Discovering the Cuisine of Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a country of just under 5 million residents, 90 percent of European descent, and no army! The capitol, San Jose, contains over a million residents who live in peace and harmony with each other. There has not been an army since a revolution here in 1948. It was decided that the money to be spent on the army would be better allocated to health and education. An interesting proposition.
So, in this forward looking country, what is the food scene? It’s a country where the main food staple is beans and rice, with various additions. It is what is eaten here 7 days a week and three meals a day in some places. It’s even served at local McDonalds and Quiznos.
Costa Rica is in the middle of a newly inspired organic food experience. I went to an organic fair the first day I was there. It was in Aranjuez a suburb of San Jose. There were all the elements of an organic fair that might be visited in the United States. Costa Ricans selling organic produce and other things naturally made and not chemically treated from the Earth. There were chocolate seeds, coffee, broccoli, bits of bamboo, fish from the Pacific and the Caribbean. There was even one place to purchase earrings made from butterfly wings dipped in plastic and edged with silver! I had a heavenly ham and cheese sandwich. The organic produce movement is alive and flourishing in Costa Rica.
My first dinner was at Anonos, a family restaurant in San Jose. The interior is wood cut into seats with no cushioning. It’s a highly regarded steak house. I had a shrimp cocktail, which was excellent, and a steak, which was tender and covered with a mild mushroom sauce. The whole thing was delightful. The bill was shocking $100 for two diners with no alcohol and no dessert. One thing I heard is that Costa Rica is an expensive country and it’s certainly true.
I stayed at Villa Blanca (White House), a tranquil resort in the mountains about 90 minutes from San Jose. The property was once owned by the President of Costa Rica and sold to an American film producer about 20 years ago. The grounds are dotted with white guest cabins and the kitchen is all organic. I met the chef and he said that he is very involved in the farm to table movement and it shows in the gorgeous organic food in the dining room. I had a fish called el silenco, which is not found in the USA, and it was quite delicious.
The next day we traveled back to San Jose and met with Randy Siles, who is a celebrity chef in Costa Rica. Randy has a farm next door to Mel Gibson near San Jose and serves as Mel’s personal chef.
We ate together at a restaurant called Tres Hermanas, a large family style restaurant, which is largely a steak house.
That evening we met Alfredo Echeverria, who is the Executive Director of the Club de la Gastronomia Epicurea. He is the most prominent food expert in Costa Rica and gave us a pretty clear explanation about the food scene here.
We met Alfredo at a glamorous restaurant called Furca which grows its vegetables and spices in a very neatly attended organic garden. The plants all looked very healthy and were tasty. The food was imaginatively prepared and provided a first class dining experience. I had rack of lamb which was as tasty as any I have eaten in the States.
The last day in Costa Rica we ate lunch at Al Mercat, an unpretentious restaurant with wooden tables and plastic chairs. The food was impeccable and the upper dining area, where we ate, was awash in fresh plants and even an orchid in full bloom! Among other dishes, we were presented with a variety of root chips and a salsa made from fresh tomatoes and spices, which was imaginative and simply delicious.
The restaurant is not organic but very close to it. The food was all of the highest quality and purchased from suppliers who make only the slightest use of chemicals. From what I could tell there was only the very slightest difference between the quality of the servings here and at wholly organic restaurants.
My last meal in Costa Rica was impeccable, fabulous, the best meal I ever ate anywhere! I realize that that’s very high praise and I mean every word. It was in the Park Cafe. The restaurant is in a nice section of San Jose and is hard to find as the sign is over-grown and not visible. The restaurant is owned by legendary British chef Richard Neat and his girlfriend, Louise France, who owns the mansion which houses an antique shop in the same building.
When I walked in I was told “Everything is for sale” and it’s true. It means EVERYTHING. The plates, tables, chairs, chandeliers are all available. The walls are lined with objects. When I went there were a small, stone Buddha, several Asian household altars, and stained glass windows.
I’ll let Chef Richard tell more: “Park Cafe is actually an antiques store that my girlfriend built and opened twenty years ago. Much of the inventory are architectural pieces, such as doors, columns and arches from Indian palaces, whilst the other half of the stock is small artisanal pieces from Indonesia. We travel together to Asia each year to personally choose the items, though in reality I have only restaurant-booking responsibilities. Many of the nicest houses and hotels in the country have Louise's pieces.”
What did I have to eat in the Park Cafe? I had a steak which was covered in a potato which had been mashed and then had something magical done to it. This was no ordinary mashed potato. Beneath that was the steak cut into bite-sized slivers served on top of a heavenly sauce. Well, really you will have to travel to San Jose to taste it for yourself. It was too lovely to reduce to a listing of ingredients.
So what is the food scene in Costa Rica? Varied, elegant and growing. Go, you may not want to come back!