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Saturday, July 11, 2009
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Restaurant The Gecko Ballena
La Cusinga Eco Lodge
with Marcel and Andres
There are still some untouched green zones on our ever more developing coast and the two
properties owned by John Tresemer stand out among them. While Finca Tres Hermanas
can best be described as a private eco reserve, La Cusinga Lodge is an eco tourist destina-
tion with true green credentials. Perched on a ridge above Playa Arco, the most private
beach of Costa Ballena, La Cusinga, and in particular its restaurant, The Gecko, open up to
the most spectacular ocean view at close range. This explains, to some extent, the rather
unusual arrangement of the tables: Guests sit next to each other, on split levels, facing the
lush greenery and the Pacific Ocean. During lunch, this makes for a pleasant experience. At
dinner, staring into the dark, it has a somewhat stifling effect on conviviality, especially if
you’re intent on having a conversation with someone three seats over.
David L. Mahler, the chef at The Gecko is driven by a passion for quality and fresh ingredi-
ents, something we find sadly missing in many other restaurants on our coast. He describes
some of his ventures on his own internet blog (see below) and unfortunately, but under-
standably, he doesn’t give away any of his trade secrets. Dave’s worked for restaurants on
the US east and west coasts, as well as in Hawaii. If we’d have to label his cooking style,
we’d call it upscale American.
The menu is a daily changing four-course affair at a very reasonable fixed-rate price. All the
food is prepared and cooked to perfection. Our menu opened with a cream of spinach soup,
something we wouldn’t necessarily order from an à la carte menu. It was served cold and
was a delightful opener. The next course was a salad made from organic greens and or-
ganic tomatoes with the most delicious organic (yet again!) goat cheese we had ever tasted
in all of Costa Rica. The main dish was a red snapper on olive oil with vegetables and spa-
ghetti. Dave explained that while he wouldn’t typically prepare fish with spaghetti, it was a
special request by one of his guests which he was pleased to accommodate. The dessert
was a choice of two freshly made cakes, one fruit, one chocolate and even though half of
our party of four was on a diet, we ended up devouring all of the fine desserts. Dave was
kind enough to top it off with a sample of his home made ice cream. Needless to say, we’ll
be back for more!
Highlights: David is living proof that developing and managing your own supply chain can
make all the difference. The Gecko has a clear opening policy for the general public, even
though it’s only for dinners on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The raw materials used
here are first rate and so is the cooking.
Room for Improvement: The Gecko loses much of its charm at night since you dine under
undimmed and exposed light bulbs, facing the dark tropical night. We suggest new table
arrangements on the upper level, with dimmed lighting, candles and some appealing table
decorations. The Gecko stands and falls with the presence of David L. Mahler and subse-
quently is somewhat exposed.
Restaurant The Gecko · La Cusinga Eco Lodge
Ballena · off the Costanera Sur between kilometers 166 and 167
open to the general public on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays for dinner only
restaurant open daily for hotel guests only · chef de cuisine David L. Mahler
owner John Tresemer · general manager Geinier A. Guzmán
telephone 2200 0579 · major credit cards accepted
www.lacusingalodge.com · www.chefofthejungle.blogspot.com
This review was written about a visit done on the very first night we were open. We have since made adjustments to the lighting and changed our seating a bit. Also interesting that the reviewer does not note that he and his partner had asked that they have the sauce being served with the fish that night, left off. Everyone but the reviewer and his guest received a lovely fresh Pargo filet topped with a sauce of roasted organic tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and basil. The reviewer does not eat onions, so his fish was served with extra virgin olive oil, jugo de mandarina and basil.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
My apologies for the changes in fonts and sizes, particularly at the end. I sat at the keyboard for half an hour late last night and could not get it all to print out in the same font. If one of my expert friends out there can help me I would be most grateful.
A WEEKEND TO CELEBRATE
This past weekend, Friday June 26th and Saturday June 27th marked the biggest weekend since the opening of The Gecko at La Cusinga. The right alignment of the stars coupled with a musical guest appearance and a little "not so shy" PR around it being Chef Dave's birthday weekend brought in a good crowd on Friday night and a full house on Saturday.
I had reconnected on Facebook with Greg Douglass, guitarist extraordinaire and a friend from a life lived many brain cells ago. Greg and I grew up in San Francisco's Easy Bay suburbs in the 60's and we had run into each other more than a few times in those days; mostly at the listening booths at Walnut Creek's Music Town record store. Greg was the local guitar star (at least to the kids I hung with) and we'd watched him go from a shiney, matching suits Beatles cover band called The Virtues, to the psychedelic rock and roll of the band that "almost made it big", Country Weather. I had been a hanger on in a light show company called Spectral Euphoria and we had done the lights at a number of Country Weather gigs. The band played the Fillmore, the Avalon and a score of other legendary 60's venues, but the only member of the band to emerge on the other side was the lead guitar player, Greg Douglass. Greg went on to play lead for Van Morrison's touring band, to write "Jungle Love" and play lead for the Steve Miller Band and to play that riveting lead guitar part that was heard all over the world in Greg Kihn's "Jeopardy".
Through a lot of photo seduction and a few of these blogs I had convinced Greg that he needed a Costa Rica vacation and that he and his wife, Jerri, would be welcome here at La Cusinga. When he volunteered to bring his guitar and play here it set the wheels of my tiny mind in motion. His arrival was going to coincide with the weekend of my 58th birthday and I thought it would be great to promo Greg's guitar playing as part of a Chef Dave Birthday Celebration at La Cusinga. It has been so quiet down here that I figured anything that was different and entertaining would be welcomed by our fearless year round locals.
Greg and his charming wife Jerri showed up in the dark of the night on the evening of the Sunday previous, and we welcomed them with a fast four course meal before they passed out from exhaustion after the plane flight and the five hour drive (had to add on an hour when they got lost in Cartago) to the coast from San Jose. They and another couple were the only guests at the Lodge for three or four days and they fell right into the La Cusinga lifestyle; walks, food, naps, food and an early bed. It was easy to re-establish bonds despite the obscene number of years that it had been since we'd seen each other and they became part of the La Cusinga family for a week. Greg pulled out his guitar the second night and blew away the other guests as well as the staff. It was great to hear the guitar rising up over the jungle sounds and the steady beat of the rain.
The Thursday prior to the Big Weekend I took Greg and Jerri (or I should say, more accurately, Jerri drove us) over the hill to the feria in San Isidro. While they gawked and gaped at the mountains and aisles of exotics, I made a stealthy sweep of the markets. I made my regular stop with Mauren and Ademar; buying a dozen heads of healthy sized bok choy, bags of organic tomatoes as well as my new favorite, baby white chayote. I piled 5 kilos of super-ripe tomatoes into plastic bags at the "mountain of tomatoes" stall and I hit up Mario for a few liter bags of organic natilla, the Costa Rican sour cream. I crossed paths with Greg and Jerri a few times and loved the looks of amazement on their faces. The feria does that to everyone the first time they visit. We finished up together down at "gringo corner" where I picked up 2 kilos of baby lettuces and another kilo of what appeared to be the last of the season moras (blackberries).
I was excited and ready for the days ahead. In addition to the music, the birthday and all the other hoopla, we also had a group of 16 American students visiting who would require feeding. And on top of that we had two tour buses passing through with yet more gringo schoolkids who would be touring the grounds, going to the beach and having lunch on Saturday. Big Weekend.
Geinier had designed a flyer to help pimp the event, but in typical Costa Rican fashion, the internet had gone out the day I received it from him and I couldn't get it printed. The following day, in mid rain-storm, a car up the Costanera in Dominical hit a power pole and the entire coast, from Dominical to Palmar, a distance of nearly 60 kilometres, lost power for 20 hours. That's just the way it happens here. Pura Vida. So I didn't get flyers for the weekend out until mid-day Wednesday. That made Thursday pretty much of a wash, so we'd concentrated on Friday and Saturday.
Friday morning I made the drive down the coast to Ojochal to visit with Victoriano and see what he'd brought in the previous evening and early morning. I hopped out of R2 with a wave and a soothing "Buen perros" to his two dogs with whom I'd established an uneasy alliance. After watching the larger of them tear the back out of Gonzalo's rubber boot two weeks ago, I was determined to be on friendly terms. I don't wear rubber boots.
Victoriano had made a big haul of smaller Pargo, not my favorite fish to work with. Pargo is the local red snapper and while it is a great tasting fish, the smaller filets are hard to work with when cooking them in quantity. The Ticos have it right when they fry this fish whole. It is great eating; sitting at the table with the whole fish in front of you, a pile of wedges of mandarina and a stack of napkins. It is not, however, the way we do things at La Cusinga. The price for the fresh filets was right, though, 3000 colones per kilo, so I took five kilos back to the Lodge. The fact that I wasn't going to have to filet them myself made the purchase more appealing as well.
When I'd left the Lodge to buy my fish I'd had 11 reservations and when I got back I had 19. Again, that's the way things happen here, and I liked it. When I walked into the kitchen with my fish Andrey had already begun the vegetable prep so the kitchen festivities were underway. We had plenty of bok choy and green beans from the previous day's feria so that choice was obvious. We agreed that arroz verde would make a good starch for the night and we were off. Arroz verde is a rice dish from the Yucatan that is cooked in a puree of cilantro, green onions, green chiles and lettuces instead of straight water or stock and when done correctly it emerges from the pan a lovely emerald green. I had roasted sweet red peppers the night before and I threw them into the Cuisinart and built an emulsified red pepper vinaigrette out of them. Capers and chopped Italian parsely gave the vinaigrette some color and texture and we had a beautiful red sauce to put on our white fish on green rice.
I'd made "The" flourless chocolate cake the day before so to add a lighter non-chocolate dessert to our menu for the evening I baked a Basque Torte de Almendras; a light airy almond tart that has virtually nothing but almonds, eggs and sugar in it. With some blackberry sauce and our fresh blackberry ice cream it would be the perfect foil to "Life By Chocolate". In addition to it being almost the complete opposite of the chocolate cake, it also comes together in about ten minutes and is in and out of the oven in less than 40 minutes.
Friday night came and went like a charm. For the first evening in almost a week we were free of the late afternoon showers that block out the sunsets. Instead there was a postcard perfect sunset accompanied by the laughter of people drinking wine and the sweet tones of Greg's pre-dinner guitar. Our 19 guests came down from the upper viewing deck in small groups and feeding them was an ease and a joy.
We started with a chilled soup of roasted organic tomatoes, onions and garlic pureed with the addition of extra virgin olive oil. That was followed by a salad of organic lettuces with fat cross-section slices of avocado with marinated organic cherry tomatoes heaped in their centers.
The smaller filets of Pargo baked up quickly and the timing on them was just right. They sat, lightly golden, on the perfectly emerald green rice and looked stunning cloaked in the roasted red pepper vinaigrette. Dinner flowed like a peaceful tranquil stream. The dining room was filled with the owners of the Lodge and their daughter; friends, and friends of friends and felt like a private party. Greg started playing again just as dessert was served and we even got the woman from the Tico Times to sing along with his finger-picked version of "America, the Beautiful".
Although our guests lingered to hear the final notes ringing from the guitar, it seemed as if the evening passed too quickly. Perhaps it was that it was my birthday; perhaps it was that the night had seemed so easy, so perfect. And perhaps it was the chemistry of the picture perfect sunset, the food and music and just the right group of guests. We can't know, but it was a lovely counterpoint to the day that Saturday would almost become.
Saturday I was up early and down at the Uvita feria by 8:15. I made my hellos and como le va's pretty brief. I got my produce into the Land Cruiser and rattled back to La Cusinga. I knew I had to get into the kitchen by at least 10:00 to catch that window of time between the lunch crew finishing up lunch for 45 American high school students and the moment they had to serve them so I could sneak some desserts into the oven.
When I had gotten the nine or ten bags of produce stored away in the bodega I headed into the kitchen to see just how slim my chances were going to be. It was ugly; ugly, ugly. Rita and her daughter D’Maris were in the kitchen slugging out their prep for the 45 the best they could but the kitchen looked as if an exploded food bomb had gone off in it. Granted, neither of them has had any professional training; thereby limiting their organizational skills and preventing them from ever having been imbued with the “clean as you go” ethic. Additionally, both are women of considerable girth who, again, due to lack of professional training, are not particularly gifted at moving in a kitchen around others who are working. Have I said this nicely enough?
In any case, D’Maris was frying cut up tortillas for corn chips and had commandeered the entire stovefront area. Rita had three or four projects going on and they covered both sides of both sinks and had spilled out onto the main prep island as well as covering the top of the “coffin” refrigerator. I needed to get about 40 people’s worth of pineapple upside down cakes in the oven ASAP so employed my last ditch ploy of doing all my weighing and measuring in the storeroom. There simply was no point in trying to get back and forth between and around the two of them.
Once the dry goods were measured and weighed, however, there was no way around my needing to get to the burners so I could make the caramel that would form the base of the cakes. Key to all this is maintaining a good sense of humor and a running repartee with the two of them in kitchen Tico Spanish. This is something I am not great at , but find that typically, self deprecation is the way to go. I laughed as I bumped and thumped around the kitchen with the two of them. I cut the pineapple while the caramel gently simmered and was able to get the two combined in the two Mom-style pyrexes that we use for baking larger desserts.
I got the butter and sugars creamed together, added eggs, vanilla and the natilla, the secret ingredient before folding in the dry ingredients. The pineappled pyrexes got filled and the cakes miraculously made it into the oven. All around me there was food frying. The tortillas had been replaced by chicken strips and were soon to be followed by chunks of fish. I cringed when I thought of the last time I had seen Rita pan-frying the chunks of wet battered fish and watched the hot grease slosh up her forearm. I checked my oven temps, glanced at the clock and fled.
The cakes successfully out of the oven, I was getting out of the driveway just in time to see the two buses pull in. Good timing; in minutes the place would be teeming with school kids; shy and confused, tourists in a strange country; riding buses from place to place and not knowing much about any of it and understanding less. It amazes me that so many of these groups come and the students don't speak a word of Spanish.
It was another perfect blue-skied day and it was good to take another run down the coast to see Victoriano. This Saturday he was hosting a little get together in his outside living/dining room and the fire had been started. He looked pleased to see me, however, and when we got to the ice chests I could see why. He pulled the top off like a new daddy showing off his son and the inside was filled with big whole fish and crushed ice. This was the first time I'd seen Victoriano's ice box so full.
"Que tienes, mae", I asked him, and he proudly told me, "Rovalo, Corvina, Pargo, Gato Perro..." and his voice drifted off as he began to move the ice around with a shovel. "Yo necesito Rovalo por hoy" I told him, "Dos grandes por trenta personas". I knew that Rovalo has a good yield and remembered that the last ones I'd gotten had given me about nine or ten portions a side.
Victoriano used the shovel to dislodge a few smaller Pargo and got down into the ice where the Rovalo were. I shrugged at a couple of smaller ones and told him, "Mas grande, mas grande." I must say that it was odd initially to see him move these whole fish around with a shovel in an outdoor cooler, but I've gotten over it. He got even further down and pulled out two beautful long nosed Rovalo. Together they weighed in at nine kilos, and doing some quick figuring in my head, I decided that they should be almost perfect. He bagged them up for me, I tossed them into the ice chest in my trunk and he went back to his al fresco lunch party. Quick and easy.
When I got back the buses were parked at the top of the driveway and the kids had hit the beaches. The deck dining room and the kitchen were, unfortunately, a disaster. I could see that we wouldn't be doing any prep anytime soon. For reasons not entirely clear to me, D'Maris goes home at 1:00 on Saturday so Rita and my dinner assistant, Andrey were slogging through the mountain of plates and pots and pans. I did my part by staying out of their way, moving a few key pieces and starting my second dessert of the night.
We had the pineapple upside down cakes, which had come out perfectly; we had over half the almond torte from the night before and we had half a flourless chocolate cake. I figured one more chocolate cake would give us a three-pronged attack from which to serve and would cover a variety of tastes. And like the almond torte, the chocolate cake comes together in minutes and doesn't take up much space in the making; certainly something to factor in given the kitchen conditions.
Headway was made, dishes were stacked and pots and pans were finally available to cook in. Rita was soaked with sweat and dishwater, obviously exhausted and she and I were both ready for her to leave the kitchen. I praised her effusively, we shared a few bad kitchen jokes in bad kitchen Spanish and she was out the door.
Andrey and I had two dinners, separate, one from the other, to prep for. We had a group of 14 students who would have a quickie three course repast and then we had our regular dinner guests who would have the usual Chef Dave/La Cusinga four course feast. The plan had been made to feed the kids all at once, and early, to get them out of the way. It had been pointed to me by Rita that they were picky eaters, didn't eat much in the way of salad and paid most of their attention to dessert. Piece of cake. Our reservation breakdown for our dinner guests had a party of ten, a six, two fives and a smattering of dueces. It was all taking shape in my chefbrain.
Everyone would get salad, the kids wouldn't get soup and the smaller pargo filets left from the night before would tray up nicely to be baked off quick and easy for the 14 students. We didn't have enough of one soup, but had plenty of two, so I made the executive decision that our dinner party of ten plus two dueces would get the last of the roasted tomato soup; the rest would all get a roasted beet puree with a small dollop of natilla. Costa Rican borscht.
The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a blur. Andrey and I ran a little more than we're used to due to the time constraints. Every time I looked at the clock it was a half an hour later than I was hoping it was. In my infinite wisdom I had decided that we needed to serve the 24 orders of organic baby bok choy to all our guests but the ten and that they would get at least one different vegetable. It didn't quite turn out that way, but more about that later. Andrey did a fine job of busting out four different veg preps; the bok choy, steamed green beans and roasted chayote and ayote.
We've been roasting tiny white chayotes in olive oil and salt and pepper and they are delicious, plus they do look really cool on the plate; an eyecatcher. His next chore was to clean the baby lettuce heads for our 45 diners and mine was fish.
The cake was in and nearly out of the oven so I pulled out the two Rovalo and had at them. They're not a difficult fish to filet; not a lot of spines and nice meaty filets that come off the bone easily. Perhaps their greatest drawback is the scales; big scales, like guitar picks, that end up everywhere. My philosophy is that one just picks them up from where ever one finds them over the course of the next few hours after filleting the fish and one lives with it. And my instincts on my fish purchase were right on the money. I got exactly eight portions from each Rovalo filet, giving me 32 portions for 31 guests, with one for wiggle room.
The afternoon sped. We banged out the lettuces, the fish, the pineapple salsa. Karla arrived a half hour early and we went over our seating plans. I gave her the list of names and numbers for the reserved guests. It was starting to look like we were ready to go. My good friend Anja from Mercado la Roca had asked if she could come in and help on one of our weekend nights and fortuitously, this was to be it. I think she may have wanted to see what we were doing in the kitchen, but I threw her to Karla. The place we would need the extra body would be on the floor, not in the kitchen.
Coming together, coming together, it was all coming together when I remembered (thank God) that one of the students and one of our reserved guests did not eat fish and I had purchased organic chickens at the market that morning to feed them. I kind of blew everyone away by going into full butcher mode and boning out a chicken about 15 minutes before service. I just took off and boned the breasts, but when the sharp and tiny boning knives came out, the whole staff cut me a wide berth.
The chickens went right into the oven.
Meanwhile, our reservations were filtering in, arriving early in anticipation of a lovely sunset, a glass of wine or two and some pre-dinner guitar music. Meanwhile, the weather had conspired against us, it was pouring and Greg's guitar could barely be heard. We had 30 people huddled together on the upper level watching it rain and straining to hear if someone was actually playing or not.
Fortunately, and whether they knew it or not, our student group cooperated perfectly. They filed in, we served them their pre-plated salads, the fish came out of the oven and went right onto the plate along with rice and a pile of fresh sauteed green beans. I had already cut and plated their pineapple upside down cake and when the entree plates came back all I had to do was put a small dollop of vanilla ice cream on each piece of cake and off they went. At 6:30 sharp they were fed, up and out of the dining room. Perfect.
Anja and Karla raced to get the big table re-set for the ten and we caught up on dishes and silver in the kitchen. We were ready, but I really wanted to get our guests off that rain enclosed platform and down into the (also rain enclosed) dining room. I dispatched Juan Carlos and Karla with umbrellas to fetch the guests and down through the driving rain they came. I must admit, that in retrospect the rain helped to create a festive, kind of party atmosphere and brought people together. We were all passengers on a rocky boat, but at least it wasn't taking on water.
We had a minor seating glitch, but since everyone had come down at once, they were patient and most understanding as we struggled to get all 31 of them seated and their wine poured to get things started.
After that, I don't remember too much specifically. The two different soups got to the correct parties. The salads; organic lettuces topped with another salad of La Cusinga palmito, organic cucumber and roasted red peppers had to be replated when we encountered an extra guest. But then we ended up with one extra. The beautiful thick Rovalo filets baked up quite nicely after being seared to golden and crispy on the top side and looked great on their bed of achiote rice with pineapple salsa spooned over the top.
At the last minute I decided that no one really needed two pieces of bok choy and that each plate would get all four vegetables. Call me a madman to try to do it with our first ever full house, but we pulled it off and the plates looked stunning.
Suddenly we were at dessert and I had given our two servers a count as we had seven of the almond tortes and a dozen orders of upside down cake. Through some marvelous twist of fate we sold exactly seven orders of the torte and the rest fell into place. We served three different cakes with three different ice creams and every plate came back nearly licked clean.
We served coffee, some guests lingered downstairs and Greg went upstairs to play to a post-dinner crowd grateful for the opportunity to hear his amazing guitar picking without the benefit of the overwhelming percussion of the earlier rain. I loved that people kind of filtered around to where they wanted to be. A lot of our guests knew each other and visited from table to table. Unfinished wine bottles were taken upstairs and Greg drew a good crowd. I visited the lingering tables in the dining room and was able to talk with almost all our guests. What a fine night. It was a credit to everyone who worked this dinner that it had gone so smoothly when there was so much potential for disaster.
I didn't get upstairs from doing my kitchen organizing and cleaning until Greg was almost done with his last set, but he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. His playing was the perfect balm, the final touch of what had been a weekend that couldn't have been any better. As his last song, Leo Kottke's, "The Fisherman" rang its last chord, I looked around the room and smiled. It had been a great birthday weekend. I got to do what I love to do, with an old friend to help, and the people had come for it. Pura vida.
Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible.