San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Thousand and One Flavors, With Moroccan and French Accents

Fans of the floating French restaurant that once bobbed jauntily on the Térraba River south of Ojochal will be delighted to know that, after a 16-month absence, Citrus Restaurante + Lounge has been relaunched, this time on dry land, at the entrance to the town of Ojochal, near the coast in the Southern Zone.

It may be on terra firma, but Citrus still floats on clouds of fantasy. Instead of a Nile paddleboat, the new decor is Morocco-modern, with pointed arches, a domed roof, intricate mosaics and exotic lampshades and chandeliers.

The Moroccan influence is no surprise, given that Brussels-born owner and chef Marcella Marciano has a Moroccan father, also a restaurateur. As well as being an accomplished cook and pastry chef, Marciano has a talent for decorating, and she has had a lot of fun with the new Citrus.

The très chic furnishings are wicker, metal and glass, and the color scheme is a mélange of tangy citrus flavors: orange, lime and yellow.

Seating options abound: There’s an artfilled main dining room with French windows looking out onto the garden, a romantic covered terrace and an even more romantic garden, with six secluded riverside tables.

A sophisticated, Marrakech-inspired lounge features an acid-lime bar and green glass lamps, and wicker and suede easy chairs to sink into while absorbing an eclectic mix of world music piped through a high-tech sound system.

In true bistro style, blackboard specials are posted daily, with prices in colones; the printed menu lists prices in dollars. Many French favorites remain on the menu, but in keeping with the restaurant’s new mantra of “New World cuisine,” traditional dishes often have a tropical touch or two. On the French side, you can count on well-prepared “Steak Frites” ($13.95) with a chimichurri sauce; duck breast, made tropical with a mango-coconut sauce (¢10,500/$20); “Escargots de Burgundie,” straight up with garlic and butter (¢4,200/$8.15); and an excellent warm goat cheese salad, sweetly balanced with caramelized apples ($6.95).

Sailing south to the Mediterranean, the menu lists a classic Greek salad ($5.95) and scrumptious “Panini Mediterráneo” ($5.75), savory, toasted Italian flat bread layered with grilled eggplant, tomato, red pepper, onions, goat cheese and dressed with balsamic vinegar and a garlicky basil pesto.

The North African side of the Med is represented by an exotic “Tajine Citrus” ($8.95), chicken legs slow-cooked with Moroccan spices, lemon conserves, almonds and dried plums, served with couscous.

Fish and seafood have an Asian accent, spiced with ginger, Szechuan, curry and Thai flavors. At dinner one recent Saturday night, I started with a ceviche (¢2,800/$5.40) swathed in a creamy coconut and ginger marinade and nestled in a coconut shell. A friend chose a tasty “Pescado Fusion” (¢4,900/$9.50), corvina bathed in a spicy balsamic reduction and served with roasted vegetables. I opted for a generous chunk of Japanese tuna (¢7,500/$15) that was gingery-hot and served perfectly rare. The only disappointment was a plate of jumbo shrimp tempura, served with a mango salsa; the three puffy shrimps on the plate were certainly large and very tasty, but, at ¢5,200 ($10), the portion seemed a little stingy.

While dinner prices can add up quickly, lunch can be a real bargain here.A daily casado special of meat in tomato sauce or fish served in garlic sauce, with all the vegetable trimmings, is only $5.95. There’s a selection of pastas, notably the penne arrabbiata ($5.50) with tomato, basil pesto, hot sauce and shavings of Parmesan. If you’re a homesick Canadian snowbird, you can dig into a homemade Montreal-style bagel (as a onetime Montrealer, I can objectively say that Montreal bagels really are the best in the world), with a smear of cream cheese and lashings of smoked salmon, topped with capers and chopped red onions ($8.95).

Most of the wines on the wide-ranging wine list are under $30, and it’s a treat to find something beyond the predictable South American stalwarts. Along with Italian, Spanish, Greek, South African and French wines, there’s a delightful Côtes de Provence rosé ($27), fresh, light and the perfect compromise for diners who can’t decide between white or red on a hot night in the tropics.

Saturday night in high season is a service test for any restaurant, especially a new one still finding its feet. On my first visit, Citrus failed the test. To add to the tension, my party had two 9-year-olds in tow, beach-tired and fidgety, so the slow service and mixed-up orders became a real issue.Marciano eventually emerged from the kitchen, bent on damage control, offering apologies and, better still, desserts on the house.

By the time the desserts arrived, only the high-stamina females were left at the table –three women and a little girl. In front of us sat four divinely decadent desserts – three of them chocolate – and we dug in, collectively, with our spoons.

The Belgian mousse with Grand Marnier ($4.25) was a cloud of chocolate, light enough on the liqueur that our youngest taster enjoyed it the most. The Queen of Sheba cake ($6.75), reminiscent of Julia Childs’ cake of the same name, was moist chocolate, textured with ground almonds and encased in chocolate butter cream studded with blanched almonds. It was the runner-up to the overall winner: “Choco-Choco” ($2.50), a dense, fudgy, dark-chocolate, flourless cake served with vanilla ice cream – simple and perfect.

For a citrusy contrast, we also demolished a velvety, semi-frozen cheese pie with a tart passion fruit coulis ($3.25). On my return visit the next week at lunchtime, I had to order the Choco-Choco again, if only to confirm that it really was as good as I remembered – and to have a piece all to myself, I admit.

With the recent, regrettable closing of San José’s Bakea restaurant, famous for its inspired desserts, I nominate Marcella Marciano’s desserts as the best in the land.

Despite the initially slow service, the food at Citrus is worth the wait. Lunch is calmer, but the service can still be leisurely, so take something to read, then relax and enjoy a table in the garden. If you go for dinner on a weekend night, be prepared for a drawn-out dinner. It’s not too tough to take, sitting amid the candlelit romance of a Moroccan caravansary, with the expectation of great food to come.

But leave the fidgety kids – of any age –at home.

Citrus Restaurante

Location: In front of the police station at the entrance to Ojochal, near the coast in the Southern Zone, south of Dominical.

Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Contact: 2786-5175, The 10 percent service charge is not included in the menu prices. Some weekends feature a DJ and dancing in the lounge, Moroccan theme nights and belly dancing. The restaurant also has a shop selling elegant tableware and linens, as well as frozen homemade breads and sauces, including pesto and spicy, North African harissa sauce.

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