San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gastronomy in Guanacaste Satisfies All Palates No Shortage of New Restaurants in Northwest

FUELED by the new influx of touristsand money, a delicious crop of restaurantsis sprouting in Guanacaste. Here’s the pickof the new crop:Spaghetteria, Pizzeria Caffé La ToscanaOne measure of Liberia’s metamorphosisfrom cattle town to cosmopolitancapital of Guanacaste is this sophisticatednorthern-Italian restaurant, in a restoredgrand old townhouse. The handsome,high-ceilinged space has gleaming woodfloors and well-spaced tables and chairscovered in upbeat red and green-stripedupholstery, mirroring the unfurled Italianflags on the walls. The halogen lighting iswarm and subtle, as is the soundtrack.The open kitchen has a wood-firedoven that produces the restaurant’s 33kinds of pizzas ($4-8), all named after anItalian town or region and featuring ingredientsfrom that area. The Bergamo pie,for instance, is topped with mozzarella,gorgonzola, grano padano and a distinctivelyalpine touch of Emmenthal cheese.What sets this restaurant apart is theattention to authenticity in both ingredientsand presentation – not surprisinggiven that two of the three owners are ofItalian lineage. The cheeses are imported,the prosciutto is from Parma, and agedbalsamic vinegar and olive oil are set outon the tables in stylish Italian cruets.Along with homemade pastas ($4-8),the restaurant offers gargantuan, colorfulsalads sprinkled with real Parmesan($2.50-6) and served with feather-light butchewy whole-wheat rolls, hot out of thewood-fired oven. Risotto here is a revelation,cooked to al dente perfection andlarge enough to share. The three-mushroomversion combines button, porciniand cremini mushrooms with garlic,Parmesan and a dash of truffle oil ($9).Wash it down withan Italian wine,say, a Brunello diMontalcino ($7) ora lighter red orwhite Sicilian.Save room forthe restaurant’sunusual signaturedessert: La Toscana($5) is apinched purse ofthin pizza doughencasing Nutellachocolate spread,baked in the pizzaoven and thensprinkled withcocoa and servedwith a blackberrypurée. It’s crisp onthe outside andmeltingly smoothon the inside.La Toscana is50 meters south ofthe Finance Ministrybuilding, north of the central churchpark in Liberia. Open noon-11 p.m. daily,and until midnight Fridays and Saturdays.Call 665-0653.Di Mare at Four Seasons ResortDi Mare is the ultra-chic, northernItalian-flavored dinner restaurant at thenew Four Seasons Resort, on thePapagayo Peninsula, on the north Pacificcoast. The decor is suitably grandiose,with sky-high ceilings and fantasticallighting sculptures reminiscent of seacreatures. The restaurant opens out onto aterrace, so you candine indoors orunder the stars.The chef isimported straightfrom Milan, andhis elegant menushows it. Appetizersare complicatedand irresistible,includingpaper-thin eggplantrolls filledwith goat cheeseand tomato sauce,served on a bed ofbitter wilted arugula,balanced bysun-dried tomatoesand toppedwith dollops ofpesto. An interesting“open lasagna”combines thin layersof pasta withsweetly braised,ultra-tender beefsauced with a mix of tomato andbéchamel, with hints of rosemary andParmesan ($10 as an appetizer, $17 as amain course). You may well settle for ameal of interesting appetizers when yousee the main-course prices ($24-38, plus23% tax). But if you’ve trekked all theway out to the tip of the PapagayoPeninsula, presumably this is a very specialoccasion and you will go for broke ona mixed grill of dorado and lobster tail, orChilean beef tenderloin with portobellomushrooms.Desserts are priced at $10 (again, plustaxes), a little rich for most people’s tastes.The orange confit I sampled was a wholecandied orange filled with chocolatemousse. It looked very pretty but proveddisappointing when the acidic orangeoverwhelmed the chocolate.Di Mare, at the Four Seasons, acceptsdinner reservations for non-guests whenthe hotel is not completely booked; call696-1000. To get there, follow the signsfor Allegro Papagayo Hotel (since theFour Seasons has not posted any directionalsigns) and keep going to the FourSeasons entrance at the end of the road.Chez OlivierThis French restaurant owes its newNosara location to the crush of developmentin Tamarindo, farther north on thePacific coast. French restaurateurs Olivierand Quitterie Azzopardi closed theirTamarindo restaurant and fled to quieterquarters on a splendidly solitary hill, highabove Playa Pelada. The setting may beremote on their alfresco veranda, but thenatty blue-and-white nautical decor, whitetablecloths, cut-glass goblets and candlestell you straight away the standards hereare trés civilized.The daily dinner menu is written,bistro-style, on a blackboard. Homemadecrusty bread appears as soon as you sitdown, along with complimentary amusegueules,the chef’s special canapés, perhaps toast rounds spread with cream cheese andcaviar. Appetizers include such Frenchclassics as fried Camembert with a honeysauce ($5), and an avocado and smokedsalmon casserole gratinée ($6).Presentation is beyond artistic, with foodset out on enormous round plates.Inventive main courses (all about $9)might include mussels in pastry with alemon cream sauce, a novel flavor combination,or grouper with a creamy lemonmousseline sauce. Hardy carnivores canenjoy the steak tartare.Save room for dessert ($3) becausethis restaurant takes sweets very seriously.There are dark-chocolate profiteroles,smooth crème brûlée, chocolate mousseand a classic tarte tatin. My dinner partnerand I couldn’t taste everything (although Iwould have liked to try!), but judging bythe groans of pleasure coming from thefoursome at the neighboring table, all thedesserts were a hit.Chez Olivier, in the Almost ParadiseHotel on the road overlooking PlayaPelada, is open for dinner only, from 6:30p.m. daily in high season. Call 682-0172.Other New NotablesAlong with the surfing waves, themain attraction at Playa Avellanas, a littlesouth of Tamarindo, has been Lola, a 600-pound pet pig who lolls around on thebeach and cools off in the surf. NowLola’s owners have expanded their verychic beach bar into a restaurant, called,appropriately, Lola’s, serving lunch from11 a.m.-3 p.m. and bocas till sunset. Indeference to Lola, the focus is vegetarian (pizza, salads, ceviche, fruit smoothies),plus “responsible” fish and organic chicken($8-9). The seared yellowfin tuna sandwichon ciabatta bread is a winner. Call658-8097; closed Mondays.Mar y Sol has brightened up the diningscene in Playa Flamingo, north ofTamarindo, with French-accented cuisine.Chef Jean Luc Taulere grills all his fishand meat on an open fire and then adds aclassic French sauce; for example, buerreblanc tops grilled fish served on citrusorzo with a mango salsa ($14). Tunatartare ($8) is a fishy twist on the Frenchclassic.For dessert, there are homemade fruitsorbets and Chocolate Volcano, a ganachetoppedmolten-chocolate cake, with raspberrycoulis dripping lava-like down thesides ($4). The restaurant is 150 meters upthe hill past the Banco de Costa Rica inPlaya Flamingo. Open for dinner only,from 5:30 p.m. daily; closed Sundays. Call654-4151.Perro Plano Bar y Restaurantestarted off in the Hotel Brasilito andgained enough of a loyal following tobranch out into its own two-story,thatched-roof rancho in the center ofPlaya Brasilito, north of Tamarindo.Owners Clare and Charlie Mayne ofBelfast, Ireland, have teamed up withArgentine chef Tomás Arias to delightpalates with a global-village menu featuringspicy Thai green curries, cool,refreshing borscht, Cajun-spiced fish andJapanese tempura – not forgetting theowners’ native fat Irish fries, hugewedges of perfectly fried potato dipped insour cream and salsa (¢1,100-8,500[$2.40-18.40]).Desserts are standouts, including anunusual strawberry “minestrone” withlemon sorbet (¢2,100 [$4.50]). PerroPlano is open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily,and is located 50 meters north of thechurch in Brasilito. Call 654-9028.If you’re not ravenously hungry butlooking for a tranquil place to watch thesunset and enjoy Playa Sámara’s oceanbreezes (south of Tamarindo), drop in toLa Vela Latina, a sophisticated newbeach bar and lounge across from VillasKalimba.The light menu of focaccia, quesadillasand salads goes perfectly with thelengthy list of fruity rum- or tequila-basedcocktails, cool beers or fruit smoothies. Amellow soundtrack, flickering lanternlight and comfy, intimate seating arrangementsare all geared toward making conversationthe main event. Open from 4p.m. until late. Call 656-0418.

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