From dusty cow town to bustling commercial center, Liberia is hardly recognizable today as the former “White City” of whitewashed adobe houses and wide, colonial-era calles. But there is one almost-intact street – Calle Real Antigua – and one wonderfully restored mansion on it, where you can absorb the ambiance of long-ago Liberia while enjoying fresh, tropical-fusion food with a French accent.
Café Liberia – Ca. Real Antigua, 125 meters south of Central Park in Liberia. 2665-1660. Open Mon. to Sat. 7 a.m.–10 p.m. Prices include taxes, as required by law.
Dinner main courses: $12-$22
Forks: top rating
Café Liberia has taken up residence in a handsome,19th-century house officially designated an historical building in 1995. Built for the Zuñiga Clachar family, the grand townhouse is made of bahareque (wood, mud and cane) and supported by zócalo de piedra canteada (a cut-stone base). A monumental, wooden front door leads into two large parlors – now the restaurant’s main dining area – and to a hallway that takes you into a sunny courtyard garden café beyond.
All the dark, pochote-wood detailing around door and window frames has been beautifully restored. But the pièce de résistance in this mansion is the painted ceiling in the main dining room. Cupids and doves float high above, in a blue sky bordered by tendrils of ivy and laced with garlands of flowers.
Amid this Belle Epoque splendor, you can sit at a table by one of the tall windows, sip a morning cappuccino made with organic, high-altitude coffee; nibble on a freshly baked ginger or carrot muffin; and gaze out at the passing scene.
Or you can dine in a style befitting the elegant surroundings, thanks to the café’s new French owner, Sébastien Devenelle, a chef who exchanged his home in Reims, the capital of the champagne wine region, for the dry, dusty plains of Guanacaste. While Devenelle manages the restaurant and sometimes waits on tables with élan, Chef Jack Poll, formerly of the Four Seasons Papagayo Resort, presides over a menu described as “Sano, Rico & Sabio” (“healthy, delicious and wise”).
Judging by two recent lunches, I can heartily attest to the sano and rico. The cuisine here is light, fresh and consistently creative and delicious. Portions aren’t huge and you may at first think prices are a bit on the high side. But once you see the elegant presentation and taste the sophisticated flavors, you’ll appreciate that this is quality cuisine, a cut above anything else in town, and a bargain to boot.
My first lunch dish was a delectable grilled mahi-mahi fish wrap, cooked to juicy perfection and prettily served with seasonal fruits ($11). The next visit, I tried the gazpacho with a pesto crostini ($6.82), which combines vibrant colors and tangy flavors. My dining companion ordered the quiche of the day – two perfect rounds of tender, flaky pastry filled with creamy egg fillings, accompanied by salad. He declared the pastry the best he had ever tasted.
Pastas and ciabatta bread sandwiches, including a vegetarian version ($8.14), and Caesar salad with either shrimp ($10.40) or grilled chicken ($9.20) are other lunch options. On the fish side, there’s a ceviche of the day ($9), and a sophisticated fish filet baked en papillote ($18).
At dinner, this pleasant café morphs into a seriously sophisticated restaurant. Appetizers include an exquisite, roasted apple salad bathed in honey and a tangy mustard and balsamic vinegar dressing, accompanied by crisp crostinis topped with melted goat cheese ($9). For soup starters, there’s a purée of pejiballe ($6.40) or hearty French-style Onion Soup ($6.60).
Light mains include a tempting Wild Mushroom Risotto ($13.20) and Rigatoni with Grilled Chicken and Pesto ($12). For carnivores, there’s lots of meat: churrasco, grilled tenderloin, or T-bone, served with a choice of sauces: red wine, mushroom, chimichurri or horseradish ($15.40-$24).
The standout dish on the dinner menu has to be the Paella: saffron rice studded with chorizo, chicken, lobster, shrimp squid and seabass ($22). Running a close second is the Caramelized Seabass, in a Pineapple and Curry Sauce ($15).
What’s for dessert? My favorite question is hard to answer here – too many fabulous choices. The Chocolate “Lava Flow” with Vanilla Ice Cream ($6.60) is a must for connoisseurs of warm, flourless chocolate cake. But then there’s also the intriguing Passionfruit Bombon with chocolate and nougatine ($6.20), a perfect example of the art of French pâtisserie, hard to resist. For a dramatic end to the meal, order the flambéed crêpes with seasonal fruits ($4.40). Or keep it simple, with a classic crème brûlée ($6).
The restaurant has no liquor license as of this writing, but there is a small wine selection. Diners can bring their own wine, a great opportunity to match fine cuisine with something special from your own cellar.
With unbeatable ambiance and food, Café Liberia is hands down the most sophisticated and exciting restaurant in town. And the waiter has a delightful French accent, in both English and Spanish. It’s worth more than just a stop en route to the beach. It’s a destination restaurant that puts Liberia on the gastronomic map.