Right as a group of guests walks through the bamboo and steel entranceway of Tamarindo’s Fish & Meat restaurant, owner Federico Crespo starts tantalizing them with tales about the fantastic tuna that arrived that day.
This is particularly good news for all in the party, who have been craving a big selection of sushi. They sit at a wooden table, admiring the artwork on the walls while the jolly Argentine Crespo continues his greeting by informing them that he also has fresh salmon, mahi-mahi and corvina.
“You’ve got to try my new dish, too,” he graciously offers the group of regulars. And, with that, the large, 42-year-old chef makes a beeline for his kitchen. A few minutes later he returns with a spoon filled with a brownish concoction, offering it to the head of the table, who tastes it gratefully.
“Wow,” she smiles.
Later the woman learns that the strange but delightful creation is the new permanent Fish & Meat chalkboard special: orange curry with salmon, jumbo shrimp and mussels.
The scene is typical of the comfortable, inviting atmosphere inside Fish & Meat, and is exactly why people keep coming for meals and to socialize with Crespo and any other guests who might be dining there.
In the five years since Crespo and his wife Mariella took over the former Patagonia Club, many other restaurants in this northern- Pacific beach town have come and gone or changed owners, locations, monikers or chefs. That’s not to say that Fish & Meat hasn’t evolved; the couple has continuously updated both the menu and the decor to settle into its present incarnation: Asian, Argentinean, Middle Eastern and French food served on a variety of heavy-timber dining tables, including ones for large banquets and private lounge parties.
The Lonely Planet guidebook says Fish & Meat is popular with tourists, but Crespo will tell you he’s able to stick around because of the locals, who keep returning for palettepleasing wonders such as the huge serving of grilled lamb chop and ribs marinated eastern-style.Amazing cuts of meat, gently spiced and grilled, are accompanied with sweet mango pineapple chutney, hearty wild rice and farfalle, also flavored à la Mediterranean.
These regulars, whom Crespo keeps happy with a 10% discount off their checks, in turn recommend the restaurant to tourists.
“I love when people like my food,” Crespo beams. “We have tourist clients who have come back two, three, four times a week while they are on vacation. They become locals.”
Crespo says his creative menu items started out as personal, experimental meals for him, his wife and staff, but then it “got crazy,” he recalls. “One person would order it, another would come in, see and smell it, or say to me or their waiter that those dishes look or sound good, then order them.
Then they’d realize they tasted good, too. Eventually, I had to add them permanently as specials on the blackboard.”
Mariella, who has been married to Crespo for 12 years, says that while these may seem like random accidents from kitchen to table, in reality everything comes together as a result of her husband’s exuberant personality, creative professional marketing background and courage as a chef.
This exuberance recently earned Crespo the nickname “Gaucho Samurai.” Now, the Argentine who serves sushi is the basis of a cartoon character being developed for promotional purposes that’s as witty as the original himself.
Back in Buenos Aires, Crespo managed Divino, a huge restaurant, bar and club featuring an Asian-Argentine-Mediterranean fusion menu along with sushi. For years, under Crespo’s charge, Divino was frequented by a who’s-who of celebrities and regular patrons.
“But with the economic problems in Argentina, sales went down 70% from one day to the next,” Crespo laments. “To get away, we went on vacation six years ago to Costa Rica, traveling all along the Pacific, from Potrero to Manuel Antonio. We returned to Argentina, and one night, a year later, I had a dream about Costa Rica.”
A few months later, the Argentine returned to the country and opened Fish & Meat in Tamarindo, first with only basic sushi and Argentina-style grilled meats, then progressing to Asian fusion.
“I cook because I like to eat,” says Crespo, patting his belly, which is not that large, just jovial full. “I don’t have recipes. Everything is in my head.”
This chef has never taken formal cooking lessons; gleaning everything from books, Crespo believes the kitchen operates by “the chemistry of the elements.” By this he means that he imagines what something will taste like and then makes it happen.
The Coconut Snails appetizer is an excellent example of this process. The original recipe comes from France, and is made with snails, garlic, white wine and more. Crespo transforms the ingredients a bit, revealing his secrets: ginger, onions, green onions, coconut milk and – only in Costa
Rica – Salsa Lizano.
Other tantalizing menu items include crunchy corvina, lightly breaded and topped with fresh shrimp in a coconut sauce; succulent lamb simmered in a red wine sauce, served over jasmine rice; coconut milkkicked pasta with a selection of fish, shrimp, clams and whatever is fresh that day; sweet pad thai; spicy Dragon Fire Tenderloin; and made-to-order vegetarian meals.
Crespo used to station himself behind the bar, preparing sushi for his customers every night. He loved doing it, but with the restaurant’s growing popularity, he found he needed help. It came in the guise of 33-year-old sushi chef Jorge Chacón, who, with 15 years of experience as a sushi chef at various restaurants in Costa Rica, joined the Fish & Meat family earlier this year and immediately began conspiring with Crespo to upgrade the sushi menu.
Previous selections, including the New York Roll (tuna or salmon with avocado and cucumber), Philadelphia Roll (smoked salmon and cream cheese), California Roll (crab stick, avocado and cucumber) and fish-of-the-day sushi and sashimi picks, are now supplemented with new combinations of fish, sauces and preparations. The Hot Philly Roll has the same ingredients as the regular Philadelphia Roll, coated in tempura batter and quickly fried; and the new Roy Roll features salmon, asparagus, avocado and cream cheese.
With fresh tuna in the kitchen tonight, an order of sashimi, bright red and buttery soft, comes up for the special guests. Dipping into the soy and wasabi is a delight, though the tenderness of the fish needs no accompaniment.
Tonight’s Rainbow Roll – promoted on the menu as three different kinds of fresh fish available this particular evening – is delivered with corvina, tuna and salmon wrapped around avocado and cucumber.
Prices range from $5-9 for appetizers; $10-20 for main dishes; and $3-20 for sushi items. From 6 to 8 p.m., the restaurant offers all-you-can-eat sushi for $15 a person (not including larger rolls with multiple fish selections).
Fish & Meat is open every evening except Monday, from 6 to 10 p.m. The restaurant is presently located across from Hotel Pasatiempo, but Crespo says he has plans to move to an air-conditioned location across from the Tamarindo skate park (formerly Mama Rosa’s), where he’ll offer the same menu and open for lunch as well. For more information, call 653-0535.