Sophisticated” and “gourmet” may not be the first words to pop into your head when someone mentions San Gerardo de Rivas, gateway to the Southern Zone’s Mount Chirripó, the country’s highest mountain and toughest hike. But an innovative hotel in Chimirol, three kilometers south of San Gerardo, is bringing a sense of style and a whole new gastronomic dimension to these parts, better known for trail mix than for culinary delights.
Café Blue is the showpiece restaurant at Monte Azul, an upscale mountain retreat that combines a 125-acre private nature reserve with a designer hotel and contemporary art project (TT, Feb. 8, 2008). The terrace is as much art as it is dining room, set in a spectacular tropical garden with a papyrus-filled pond, luxuriant shrubs, exotic flowers and a tangle of vines spilling down from the roof. Abstract sculptures, avant-garde fiber art, framed prints and large canvases created by Monte Azul artists-in-residence are all woven into this natural backdrop. The showstopper is a backlit, painted-glass bar that bathes the restaurant in an intense blue glow.
At first glance you may ask yourself: What is this chic, sleek restaurant and bar doing in the middle of the campo?
The creative forces behind Café Blue are partners Carlos Rojas and Randall Langendorfer, who brought the same aesthetic – which they describe as modern, mid-20th century – to the design of the casitas at Monte Azul. Their food philosophy, Rojas says, is to “create the finest cuisine, cooked to perfection, using the freshest, organic local ingredients, grown right here in Monte Azul and the surrounding Chirripó River Valley.”
To that end, they have on-site organic greenhouses, their own organic, tree-shaded coffee finca, and access to local organic farm produce. They also have their own goats – Maria and Betty – who provide the raw material for the chèvre, feta and crottin cheeses Langendorfer makes. Fresh cow’s milk is delivered daily, which Langendorfer also converts into an array of aged cheeses.
Langendorfer’s food talents don’t stop there. He also bakes breads and whips up sumptuous desserts, heavy on the dark chocolate. Oh, and he also designed the elegant and very fine furniture in the dining room, made of local woods.
The form here is certainly impeccable, with so much to feast your eyes on. But how does the substance, i.e., the food, stack up?
Rojas, who grew up in Costa Rica before moving to the U.S. and becoming an art dealer in New York City and San Francisco, calls the cuisine “comfort food” – and it is, if your comfort zone is as cosmopolitan as the menu, with inspirations from the Mediterranean, Asia and the U.S., along with many Tico touches. The aim, Rojas says, is to use as many organic ingredients as possible and keep the food elegantly simple.
Dinner is a set menu each night ($31 plus taxes), starting with soup, perhaps a delicate cream of chayote squash with garlicky croutons, or a spicy sopa negra, black bean soup with boiled egg and fresh cilantro. The bread basket is piled high with Langendorfer’s freshly baked breads, which run the gamut from challah and brioche to pretzel and crusty fennel-topped loaves. A salad follows; my favorite is a mixed organic-greens salad with hot, crunchy macadamia nuts and a spicy orange dressing.
Main courses include a smoky, grilled chicken breast with a sweet guava sauce. Aged beef, which comes from a specialty butcher in nearby San Isidro de El General, is perfectly cooked and tender, sometimes served with a wine-reduction sauce and topped with grilled pineapple. There’s also fresh fish, say a thick, juicy corvina steak smothered with a basil citrus sauce. Sides include sautéed or mashed potatoes, al dente green beans with sesame seeds, and tangy mustard greens, cooked a la abuela de Carlos (Carlos’ grandmother’s recipe). Ingredients are top-quality and fresh, the preparation is innovative without being fussy, and the result is satisfying and delicious.
Desserts alone here are worth the journey to Monte Azul. Langendorfer’s elegant chocolate tart is a three-layer confection: cookie crust bottom; silky, dark chocolate center; and melted dark chocolate on top with three dabs of whipped cream and blackberry sauce on the side. The meltingly rich “Hot Lava” cake is another chocolate extravaganza. On the tangy side, there’s a refreshing passion fruit tart.
As befits Café Blue’s artistic milieu, presentation is picture-perfect, with dollops of innovative garnishes decorating elegant, pure-white china. Service is smooth and attentive, provided by friendly floor manager Róger Cerdas, who lives in nearby Guadalupe. Cooks Allan Hernández, Andy Cárdenas and Paulo Alvarado are all locals, too, in keeping with the hotel’s sustainability ethic.
Lunch at Café Blue is bright and cheerful, featuring Fiestaware china in a rainbow of colors. The garden is the star of the show, with entertainment provided by birds flitting among the foliage (bring binoculars!). The fixed lunch menu ($18 plus taxes) always includes a soup – perhaps a gingery purée of carrot – and a salad, like cubed tomato, cucumber and homemade mozzarella, dressed with fresh basil and balsamic vinegar. Main courses may be a pasta primavera using vegetables from Monte Azul’s garden, or a pretzel-bread sandwich stuffed with honey-Dijon chicken salad. Dessert is often a homemade fruit sorbet accompanied by Langendorfer’s just-baked cookies – the rosemary shortbreads are standouts – and chocolate truffles.
Café Blue is a little like a mirage: a shimmering blend of art, glamour, great design and top-notch food rising out of the wilds of the dramatically scenic Chirripó River Valley. If you’ve just hiked up and down Mount Chirripó, how better to celebrate than with a first-class feast? But even if the hike up Chirripó is not on your must-do list, Café Blue is an excellent new reason to visit this beautiful, off-the-beaten-path spot.
Café Blue at Monte Azul is in Chimirol, on the road to San Gerardo de Rivas, 16 kilometers northeast of San Isidro de El General. It is essential to reserve at least one day ahead for lunch or dinner, so the kitchen staff can shop for the freshest ingredients and so you can choose your menu. To reserve, call 2742-5222.
The Art of Food
For serious food lovers, Monte Azul has a two-night getaway that includes shopping in the San Isidro farmers market (on Thursdays) to gather ingredients for a cooking workshop in Monte Azul’s ultra-modern, fully equipped demonstration kitchen, where you’ll prepare – and eat – a three-course lunch. There’s also a cheese-making workshop and gallo pinto (Costa Rica’s traditional rice-and-beans breakfast dish) demonstration. Special dinner menus in Café Blue include pre-dinner cocktails and live music. In-room spa treatments and a soap-making workshop are also options. Included, of course, is accommodation in one of Monte Azul’s exquisitely designed, art-filled, luxury casitas. Hiking along the scenic trails in the hotel’s nature reserve will help burn off some of the calories. For information, visit www.monteazulcr.com.