And now for something completely different! A Persian restaurant nestled in a lush tropical garden that makes you feel you’ve stepped into the Arabian Nights. Named Mil y Una Noche (One Thousand and One Nights), this romantic patio restaurant can be found at Hotel Casa Antigua, near Juan Santamaría International Airport in Alajuela, northwest of San José.
Casa Antigua, once a family home, displays the grandeur of an earlier Costa Rican era. Mil y Una Noche, with its added Caspian-style architecture and decor, stands among 100-year-old mango trees overlooking a glistening, azure, teardrop-shaped pool. Wrought-iron patio furniture, handcrafted, elaborately painted pine and cedar tables, chairs, benches and stools, and daybeds covered with Persian rugs and pillows beckon visitors to relax and stay awhile.
The oriental decor, wood art, carved roof and panels, colorful drapes and stunning painted tiles on the patio floor, as well as a vitreous glass mosaic and atmospheric lighting, all add to the uniqueness and distinctive character of this place. The hotel’s Persian cat obviously feels quite at home as he wanders around his domain.
Once we were through admiring the surroundings, hospitable, exuberant owner and chef Henri Fard introduced himself and made us feel very welcome. He recommended his specials for the evening, and most of our party, unfamiliar with Persian food, were full of questions, which Fard was happy to answer.
Originally a bridal dress designer, Fard left has native Iran and moved to Germany, where he started cooking. He later lived in Hawaii and cooked in his waterfront home for 28 years before moving to Costa Rica in 2008.
“Cooking is a family tradition, and I really enjoy it,” Fard said. “I organize the restaurant, and my niece, Debbie, manages the hotel.”
Fard explained that there are 20 different cultures in Iran and everybody speaks Farsi, but most of the food is Persian, which is very different from Iranian food.
“This is a Persian restaurant, and I use nothing but traditional Persian recipes,” he said.
He recommended we start with ashe mast, a thick, wholesome, slow-cooked soup containing four types of fresh vegetables and four types of beans. Garnished with yogurt, fried onions and fresh mint, it was a flavorful, satisfying meal in itself, particularly when served with the homemade bread called taftoon, baked in a wood-fired clay oven similar to an Indian tandoor, and an important addition to an authentic Persian meal.
We skipped the appetizers and ordered main courses with a variety of meat, chicken or seafood, cooked in different ways with herbs, spices and marinades. Two of us tried the pollo barg, charbroiled, skewered chicken pieces served with grilled tomato and red pepper, plus basmati rice mixed with grated carrot and barberries. These are tiny, imported red berries that resemble miniature dried cranberries. The chicken was tender and juicy and the whole plate a wonderful combination of flavors.
Also highly recommended is the Persian specialty beef stew simmered with celery and fresh herbs and served with saffron rice, as well as the perfectly cooked fillet of salmon served with dill rice.
The menu is in Persian, but each dish has excellent Spanish and English translations so you know exactly what to expect. Most of the dishes, such as the kebabs, are always on the menu, but the Persian specialty stews are not all on hand everyday due to lengthy preparation time.
We were looking forward to a sticky, honey-drenched baklava with our coffee, but the kitchen wasn’t cooperating that night, so we passed on desserts, which we didn’t need anyway.
Menu prices range from ₡1,500 to ₡2,900 ($3 to $5.80) for appetizers, soups and salads, ₡4,900 to ₡6,900 ($10 to $14) for seafood, chicken and Persian stews, and ₡5,900 to ₡9,500 ($12 to $19) for kebabs. Prices do not include 13 percent sales tax and 10 percent service.
A visit to Mil y Una Noche is a delightful experience with a wonderful, romantic ambience, excellent, friendly service and a great opportunity to try authentic, home-cooked Persian food. Call to check for belly dancing performances.
Mil y Una Noche
Location: Hotel Casa Antigua, Río Segundo de Alajuela, 800 m east of Fiesta Casino
Hours: 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Monday to Saturday
Phone: 2441-1024, 2241-2809
Hotel Casa Antigua offers 12 rooms with private bathrooms, hot water, air conditioning, cable TV, free Internet and local calls. Room rates start at $50.