(Note: This article was originally posted on Monday, May 10, 2010, and has been edited for this update).
"If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony".
(Fernand Point – (1897–1955) was a French restaurateur and is considered to be the father of modern French cuisine).
I have mentioned my favorite restaurant in the world, on other websites. Years ago, like at least five, maybe more, I remember posting a report on the guest list for Pura Vida Hotel, in Alajuela, about this restaurant. (Which, by the way, is another very special place; check it out: http://www.puravidahotel.com/info.html ).
Now, Ticos have told me for years that the best cooks in Costa Rica are Colombians. I do believe this, based solely on our experience at this place. The owner, chef, headwaiter, and all-around very nice guy is Don Alfonso Restrepo, who has been at the same location for as long as I've been coming to Costa Rica. And, he is from Colombia.
As I hope you already know, we live between the village of Aguacate de Tilaran, Guanacaste, and the small town of Nuevo Arenal, on the highway (highway is a very overblown term for this little road, but it is designated as such – actually, Ruta 142 – by the highway department of Costa Rica) that runs around the north side of Lake Arenal, between Tilaran, county seat of the Canton by that same name, and La Fortuna, Alajuela, county seat of another Canton, in that other province. Off this highway is a side road, that goes right up the mountains, over them, and down again, to the town of San Antonio de Guatuso, Alajuela. After the first 50 meters of cement, this road is mostly rocks - big ones - and at certain times of the year, a lot of mud, as well.
About 8 or 9 kilometers up this road is the village of Cabanga, a really interesting place. At one time Cabanga was noted for leather work, with at least two different families operating little store fronts, with saddles, belts, hats, just about anything you could ask for made of leather. It also had some renown for wood work, and one of the best native cabinet makers around is still there (Danilo, the guy who did our kitchen cabinets and all of our doors, plus my bread making table, and Blanca's sewing desk). There is, of course, a small pulperia, and one bar, Napos, a real rustic, less than sanitary place, that rarely has more than one or two beers in the whole place, and maybe one general gaseosa (soda pop), besides mostly the local guaro (cheap cane sugar liquor, refined much less than rum). (Ed Note: There is now a second bar, on a side street, off to the right about 250 meters, very close to the soccer field).
There is a town salon (like a ball room/meeting place), the requisite soccer field, a small school, and a number of Tico houses scattered about. And, of course, there is Las Orquidias, a restaurant bar that is on the main road, and reached by walking through the car port of the owner's home, down to the back. The restaurant features two levels, open on the west side, and the north, to a truly panoramic view, that, on a clear day, allows you to glimpse Nicaragua, way off in the distance to the north. The north wall of the upper level is screened, with a large variety of orchids placed all over the screen. The lower level is overflowing with potted plants, now featuring a wide variety of African Violets. The bar features a beautiful wood bas relief depicting a typical Costa Rican scene, and a surprisingly extensive selection of booze.
As to the menu at Las Orquidias, usually there isn't one. I think the only times I have ever been offered a menu have been those occasions when he was not there. The routine we have followed for some years is this: As we enter, we greet any and all who might be present. This being Costa Rica, that does not usually mean very many people. If there are customers present, we usually seat ourselves. If not, then we go straight to the kitchen door, and greet Don Alfonso, his wife, Yadira, and her mother, whose name I don't remember. If he is busy, then, a bit later, as soon as he gets the chance, he will come to our table, and we will exchange abrazos, and expressions of good will, bonhomie, and generally nice things. If he has run out of my favorite beer, he immediately begins to apologize, and lets me know what is available that day. I can even drink Imperial, as long as it is very cold (poured over ice), and as long as it is served by him.
Once we have our beers, he comes back to our table, where we visit for a bit, before we get down to business. This means, it is time for him to tell us what he has available that day. Generally, he can offer beef (best would always be the Filet Mignon, with a mushroom sauce guaranteed to go right to work creating more plaque in your arteries), pollo (chicken), usually grilled, but he does one of the world's best Cordon Bleu's, with another sauce that makes my mouth water, just thinking about it, and usually either Tilapia or Corvina that he can bread and fry, or grill, with a garlic touch. I still remember a shrimp dish he prepared for me one time that had my mouth watering for weeks afterward (a sauce that I just knew had gone straight to the walls of my arteries, but what a journey). He almost always will suggest a preparation method, or an entrée that is just a bit different from the normal, and his suggestions are usually well worth listening to, and even heeding. He also makes a great ceviche, usually with tilapia, but shrimp is also available.
Beyond the simple fact that his food is always exquisite, Don Alfonso's old world manner, and his charm are guaranteed to impress you. He always makes our dining experience special, with his welcome, and his concern for our pleasure. We make it a point to take all of our visitors up there, and we try to get up there more than once a month, whether we have visitors or not. You should know that I have seen him handle a group of 14 people, with total aplomb, not allowing the sheer numbers to upset him in the least, and his skill is so great (long practice, no doubt) that he timed the preparation of all those different requests, so that everything was delivered to our table at the same time, with universal acclaim. That's not to mention that every single plate was thoroughly cleaned by all and sundry.
The reality of eating out in Costa Rica is that most places are comparable in price to eating establishments in the states (i.e., not really cheap any more), so it should be no surprise that a meal for two, with at least two beers does run about $25-30. However, what we get for that with Don Alfonso is the pleasure of his company, the opportunity to watch a master chef at work, a spectacular view, and some of the best food anywhere. More important, Alfonso and his wife, Yadira have become our friends. (I have told you about our first 'date' in another post about a live music event in December of 2009).
Now, for the bad news: The ongoing, and now, long-standing, financial crisis has begun to take its toll on this fine establishment. In years past, despite the truly awful road up to Cabanga, some few people did manage to trek on up this way. Now, however, Don Alfonzo tells us that people just are not coming up the mountain. Business has fallen off so much that he has found it necessary to take a job in a restaurant in nearby Guatuso, meaning that he is no longer able to be present in his own place most of the week. The food is still great, but there is now a very real danger that he may have to close his doors, and/or move his operation to Guatuso. This would be a very serious loss to those of us who like good food. So, if you are within driving distance of Cabanga, please go see these nice people, and enjoy a great meal in their presence – before it is too late!