When the Cuban-style prawns arrived at the table, they were lightly fried and fragrant with sweetness. Also, they were on fire.
The ostentatious dish had been preceded by a shooter of fresh gazpacho and was followed by a three layer tropical salad. Those three plates comprised the first course – yep, just the appetizer – of our dinner at Rancho Pacifico, a mountaintop retreat in Uvita on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast.
The romantic and stylish resort has developed a reputation over its eight years for top-notch food and service, even luring celebrities such as Anderson Cooper, Al Gore and Sheryl Crow. Perched within its own 250-acre private reserve, the hotel contains 10 lavishly adorned units, some of which offer their own dipping pools.
What truly sets Rancho Pacifico apart, though, are its gourmet, from-scratch meals, prepared by executive chef Alex Segura and his team.
Segura grew up helping his mom – a professional pastry chef – prepare food in San Antonio de Belén, and he always had a passion for it. “When a writer starts a novel, he sits down and writes until things make sense,” Segura, 28, says. “I feel the same. Some days I start to play with flavors. I put them together until they make sense.”
Segura – who has also been a professional volleyball player – got a job with Rancho Pacifico right out of college, and refined his culinary skills with chefs from all over the world. Over the years, the hotel’s owner brought in professionals from France, Italy, Japan and the U.S., including people who had been on shows like “Top Chef.” Over that time, Segura made himself a sponge, and learned the secrets of various cooking styles. When the executive chef position opened up, he was the ideal candidate.
Now running the kitchen and managing the hotel, Segura has dreamed up his own cooking style, which he refers to as “world-tropical.” “It’s basically gourmet food with a tropical fusion,” he explains, meaning fruit plays a role in many of the dishes, as do local vegetables that Rancho Pacifico’s staff picks by hand at nearby farms. The meat comes from ranches along the south Pacific, and the fish comes from Quepos each day. “They call us every morning to tell us what they have fresh,” Segura says.
The innovative fare is just one ingredient in Rancho Pacifico’s decadent eating experience, which takes place in an alfresco dining area with a spectacular view of the Pacific ocean and Uvita’s coastline, which is shaped like a whale’s tail at low tide. In the evening, the restaurant is illuminated with tea lights and serenaded by the chiming of rain frogs. Guests sip delicious cocktails – think strawberry basil mojitos and chocolate mint martini – at the bar, socializing with other guests, and light appetizers such as chorizo on crackers are also served.
When the dining hour arrives, the parties are shown to their tables, and the feast begins. The menu changes every night, but on a recent evening, olives with oil and toast points came first, and then the aforementioned three-plate first course. Mains included garlic marinated Portobello mushrooms (with grilled asparagus and pickled onions), Spanish-style meatballs, with mint and Romanesco sauce, and a marinated chicken paired with cous cous and a Moroccan carrot sauce. Diners did not choose from among these plates – they got them all. Dessert was a choice of grilled bananas with amaretto ice cream cookie sandwiches or chocolate fondue and tropical fruit.
Treated to this decadence night after night, guests can’t help but wonder how Segura and his team do it. And just two months ago, Segura decided it was time to start an hour-long Rancho Pacifico cooking class.
“People around the world have been sharing experiences with me, and I need to pass that on to other people,” he said.
The class costs $25 and includes instruction on some of the restaurant’s unique dishes, such as red cabbage pineapple and seared tuna salad with a pinot grigio sauce; and grilled watermelon with arugula guacamole and a grilled shrimp on top – with an infusion of rosemary.
Where did these recipes come from? Segura.
“Some days I start to play with flavors, and things just show up,” he says.