Rave #3: Grano de Oro Restaurant

Grano de Oro RestaurantThe Hotel Grano de Oro has long been downtown San José’s most elegant boutique hotel. And their in-house restaurant has always been one of my favorites. But they’ve kicked things up several notches of late. Invited for another look on a recent night, I was surprised—and often wowed—by some of the changes and improvements.

Trio of AppetizersThe Grano de Oro now boasts a 110+ label wine list, including several premium wines offered up by the glass. During a pre-dinner visit to the restaurant’s beautiful new wine cellar, we were treated to a tasty ceviche with avocado foam, crisp crostini with homemade pate, and a bite-sized slice of salmon and goat cheese crepe.

Escargot on Garlic FoamOther menu highlights include a slow poached salmon in a vanilla sauce, served with raspberry pearls and green-apple compote. Escargot come already taken out of their shells, sautéed in butter and served over a garlic flan, with a foamy parsley sauce.

Vanilla Poached Salmon

 

Chef Francis Canal has embraced elements of contemporary Fusion cuisine and molecular cooking techniques—without overdoing it or falling into cliché. The palette-cleansing arugula sorbet was cunning, a deft balance of sweet and bitter that perfectly performed its designated task.

Roast Duck

Our main course was a roasted duck breast served with a caramelized fig on a round of roasted butternut squash and sautéed snow peas, all graced with a pate-smeared breadstick.

On this night, the popular Grano de Oro pie, a decadent chocolate and mocha delight that I usually order, was replaced by a delicate dark chocolate globe upon which a warm white chocolate and espresso mixture is poured, melting the whole thing into a lush dessert “soup.”

GrappaWe finished everything up with a smoky grappa from the owner’s private stash, but they do have an ample selection of grappa and other fine after dinner drinks for the general public, as well.

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Rave #2: Lola’s

I can’t remember who first turned me on to Lola’s, or when it was. But I do know it was long before the place had been “discovered,” and long before the restaurant’s (original) namesake pet pig had passed on. Simply put, Lola’s is my favorite beachfront restaurant in Costa Rica. It’s the whole package: heavy handcrafted wooden tables and chairs set under large canvas umbrellas and ample shade trees, with feet in the sand. Hammocks are strung between coconut palms and almendros closest to the waves.

Fresh seared tuna is served over an organic micro-green salad or as a sandwich on fresh ciabatta bread. The “Dutch” French fries are crisp and perfect, and come with a homemade garlic aioli. The fresh fruit smoothies are manna on a hot beach day.

Way back when, Playa Avellanas was virtually unknown. Sure, surfers had the steady beachbreak pegged. And beyond them, a handful or so of Tamarindo locals and tourism insiders would meet Sundays at Lola’s.  But that’s about it. Now, if you want a table on Sunday (or most any other day of the week, it seems), you better get there early.

LolaToday, Don and Christi have expanded and opened Lola’s Norte, at the Las Catalinas resort development at Playa Danta, just north of Sugar Beach. The vibe and menu are the same, and the crowds have yet to discover this outlet.

So what’s your favorite beach restaurant in Costa Rica? A few of my runner-ups included Sobre Las Olas in Cahuita, Gusto Beach in Samara, and Playa de Artistas in Montezuma.

***Note: The photo of Lola playing in the water is borrowed from Flickr’s Creative Common’s public use photo section.***

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.