When you’re way down south and you need to beat the heat, wend your way up the winding, scenic road from Ciudad Neily to Morphose Mountain Retreat, a refreshing new restaurant and bed-and-breakfast. In just 15 minutes, you can trade steamy, sea-level humidity for cool, fresh air at a comfortable altitude of 2,200 feet.
The complete and welcome change of climate is the first of many transformations in store for visitors – which is exactly what owners Patrick and Kate Desvenain, from France and the U.S., respectively, had in mind when they named their mountain retreat.
“In French, morphose means metamorphosis,” Kate says. “We wanted to convey the Frenchness of our place, along with the notion that people can come here for a transformative experience.”
The name also plays on the association with morpho butterflies, of which there are many on the 26-hectare, forested property, including on the hotel’s logo.
Turning off the Ciudad Neily-San Vito road at the sign of the butterfly, you enter a dense forest, driving 600 meters along a gravel road to a clearing where the Balinese-inspired, teak-and-glass Morphose Restaurant is perched on the edge of a limestone ridge. You enter the restaurant under a ceremonial Asian gate and along a tiled walkway flanked by reflecting pools. From both inside and outside tables on a wide, wraparound deck, diners have panoramic views of evergreen palm plantations bordering the shimmering waters of the Golfo Dulce, framed by the rolling hills of the Osa Peninsula to the west and the Zancudo and Pavones headlands to the south. On a clear night, the lights of Ciudad Neily sparkle below while stars light up the sky.
Nothing can compete with that view, so the restaurant’s interior is sensibly understated with a few exotic touches, including a rattan ceiling that adds texture and warmth to the high, peaked roof, and a hand-carved, sandstone wall mural of hummingbirds and tropical foliage, imported from Indonesia. By night, accent lighting bathes the restaurant in a golden glow.
After absorbing the architecture and the view, the next treat is studying the menu of international dishes, prepared with a definite French accent and a few Tico touches.
At work in the open kitchen, chef Patrick demonstrates the concentration, speed and expertise garnered from a wide-flung, 20-year culinary career, beginning on the French Riviera and followed by stints in Washington, D.C. fine restaurants and Colorado ski resorts, as well as travels to the Caribbean and South America.
The small menu changes weekly, depending on available ingredients. Starters may include a shrimp cocktail (₡2,000/$4, not including tax and service) with ripe avocado chunks bathed in a silky-smooth homemade mayonnaise, with some contrasting crunch fromfreshly chopped shallots and cilantro. The French onion soup (₡1,500/$3) is authentic down to the rich beef stock, with caramelized onions topped by a gratinée round of crusty French bread, baked by Patrick. In a nod to the local penchant for olla de carne, he adds chunks of tender seared beef to the soup.
With a bumper catch of tuna bought in the nearby port of Golfito, Patrick was offering an appetizer of tuna tartare with avocado and sesame oil (₡2,000/$4) the weekend I visited. I heard other diners raving about it, but I opted for the main-dish tuna in Asian vinaigrette, served atop julienned vegetables. This turned out to be the largest and tastiest chunk of tuna I have ever encountered, expertly seared on the outside and barely warm on the inside, imbued with exotic spices. At ₡4,500 ($9), this may be one of the best values in the country.
Caught up in a feeding frenzy, I sampled a creamy pork curry (₡4,500), spicy to the point of sinus-clearing, soothed by a cool mango, banana and basil chutney; and a few slivers of a classic French hanger steak (₡4,500) topped by garlicky chimichurri and served with sides of hand-cut, real French fries, and zucchini and green beans sautéed with caramelized onions. You know you’re in good hands when the restaurant owners think to provide a French-made Sabatier knife with which to cut your French steak.
The Desvenains are working hard to woo the local market by keeping prices affordable and the menus fresh and varied. Desserts are quite a deal, too, both price- and flavor-wise. I devoured three profiteroles, light puffs of choux pastry filled with vanilla pastry cream or ice cream, smothered in dark chocolate sauce and dabbed with fresh whipped cream. I saved the chocolate parfait – a round of semifrozen cream, chocolate and peanut butter also encased in chocolate – for breakfast the next morning. Slightly less decadent desserts include caramelized pineapple and an exotic banana split (₡1,500/$3 each).
Presentation, service and ambience are all first class here. The only element lacking so far is wine commensurate with the quality of the food. There are affordable and acceptable Chilean merlot and chardonnay by the glass (₡1,500/$3) or bottle (₡7,000/$14) and one Spanish white, but this cuisine deserves a French wine or two.
While Patrick works his magic in the kitchen, Kate glides among the tables, serving each dish with a smile and a friendly comment in Spanish or English to regular customers and first-time diners. The food arrives promptly, but the overall pace here is relaxed and leisurely.
On weekends, brunch slides into lunchtime and guests sometimes linger on to dinnertime, relaxing on comfy sofas at the entrance to the restaurant and chatting with their hosts during lulls in service.
The restaurant is open Thursday to Sunday, but locals and B-and-B guests can reserve places in Patrick’s Tuesday and Wednesday cooking classes, which start at 8 a.m. and cover the preparation of three appetizers, a main course with various sauces, sides and dessert, and of course the eating of the lunch ($40 per person, minimum five people).
Morphose restaurant has successfully extended the southern frontier of fine French food, and it is definitely worth the drive – about an hour and a half from Playa Ventanas to the north or from Playa Zancudo to the south, and about 45 minutes from Golfito.
Room With a View And Breakfast Too
Nothing could be finer than to wake up in Morphose Mountain Retreat after a fine French meal and a good night’s sleep snuggled under a duvet.
Like the restaurant, the Balinese-style Morphose Guesthouse is airy and spacious, all glass and teak and rattan ceiling. The central, shared living space has a comfortable sofa, an up-to-date equipped kitchen for longer stays, and sliding glass doors leading out to a huge deck with a wicker dining set. Two separate, private suites at each end of the house have their own luxurious bathroom – including a deep bathtub with garden view – queen-size beds, and sliding doors to private decks overlooking vistas of land and sea. It’s a perfect setup for two couples traveling together or a family to share, or for one couple to enjoy all on their own.
Breakfast, served on the restaurant deck between 6:30 and 9:30 a.m., starts with just-chopped tropical fruit salad, freshly baked croissants and rich, fragrant coffee, locally grown and roasted and prepared in a French press. Then you choose from pancakes, French toast, crepes with chocolate sauce or a healthy yogurt granola parfait. I opted for eggs Benedict, served on smoked salmon and covered with a hollandaise sauce whipped up to order by Patrick.
To work up an appetite before breakfast, you can join Kate, an avid bird-watcher, on a forest walk. The famous Wilson Botanical Garden is just half an hour up the road, and there are nearby caverns, waterfalls and swimming holes to explore on foot or horseback, as well as a tour of the local cafetal that supplies the restaurant’s coffee.
One of the best things about a longer stay here is having the chance to chat with the hosts. After a foreign-service career helping to set up democratic elections and institutions in Bosnia, Bulgaria and Romania, Kate taught social studies at an alternative high school in the U.S. capital, where she met Patrick, who had alighted there for the second time after his worldwide travels.
Along with their 6-year-old son Lucas, this well-traveled French-American family is here to stay, happy to have found a place they can all call home.
Morphose Mountain Retreat
Morphose Restaurant: Open Thursday from 5 to 8:30 p.m. for dinner; Friday from 11:30 a.m. for lunch and dinner; Saturday from 10:30 a.m. for brunch and dinner; and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for brunch. Reservations are required; call 8843-8626.
Morphose Guesthouse: Rates for a room for two, including breakfast, are $75 in the off-season (August to November) and $95 in high season, plus tax. There’s also a combination package that includes dinner, overnight stay and breakfast for $60 per person, plus tax. For more information, visit www.morphosecr.com or e-mail [email protected].