San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Suëly’s: Un Peu de la France in Playas del Coco

On a sun-filled tropical afternoon in Playas del Coco, in the northwestern Guanacaste province, the outdoor seating at Suëly’s Restaurant is invitingly shaded. A white-pebbled path winds past a nascent garden and four openair bungalows to a traditional guanacasteco ranch house-turned-bar-and-kitchen.

My partner and I are greeted by a refreshingly friendly French waitress. We sit down, and she points at the suspended blackboard that displays today’s menu in handwritten chalk – five appetizers, five main courses and three desserts, each described in no more than three words.

“The menu changes daily,” she tells us. I quickly do the math: the minimum price for a three-course meal, no wine, is ¢10,500 ($19); the max is ¢14,000 ($25).

In this burgeoning Pacific beach town, restaurant-goers have been limited to sodas, the local diners that serve hearty, inexpensive fair, or the high-end, tourist-aimed eateries that occupy exclusive beachfront or beachview real estate.

Suëly’s appears to be neither. It’s located on the road to nearby Ocotal in an out-of the-way neighborhood seldom visited by tourists. In one direction, the road deadends into the Gulf of Papagayo, a shimmer on the horizon. But the restaurant doesn’t pretend to offer ocean views, just a cool oasis from the afternoon heat.

When the waitress returns, she serves us each a taste of the potato and leek soup, the first appetizer on the menu. Then she individually describes all 10 dishes (the staff is trilingual – French, English and Spanish).

They are an amalgam of French-infused local products, like the mahimahi and salmon tartare (¢3,500/$6.40) and the red snapper in meunière sauce (¢6,500/$12).

I order a glass of house chardonnay (¢1,800/$3.30), my partner a passion-fruit juice (¢1,200/$2.20). The waitress informs us they are out of passion fruit but not to worry, and wanders across the street to the fruit vendor to buy more.

The white wine is a 2007 Signos chardonnay-chenin blanc blend from the TulumValley in Argentina, served chilled and abundantly refreshing. The 15-bottle wine list is affordable and straightforward – white, red and bubbles – and predominantly French and Argentine. Bottle prices range from ¢9,000 to ¢18,000 ($16 to $33).

The soup is simple but far from boring. The leeks, a mainstay in French cuisine, accent the potato. A buttery backbone brings the ensemble together and creates a smooth texture.

I order the caprese tart (¢3,000/$5.50), and my partner orders the mahimahi and salmon tartare. As we wait, feel-good disco music – Abba, the Commodores, the Bee Gees, the Village People, Ash – streams from an overhead speaker.

Fresh basil leaves garnish the tart. Moments before, the waitress picked them from the garden. Sébastian Brouste, the chef, tells us later that his mother brought 18 herb seedlings from southern France, including the basil and scallion, thyme, oregano, rosemary and dill.

The tart is purely Mediterranean: roasted tomatoes and mozzarella over a pesto-spread quiche crust, seasoned with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It is a welcome escape from the area’s more monotonous traditional foods.

The tartare, by contrast, is an elevated twist on a very local dish, ceviche. Small chunks of fresh, uncooked mahimahi and salmon are held together by shallots, scallions, olive oil and lemon and topped with a dill cream sauce.

The olive oil, cheese and crust make the tart heavier than the tartare, but both appetizers are well proportioned and appetizingly presented, underlining the restaurant’s attention to detail. The four-person francophone crew – the chef and three waitresses – are all restaurant vets and foodies who worked in Miami before moving to Coco to open Suëly’s. The waitresses are charismatic and personable beyond the stiff delivery of food and drink that can characterize some high-end, overstaffed spots.

They have also tasted everything on the menu and don’t hesitate to use their input at decision-making time.

I opt for the mahimahi in a Creole sauce (¢6,500/$12) for my main course. Brouste buys his fish from the local fishermen who pass by the restaurant daily to hawk their catch. (While we eat, three teenage fishermen arrive barefoot with dozens of justcaught tuerca, a small, local fish.)

The mahi, true to mahi, is more meaty than fishy, yet the freshness of the fish is obvious as it flakes apart under the touch of my fork; it is absolutely tender in my mouth. A piquant medley of diced veggies – tomatoes, scallions, chives – adorn the fillet, and the dish is served over a bed of half-mashed potatoes. Yet the mahi stands out alone, thankfully unfettered by its accoutrements.

My partner indulges in the scallops in a coral sauce (¢7,500/$14). She lets me try only the tails, whose orange coloring tints the coral sauce an electric peach that matches the vibrant colors of our surroundings.

They also impart their briny sea flavors into the entire dish, the most typically seafood selection on the menu.

For dessert, I order the crème brûlée (¢2,500/$4.50), a burnt brown sugar crust over thick, cool, pudding-like cream. My partner has the chocolat moelleux (¢2,500$4.50), a moist chocolate mini-cake with a gooey chocolate center. Both are discernibly French, not local knockoffs, and both are delicious – the sensory theme of the afternoon.

The chef arrives at our table to chat, asking with genuine interest how everything was. The waitress offers us each a glass of white sangria on the house, as she entertains us with a story about a family of howler monkeys that passes through the trees overhead every day.

The sangria is light and refreshing in the late afternoon shade, and we linger, bellies full, listening for the howlers.

Location: Los Mangos Triangle on the road to Ocotal, Playas del Coco, Guanacaste.

Hours: Monday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Phone: 2670-1696.

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