Who would ever expect that the bone-shaking, dirt road to Playa Negra, traveled mostly by diehard surfers, leads to a gastronomic mecca? Food-lovers in the know, from as far away as San José, are braving the bumpy, dusty drive to dine at the divine Hotel Villa Deevena.
This outpost of French-accented cuisine, now in its fourth year, is tucked behind a wall in the improbable, roadside hamlet of Playa Negra, about 20 kilometers south of Tamarindo, surfer-central in Guanacaste.
Beyond that wall is an oasis of lush gardens and palms reflected in a long, blue pool overlooked by a stunning, chic dining terrace with a gleaming, state-of-the-art, open kitchen. Even more extraordinary is the huge, temperature-controlled wine cellar, home to an impressive wine collection.
The wine list here is pages long, with affordable wines from Argentina, Chile, Spain, California, even Peru. Then there are the French wines – 10 whites and 31 reds, arranged by appellation: Côte du Rhône, Bordeaux and Burgundy. Then there is the personal wine collection of owner/chef Patrick Jamon. The list is an oenophile’s dream, including St. Emilion Grand Crus and rare vintages rarely seen in this country.
French-born and trained, Chef Jamon moved his family and culinary talents to California in the 1980s and presided over the private Regency Club in Los Angeles as executive chef, creating dinners for U.S. presidents, foreign heads of states and, most impressively, for the doyenne of French cooking herself, Julia Child. (Ask to see Jamon’s scrap book with photos of all the above.)
Luckily for us, Jamon decided to retire to Costa Rica, bringing with him his wife and son Dean, a professional caterer, plus his Californian sous-chef, Mike Barton. Once you have scanned the wine list and chosen your wine – there are also wines by the glass: red, white and rosé ($5-$7) and sparkling cava ($9) – the next challenge is choosing from the menu, centered on local seafood and produce.
Recent dinner appetizers included a Pacific lobster salad with an avocado crown ($12), and a baked red beet and goat cheese tower ($8.50), featuring cheese made with milk from the chef’s own goats. Main- dish choices included wild mushroom ravioli with sage and sundried tomatoes ($14); a grouper filet with citrus risotto and sautéed spinach ($17); and seared ahi tuna with a ginger carrot purée and Ponzu sauce ($19). The standout French item on the menu was a duck breast with lentils, brown butter and apples ($24).
I arrived at lunch, when the menu is more limited but no less tempting. I wavered between the coconut curry chicken with couscous and fish of the day (each $14), and opted for the latter. A substantial portion of fresh grouper arrived juicy, plump, and bathed in a lemon-herb butter sauce, accompanied by a spicy arugula salad and perfectly roasted baby potatoes. Fresh-baked rolls were offered and I used them, French-style, to sop up every drop of the delectable sauce.
Choosing dessert was agonizing: would it be the crème brûlée ($6); the mango cobbler with ice cream ($6); the apple and passion fruit crepe with ice cream and caramel sauce ($6); or the chocolate volcano cake with ice cream and a strawberry compote ($7)? Since it was Thanksgiving, I finally settled on whisky pecan pie, more like a dense pudding than a pie, served with ice cream, on a plate prettily strewn with dried cranberries and nuts ($6).
Service here is friendly and polished, and with smiles from Dean and his partner Joya. If you have enjoyed more than a couple of glasses of wine at dinner, instead of facing the short or long drive home, you can bed down in a luxurious king bed in one of the six comfortably chic rooms ($95) designed by Tasia, the chef’s talented wife, who also created the garden oasis. In the morning, you can breakfast, à la française, on homemade waffles, croque-monsieurs or eggs Benedict.
Food and wine of this quality do not come cheap. But think of what you are saving on airfare. Villa Deevena is as close to a French-country chambre d’hôte as you can get here. It’s one “family” restaurant experience serious food-lovers won’t want to miss.
From Tamarindo, it will take you about 40 minutes, driving south through Villareal, San José de Pinilla and Playa Avellanas, mostly on a rough, dirt road. From Santa Cruz, follow signs to Paraíso, 34 km on paved roads. At Paraíso’s soccer field, turn right following the sign to Playa Negra, along a dirt road 4.5 km, to the Villa Deevena sign, and turn right. Check www.villadeevena.com for a map, or call 2653-2328.