a soupy interior or the crisped tapioca with a piece of foie on top.  Tuna ceviche with three choices of toppings to make a tiny empanada from the fish-shaped pastry is a little gimmicky, but works on a flavor level.  They are all carefully composed, balanced dishes that unfold and bring smiles as they disclose their secrets.

There are a couple dishes that are house specialties and standard on the menu. The “Tree of Life” is a gooey yucca flat bread with accompanying sauces served on a wire rack to imitate a shadowing tree, but it is a bit of a gut filler that you need to be careful with so many courses to come.  The other signature course is more of a process than a dish.  Chocola-therapy garnered the restaurant some early attention.  It involves having warm chocolate sauce poured over your hands, then sugar and coffee as “exfoliates” are sprinkled. On the diner’s part it requires some degree of decorum to be relaxed in order to lick the chocolate off your hands before water is brought to cleanse away the mess.  As odd as it sounds it is fun, and the chocolate tastes really good.

Corn soup with corn meal bread marks the shift to more substantial courses that are a little less inventive.  Dishes to round out the night include a classic ceviche, a fish course presented with a sauce, quail with wild onion and creamy rice.  They are all excellent and what you might expect from a great tasting menu, but lack the playful creativity of the opening bites. 

The last savory course was one of the few dishes that didn’t work.  The individual components were great – bison in a rich wine sauce, cheese-infused potato puree, and a piece of bok choy with chimichurri.  Coming at the end it was a heavy dish that challenged the will to finish.  The components themselves competed with each other on the plate instead of complementing.

The desserts returned to form with an emphasis on South American fruits and coffee served in a “morning fog” like pumped clouds on a theater set floating through plants arranged on the table.   

The service was attentive and well-practiced at the dance of delivering the plates with all the required extra steps to create the intended drama.  If only judging on the basis of food and service we recommend El Cielo.

That said, the recommendation comes with caveats.  The music thumping from the food hall next door requires the restaurant’s music to be turned up, making conversation difficult at times.  The wine list is short and not that interesting (with two bottles being out of stock on the night we dined).  The wine pairings are well thought-out, but stray beyond those and staff will point you back to the wines that are in the pairing.

The décor is a bit mundane and the chairs a bit narrow.  The main dining room is an open room with plain square tables where you end up looking at tables directly in your view.  When the courses include experiences intended to be slightly vulnerable embracing of whimsy and drama, like licking chocolate off your fingers, to do so while others watch feels more like performance than personal indulgence. 

There is no parting gift, and they were unable to find/print an extra copy of the menu.  They only provide one for the table, with the name of the person making the reservation added.  So, if the celebration is for someone other than the reservation-maker or a couple and you want the keepsake to have the appropirate name, then be sure to specify when making the reservation.  As practiced as the service is, it implies a certain script, right down to the birthday extra that was far from a chocolate banana moment.

Despite the extravagance and uniqueness, it has not received much attention since it opened (with the chocolate hand wash creating a mild flurry).  To be fair it might be the post-Covid dining world is not as focused on super expensive tasting menu spots.  Its peers Jônt and the re-opened Pineapple & Pearls have not exactly dominated the conversation either.  But perhaps the lack of buzz is because it is not quite the sublime experience people hope for.  We have been forgiving of many things in the post-Covid era as restaurants struggle with multiple challenge at once.  When you are paying close to $1000 for dinner for two, however, minor things are less forgivable. 

In the before times, we had a ranking system with the highest category being “Splurge Worthy” for those expensive places that were worth the cost (for those that can afford it).  In that category were places like Fiola, Masseria, Marcel’s, Metier/Kinship, minibar, and Komi.  El Cielo, by virtue of its format and cost is claiming to be in that category.  As good as it is it doesn’t quite make the Splurge Worthy cut, but for those that can afford it, the food is an amazing treat.  

Other Guidance:  It is a nice place, but not overly fancy.  No tie or similar attire necessary, but you probably want to dress up a little at least.  Dietary restrictions are requested in advance and most appear to be accommodated, but it is a set menu.  The menu is heavy on fish, lighter on red meat.  The restaurant is located at street level with no stairs required.  There is a ramp down to access the bathrooms and the back dining room.


Cuisine: South American (Colombian)
Neighborhood: Union Market
Address: 1280 4th St NE, Washington, DC 20002
Website: https://elcielowashington.com/
Reservations: Tock

Other Critics/Voices:

Washington Post: Strangely unmentioned.

Washingtonian: Top 100 in 2023.

DonRockwell.com – no thread yet

Michelin: One Star

Kimberly Kong: Nomtastic from 2022 gave it a strong yes.

Kevin Eats: Had a very similar meal to ours in July of 2023, probably a couple weeks before we went.