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Wild About Costa Rica

Emerging from the jungle, a writer discovers talented chefs and great truck-stop seviche.

After five days in the rain forests of Costa Rica—where we rafted the white water of the R’o Pacuaré and trekked across the lava fields below the Arenal volcano—our appetite for adventure was sated. But we were still hungry, not just for food but for flavor, a meal more intriguing than the rice and beans, overcooked fish and gray meat that seemed to define this country's cuisine.

While ecotourism in Costa Rica has grown exponentially over the last decade, only recently have hotels and restaurants opened that cater to people who love food. As my boyfriend and I traveled around the country, we found both foreign chefs who create sophisticated dishes and Costa Ricans who've learned to make the most of local fish and produce.

El Galeón

Melding culinary ambition with local culture hasn't been easy. Last year when the owners of Los Sueños Resort and Marina near Jacó built El Galeón, they tapped American Mathew Michaud as chef. But after he faxed in a trial menu and list of ingredients, the owners called to tell him it read like gibberish. "They didn't know where to find basics, like haricots verts, curry paste, even almonds," says Michaud, 34, who at the time was a chef at The Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas and had trained in Los Angeles with Wolfgang Puck of Spago and Joachim Splichal of Patina. Still, he took the job.

Today, El Galeón's bar at sunset resembles happy hour in Newport, Rhode Island. Vacationing butterscotch-blond yacht owners with an uncanny affinity for Izod shirts toast big-fish stories with bottles of Costa Rica's Imperial beer. In the kitchen, Michaud—in gold earrings, red bandanna and black-striped homeboy shorts—turns their daily catch into delectable five-course meals.

In the case of a particular hundred-pound tuna, Michaud began with a tartare accompanied by a ponzu sauce—soy flavored with ginger, garlic and mandarin limes. Then he sliced another slab into sashimi. For the next course, he seared tuna fillets sprinkled with what he calls chile dust, which includes ground Scotch bonnet and habanero chile peppers. He added the chiles to his repertoire at the suggestion of a customer who has an apartment at Los Sueños and is the chief supplier of chiles to a Louisiana hot sauce company.

While Michaud can improvise with whatever his patrons pull from the Pacific, he asks guests to give him a little warning. "It gets a little stressful when a guy comes in for his 7:30 reservation holding his pargo," he says. Pargo? A kind of red snapper, he explains, "that can be as big as the hood of a car."

Villa Caletas

After a day of hiking we head toward Villa Caletas, a hotel that lies at the end of a narrow, steep road off the Pan American highway near Jacó. We try to resist the urge at each hairpin turn to lean out the window and marvel at the scarlet macaws flying overhead and the greenness of the valley below. It was this vista and the deep-blue coves—caletas in Spanish—at the base of the mountain that attracted French designer Denis Roy to this property a dozen years ago. After devoting his career to decorating grand palaces for Arabian princes, he'd found a place he could make his own. Over time, he has built 11 private villas and furnished them from his personal cache of European and Asian antiques.

The crowd here is decidedly different from the backpackers we met in the rain forest: The women wear silk sarongs and strappy sandals, the men pressed pants and loafers. By contrast, our T-shirts are streaked with mud. The concierge eyes us suspiciously across a massive carved-wood table. Although several of the 35 rooms are vacant, we're uncertain whether they're available to us—that is, until we slap down a very clean credit card.

At the end of a winding garden path lined with heliconias, ginger, jasmine and frangipani is our two-room mini-manse with its own infinity pool, which appears to spill into the ocean 1,200 feet below. From the terrace I can see the Nicoya Peninsula and the beaches of Jacó, Herradura and Punta Leona.

Like many expatriate hotel and restaurant owners we met, Roy imports chefs from other countries to work with the Costa Rican staff at his two restaurants, Mirador and Anfiteatro. Most recently, he has brought in Armand Mourinha, who used to own Chez Armand, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Lisbon. The menu includes rare seared beef tenderloin with a tart blackberry sauce and mahi mahi with brown butter and lime. Roy is also pushing his chefs to experiment with local produce—for example, one of the country's dozen lemon varieties that he says is "tart, but tastes more like an orange."

Mar Luna

About three hours farther down the coast, the hilly town of Manuel Antonio is so quiet that even in the high season we have a mile-long beach nearly to ourselves—except for the white-faced monkeys that run over to see what we packed for lunch.

A few miles up a hill sits Mar Luna, a tiny wooden shack of a restaurant that offers not only a spectacular view of the jungle meeting the water but the most succulent fish I've ever tasted. While most Costa Rican fish is overcooked, Mar Luna's sea bass, mahi mahi, lobster and other seafood are grilled perfectly over volcanic ash, which is less smoky than charcoal.

From his time working at an English-owned restaurant, Juan Fallas Zuñiga learned exactly how long different types of fish need to be cooked. He brought that knowledge—and the restaurant's chef, who happens to be his cousin—to Mar Luna, which opened in December 2001. Zuñiga is considering adding sauces made with local grapes and star fruit to some of his dishes, but he's concerned they might "hide the natural flavor of the fish."

Cuenca

Located about 20 miles northeast of the port town of Puntarenas, at the crossing of the R’o Aranjuez, Cuenca may be one of the best sodas, the Costa Rican version of diners, in the country. Opened last year by a wealthy horse rancher, Cuenca obviously has money behind it. Most sodas are cheaply built, attached to a family home and staffed with relatives. Here, the bar stools are fashioned from tree trunks, and antique lanterns hang from the ceiling. Professional waiters in pressed white shirts serve customers on an outdoor deck that's built around mango trees, whose branches dip so low that the fruit falls on my head. Still, the restaurant can be hard to spot behind all the 18-wheelers parked out front.

Cuenca was the only soda we found where the beef is juicy and tender, the fried plantains puffed like toasted marshmallows. Sea bass, delivered daily and piled in silvery stacks in the back, becomes delicious seviche marinated in lime and cilantro.

As we finish our meal, we see several truckers head to the river for a quick dip—or maybe they're just trying to escape the piped-in Céline Dion. We find an easier solution: Some 400 colones (about a dollar) convinces the gardener to come inside to play the marimba, a giant, hand-carved xylophone. The wind picks up, sending a breeze beneath the palm-thatched roof. The waiters gather near him, swaying in time with the mango trees outside.

Jennifer Wolff is a writer in New York City.

Published June 2003
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