Rant #2: ICT Announces Restaurant Ratings

Today, the ICT (Costa Rican Tourism Institute) published a full-page announcement in the daily La Nacion granting 1 to 5 Fork ratings to a number of restaurants. (Actually, they only published 3 Forks and up). According to the announcement the forks were awarded for “quality and customer satisfaction”. I’m not really sure how they came up with their ratings, but I can assure you their criteria are quite different from mine. In the very short 5 Fork category, you’ll find high-end entries like Le Monestere (considerably overrated in my view) and Bacchus (a damn fine restaurant) alongside the Mexican-Guatemalan chain Los Cebollines and the truly mediocre Pan-Asian Villa Bonita.

The not-much-longer 4 Fork category, runs the gamut from Key Largo/Del Mar (you heard me) and Tacontento to Don Wang and Tony Roma’s.

I’ll be damned if I can find any rhyme or reason… And there are so many omissions as to make the whole thing meaningless.

While the Inka Grill in Paseo de los Flores gets 4 Forks, the rest of the Inka Grill chain restaurants get just three. Other 3 Fork restaurants include everything from Hooters, Pizza Hut, Rostipollos, and Denny’s to Matsuri (one of my favorite sushi restaurants) and La Divina Comida (a very good Peruvian fusion restaurant).

So what are your 5 Fork or 5 Star choices? I’ll be letting you in on mine pretty soon, once the book is ready….

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Tra Noi Wine Dinner: August 9

Intergourmet Costa Rica and the restaurant Tra Noi are hosting a wine dinner at 7:30pm on Thursday August 9.  Chosen by sommelier Randal Calderon, the meal will feature 5 different wine pairings, taking you through 2 antipasti, pasta, main and dessert courses. The price is c25,000 per person. Reservations can be made at #8950-3279.Tra Noi Ristorante

Rave #1: La Pecora Nera

Sunset BargeIn more than 20 years of traveling and eating my way around Costa Rica, no restaurant has so consistently knocked my socks off as La Pecora Nera in Playa Cocles. If I had just one meal left in Costa Rica, I’d haul ass to the Caribbean coast as fast as I could. Ilario Gionnoni is a whirlwind in and out of the kitchen. I almost never order off the menu, opting instead to ask Ilario what he recommends. There are always nightly specials, most built around ingredients from his little garden, chicken coops and the fresh local catch. The breads are fresh-baked and delicious. The gnocchi achieves a combination of texture and flavor that mesmerizes. He’ll take pork fat from a pig he himself has slaughtered and then press it between cedar planks leaving it to cure for three days. I once had a plate of fresh ravioli in a ragu de gallina, with Ilario explaining how after stewing long enough, the wattles and comb dissolve, adding texture, depth and distinction to the sauce. One night, a fairly standard shrimp cocktail appetizer came with large steamed shrimp arranged around the edge of a martini glass, only the slightly spicy dipping sauce was made out of beets. Another night, between oohs and ahhs of delight, I started up a conversation with the table next to me, and it turns out one of the guys there was a sous-chef for Jean-George Vongerichten. He’d eaten at La Pecora Nera five nights in a row. “This guys a genius,” he says.

More Culinary Tourism: Villa Blanca Wine Dinner

The Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel, up in the Los Angeles Cloud Forest, is hosting a Wine Dinner and overnight on Saturday, August 4. The one-night package includes dinner and a sommelier-guided wine tasting, as well as a one-hour guided tour of the cloud forest, and breakfast the following morning. The price is US$95.50 per person, double occupancy. Grupo Pampa is handling the wine portion of the event, and featured wines will come from the Undurraga and Caliterra vinyards.

 

Culinary Tourism: Visiting Chefs At Arenas del Mar

Sun, fun, sand and serious good food. Hotel Arenas del Mar, in Manuel Antonio, will be hosting two separate 5-day packages with visiting chefs. The packages include lodging, two cooking classes and three dinners prepared by the visiting chef, as well as guided tours to Manuel Antonio National Park and the local vanilla farm, another estuary and local fisheries tour, and coffee, wine and chocolate tastings.

Chef Carrie Bogar from Veya Restaurant on the Caribbean Island of Anguilla will be in residence from September 10 through September 15, 2012.

While, Chef Chip Roman from Mica, ELA and Blackfish Restaurants in Philadelphia will hold court from October 21 through October 26.

Rant #1: Televisions

In my best Jerry Seinfeld voice: “What’s the deal with televisions in restaurants?”  This ranks high on my list of pet peeves for Costa Rican dining. People, unless you’re running a Sports Bar or sport-themed restaurant, take out, turn-off and get over the TV. Possible exceptions include funky, beachfront surfer joints showing big wave riding videos. Can you think of others?  I remember giving a pass to the original La Divina Comida, a high-end Peruvian-fusion restaurant, which had a high-hung flat screen showing Food Network without sound, although my dining companion was nonetheless appalled. I can’t think of many other suitable situations.

Far too many supposedly “fine dining” and everyday restaurants have televisions blaring. I’ve seen it in sushi bars, pizza parlors, hotel restaurants and simple sodas alike. People, learn how to maintain a conversation over a meal (and this means you need to put down that cell phone).

Sabor y Arte

ExteriorThe night started out inauspiciously, with a plan to check out Saigon a new Vietnamese and Pan-Asian restaurant in a new mini-mall on the old road to Santa Ana. Finding it closed (i.e. already out of business), we quickly shifted gears and headed to Sabor y Arte.

Housed in a converted home in downtown Escazu, this place has been open about 8 months. The decor is artsy and eclectic, with the several rooms and patio spaces spread over two floors. There’s plenty of contemporary art and chic design touches, and they have their own art gallery on site.

The menu features creative fusion cuisine, with some interesting uses of obscure local ingredients. The pejibaye soup features bits of fried pejibaye in a rich tomato and pejibaye broth. Unfortunately, I found the tomato to somewhat overpower the pejibaye, a minor quibble, as it was quite good.

Another appetizer featured slow braised lamb inside a crispy croquet made of nampi. For a main course I had the Lomito Bombones, a tender cut of grilled tenderloin, sliced thin, set on a bed of creamy, vanilla-infused mashed nampi and topped with grilled asparagus.

One of the odder features here is the separate “flambee” menu, with a dedicated flambee chef. Located in a corner on the second floor, this chef churns out a range of meat, fish, poultry and pasta dishes, with fire and flare.  Although, you’ll miss the show if you choose to sit downstairs.

The wine list is well-thought out, varied and very fairly priced. Main courses, however, were pricey, averaging between c9,500 and c13,600.

Overall, we were quite pleased, and this place will definitely get a second look.

Manuel Antonio Meals & More

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El Patio at Cafe Milagro has long been one of my favorite restaurants in the Manuel Antonio and Quepos area. It’s even better on nights when Puro Bossa is playing. This delightful duo does traditional Brazilian bossa nova tunes as well as Latinized versions of pop and rock classics.

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Agua Azul was recently named Best Restaurant in a locally voted on Best of Manuel Antonio 2012 campaign. This open-air, high perched restaurant definitely serves up some excellent food, with arguably the best views in the area. Especially around sunset.

As part of my never-ending quest for the perfect fish sandwich, I lunched at Rafael’s Terrazzas, another local spot with to-die-for views. The views here are hard to beat.

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However, the fish sandwich, while offering up a tender and fresh and substantial serving of mahi-mahi, suffered from an all-to-common error–an insipid store-bought bun that wasn’t up to the task.

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