Florida Keys Business
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Gracing the neighborhood
Colombian restaurant spices up Petronia Street

Bahama Village is embracing a new flavor with the recent opening of a Colombian restaurant on Petronia Street.

Colombian Grace is now serving authentic, native dishes from the South American locale. Owner Zulma Segura said she prides herself on the restaurant's fresh, homemade approach to cooking.

"We grew up with our mom and our grandma cooking everything fresh," the Colombian native said. "We don't have a microwave here in the restaurant."

Segura's mother, Alexandrina Rojas, has been busy teaching the restaurant's cooks her traditional recipes to make sure everything is authentic.

Rojas has even adapted many of her recipes to make use of the abundant fresh seafood available locally. Other authentic ingredients such as yucca flour are being delivered from Miami.

The restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner, but many of the hearty breakfast options can double as a lunch entree, including the tamales, arepas con queso, empanadas and soups.

"We eat a lot of food but we don't gain any weight," Segura said with a laugh about her native cuisine.

The soups are made without beef or chicken stock, and many of the dishes are dairy free or have just a dash of cream or butter. The restaurant also squeezes its own fresh juices -- orange, passion fruit, lulo and pineapple, with no sugar added. The restaurant's coffee even comes from the family's plantation in Colombia.

The interior design of Colombian Grace also has an authentic feel.

"I wanted to keep it warm and open and inviting," said interior designer Patricia Baldus, owner of Leaf designs. "And also, I wanted to bring in very authentic Colombian pieces. That was very important to us -- [that] every touch, every detail come from Colombia."

Warm, bright colors on the walls display artwork and textiles made by the country's native people. Even the restaurant's colorful dishware and bread baskets were brought from Colombia.

Baldus said her goal was to create a "balance of adding visual color and authenticity without it getting too cluttered or busy or looking like a Colombian street fair."

She also tried to reuse materials whenever possible, building the restaurant's banquet seats and large patio planters from old wooden booths that formerly occupied the upstairs.

Colombian Grace has seating in the air-conditioned dining room and shaded, storefront patio downstairs or on its spacious, covered balcony upstairs. Happy hour drinks and tapas will be served on the balcony from 5 to 7 p.m. daily.

The upstairs also provides space for private parties. Segura plans to turn the large room into a lounge area where people can linger for drinks or coffee after dinner when the space is not booked for private parties.

The opening of her restaurant is a huge accomplishment for Segura, who moved to Key West from Colombia just five years ago. She didn't even speak English when her sister, Alexandra, persuaded her to move here.

Since arriving in town, Segura has been working as a server at Blue Heaven just down the street. She had eyed the location of Colombian Grace as it sat vacant the past few years. With the support of her family, she decided to make the leap to restaurant owner.

Her family even helped her do all the work to get the space ready -- there was much to be repaired, replaced and painted as the building had been empty for at least four years, Segura said.

"I'm just tickled to death that they're here," said Blue Heaven owner Richard Hatch as he stopped by Colombian Grace on Monday to check out the restaurant's first day in business.

Hatch said the opening of Colombian Grace and the impending opening of La Creperie in a few months could create an "epicurean renaissance" on Petronia Street and the surrounding neighborhood, which has been plagued by vacant storefronts and crumbling homes in recent years.

Other business owners on the street echoed those sentiments. In fact, the owners of the Caribbean House guesthouse across the street were Segura's first customers Monday morning. They even brought several guests with them to sample the cuisine.

"We discovered a new flavor. We loved it," said Caribbean House's Mary Barrabes, who owns the guesthouse with her husband, Michael. "The hot chocolate is fabulous."

She said she is very happy to see some revitalization on the street and welcomes another neighborhood restaurant for her guests, whom she often sends to Blue Heaven or Santiago's Bodega, which often have long wait times in season because of their popularity with tourists and locals alike. Colombian Grace has seating for 98.

amswary@keysnews.com

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