El Mirador, the upscale restaurant in the luxurious new Arenas del Mar Beach and Nature Resort in Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific coast, has an unexpected view – of trees rather than the usual panorama of sand and sea. The forest even invades the dining space, with six pillar-like tree trunks growing through the floor and disappearing through the cane ceiling. The ultra-natural setting isn’t surprising, given the hotel’s commitment to providing environmentally friendly luxury services (see separate story).
In contrast to the lush foliage that envelops the restaurant, the interior is starkly minimalist, with low concrete walls in neutral shades defining dining cubicles; dark wood, straight-back chairs and tables with simple grass-cloth placemats; and simple wood-plank flooring. The only interior adornments are a pair of elaborate chandeliers and oversize terracotta pots holding massive stems of tropical foliage and flowers.
The main design statement is the sensation of dining in the treetops, in a sophisticated Bauhaus tree house.
At the helm of the hotel’s flagship restaurant is chef Dixon Olmos, a Panamanian who cut his culinary teeth on Cruise West and Lindblad luxury ships and has had a long career as a food consultant in Costa Rica. Described as “Costa Rican fusion,” the menu’s focus is on local produce and fish, with a strong Caribbean accent – there’s an upscale rondón, the classic Caribbean seafood and root vegetable stew ($15), and Caribbean-style red beans and rice accompany some main dishes.
Open only since November, the kitchen is still finding its culinary sea legs. There are some hits and misses, as the cooks experiment with local ingredients that don’t always behave as expected. The deliciously described roasted vegetables with rosemary and garlic vinaigrette served in a Parmesan cheese shell with red pepper coulis ($11) had to be sent back because of the impossible-to-chew, gummy cheese basket. Olmos quickly appeared tableside to apologize and explain that the local version of Parmesan just wasn’t crisping up, Italian-style.
The replacement salad of grilled portobello mushrooms over garden greens with chopped vegetables and cashews in green peppercorn vinaigrette ($11) was more successful. With the addition of strips of lightly grilled fish, the appetizer portion was satisfying enough for a meal.
The menu is notable for intriguing vegetarian options that will please the healthconscious and even tempt committed carnivores – for example, the ñame (yam) casserole with curried spinach served with sprouted quinoa ($11). Olmos says he enjoys the challenge of not using meat. The daily soups are all vegan-friendly, using only vegetable broth, and they’re anything but boring.
Try the savory curried pumpkin ($7) or the refreshing mango gazpacho with papaya, jalapeños, avocado, cilantro and lime ($6).
Of course, there’s prime beef on the menu, grilled and spicy and a little pricey at $16 to $24. But the indisputable stars here are fish and seafood, freshly caught and gathered, and perfectly handled. I tried an escabeche of Pacific lobster, shrimp and fish in a citrus vinaigrette, enlivened with star fruit and avocado puree and served atop patacones (fried green plantains) ($10). The fishy parts were properly al dente, and the marinating rendered the usually tart and tough star fruit soft and tasty. The salt-free patacones were a little soggy, though, so the dish lacked the crunchy contrast and the salty accent that complement ceviche so well.
The fillet of corvina ($15) that followed, however, was perfect. It arrived good and hot, as though it had just jumped out of the saucepan, and was bathed in a velvety sauce of cream, ginger and onions with a sprinkling of chives. The sauce tasted like pure butter, but Olmos explained that the buttery flavor and texture come from carefully reducing heavy cream. The accompanying round yuca (cassava) cakes were an interesting starch alternative. Only the presentation could have been improved – white fish in a white sauce with a white starch on white plates was a little underwhelming.
Desserts here are sinfully delicious and homemade. At lunch, the coffee brownies with macadamia nuts, dusted with icing sugar ($4), are dense, dark and delicious.
The wines are all from Argentina and Chile, a nod to sticking as close to homegrown as possible.While the wine list makes very good reading, with lots of tasting notes, the wines are a little overpriced – from $30 to $80 – especially if you know the price of these wines in local stores. A glass of South American white or red costs $6 to $7.
Service is very efficient and friendly; the waiters will ask your name. You’d like to reward the cheerful servers, but unfortunately the restaurant is guilty of a practice, common in many upscale hotels and restaurants, of leaving out tax and service in the dollar-menu prices. Despite the notice at the bottom of the menu that tax and service are not included, wouldn’t it be better to include the tax in the menu price and let guests feel good about adding the service and tip?
That quibble aside, there’s a lot of creativity and potential here. With a little fine-tuning, El Mirador may become a truly fine restaurant. If you’re in Manuel Antonio, it’s definitely worth a visit, especially for the unique experience of elegant dining in the treetops.
Location: In the Arenas del Mar Beach and Nature Resort in Manuel Antonio; follow signs along the El Parador road.
Hours: Open for breakfast, 7 to 10 a.m.; lunch, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and dinner, 7 to 10 p.m.