Fish and Fondue in the Far Reaches of Nicoya
WHEN you advertise your restaurantas “gourmet” in a remote location, youmay be setting yourself up for a face-losingflop. Never mind the difficulties of securingreliably fresh, high-quality ingredients;you also have to be very nice to your indispensablechef and staff, marooned in anout-of-the-way corner of the country.But if you have a bounty of fish andseafood right at your doorstep, an imaginative,contented chef and a gorgeous restaurantspace, you might just live up to youradvertising. Luna Azul, a small hotel restaurantperched on a hill overlooking the seanear Playa Ostional, on the northern Pacificcoast, is definitely making the grade.Open for a little more than a year and ahalf, the restaurant has a ready clientele inits hotel guests, but it is also drawing dinersfrom the nearby town of Nosara, whoare happy to undertake two river crossingsto make it for dinner. Prospective propertybuyers being pampered at The Sanctuary, atime-share development up the coast, arealso making a beeline for Luna Azul.THE restaurant and boutique hotel arethe creations of Swiss partners Rolf Lichtensteinand Andreas Baumann (see separatearticle). Their eye for detail extends toevery aspect of the restaurant, from thehand-written blackboard menu to the saladplates painted with a basil leaf, to the sinuous,snake-shaped demitasse spoons thataccompany after-dinner espresso.It helps, too, that Lichtenstein is a foodenthusiast. Although he has no formaltraining, he says he has been a “hobbycook” all his life, sometimes assisting hisbrother, who has a cooking school inSwitzerland.He and Baumann have set the stagebeautifully, with an alfresco space thatlooks out onto an infinity pool framed by aview of green forest and a glimmer of sea.Lighting is romantically subdued, curvaceousteak chairs are handsome and comfortable,and every glass, plate and piece ofcutlery has been chosen carefully with aneye to style.THE star of any restaurant show is thechef. The Swiss owners found their luckystar in Tony Mata. “Chef Tony” honed hisfish-cooking skills with La PrincesaMarina seafood restaurants for sevenyears, followed by a three-year stint at theCamino Real Hotel in Santa Ana, southwestof San José.When the Swiss partners were buildingtheir hotel in 2003, they dined often at TheSanctuary, where Mata was then cooking.They are delighted that he chose to comeand cook for them, and also train twolocals to be his kitchen assistants.“Tony can tell youthe age of a fish to thehour,” says Lichtenstein,who has learnedfrom the master andnow shops for fish andseafood in the nearbyvillages of San Juanilloand Lagarto.Finding other suppliescan sometimesbe a challenge, however.“Sometimes we think that in theCentral Market in San José, there is a bigblack hole where they throw all theunsellable produce, and then they ship it toNicoya,” Baumann laughs.ONE way they have found to compensatefor less-than-fresh produce is to growtheir own herbs, which add a fresh greenflourish to almost every dish.The fresh herbs made their first appearanceat dinner in the pungent garlic-herbbutter served with a basket of hot bread.Complimentary tapenade toasts toppedwith capers made a surprise guest appearance.A beautifully arranged tropical saladof shrimp, papaya, apples, grapes, tomatoesand fresh basil was bathed in a classicFrench vinaigrette with just a hint of mustard(¢3,500/$7.35). The main-course redsnapper fillet was cooked just right, juicyand tender, and topped with a satisfyinglytangy sauce of chopped fresh tomatoes,basil strips and Parmesan shavings(¢4,700/$9.85).The next night’s dinner featured theonly vaguely Swiss dish on the menu: ameat fondue, with ample portions of chickenand beef strips to cook in a hot brothand then dip in six delectable sauces, rangingfrom a garlicky Tico chimichurri to ahoney-mustard mayonnaise. Accompaniedby a salad, crisp authentic French fries(even more heavenly when dipped in thefondue’s garlic mayonnaise), a mountainof rice flavored with fresh lemon basil, andan assorted condimenttray, the fondue wasthe priciest item onthe menu, at ¢7,900($16.60), but it wasworth it.Not that we neededit, but in the line ofduty, my companionand I dove into ashow-stopping carpacciode pulpo appetizer:thinly slicedcross-sections of octopus, marinated inolive oil and lemon, with shavings offresh fennel, garlic, red onions and basil(¢3,200/$6.70). It was as beautiful as itwas delicious.THE blackboard menu spotlights fishand seafood every night, but the preparationsvary so that hotel guests won’t getbored. There’s always a fish-based soup,interesting salads and a sophisticated pastaor two. During high season, Luna Azul alsopresents theme dinners almost every night,ranging from Asian or Mexican to Italianor Peruvian. The meat fondue night isalways a draw.The only mild disappointment was thatdessert both nights was flambéed fruit,expertly prepared with liqueur and servedwith ice cream. My sweet tooth craved apudding or a cake choice, though I have toadmit I was so sated with fresh bread andgarlic butter, plus the main dishes, that evenI would have had trouble facing dessert.The wine list is Chilean, with oneArgentine option (¢5,500-15,000/$11.50-31.40). Lichtenstein and Baumann, thoughused to European wines, decided thatSouth American wines offered the bestvalue in Costa Rica.SERVICE at the restaurant was attentiveand friendly, with Baumann and Lichtensteinadding an extra personal touch.Bilingual bartender and waiter JordanMendoza was both affable and professional,enhancing each evening’s enjoyment.Daytime visitors exploring Ostionaland San Juanillo can drop in for lunch fora full range of fish and pasta dishes. Themost popular lunchtime order, Lichtensteinsays, is Luna Azul’s signature Asian salad:warm strips of chicken or fish over greens,with plenty of fresh ginger and Asianspices (¢3,900/$8.20).Prices listed do not include taxes andservice charge. For information, call 821-0075 or visit www.hotallunaazul.com.
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