By Karl Kahler
I knew this was no ordinary hotel restaurant when I saw that one of the entrees on the menu was black risotto with grilled octopus, shrimp, calamari and “squid ink.”
“Is this a misprint?” I asked Milagro Vallejos, 42, the head chef at El Jardín in Monteverde Lodge & Gardens. She said no, they actually flavor the risotto with the ink from squids, the same fluid these mollusks use to hide from predators.
I started wondering how they milk the squid!
But we started with the shrimp tostada appetizer – grilled jumbo shrimp on a crispy corn tortilla with cherry tomatoes and avocado mousse. Then I had the perfectly cooked beef tenderloin, in a unique sauce made of local blackberries and coffee beans, plus a creamy potato puree with truffles, asparagus and beetroot. My girlfriend had the pork trilogy – tenderloin, pancetta and cheek in a dark beer sauce, with pumpkin and pejibaye puree and charred broccoli. Finally, we split an exquisite coffee flan.
Monteverde Lodge is one of four hotels under the ownership of a new collection called Böëna Wilderness Lodges, which also includes Tortuga Lodge in Tortuguero, Lapa Rios in the Osa, and Pacuare Lodge, on Costa Rica’s best rafting river. And all are currently undergoing a gastronomic transformation under the tutelage of a Greek chef named George Belesis, the culinary director, with an assist from the Costa Rican executive chef, Allan Mata.
“The most important thing for me is food must be real food, soul food, food with a base of good ingredients, cooked with love, with passion,” says Belesis, 37, who spends most of his time as head chef at the Kapari Natural Resort in Camparini, Greece.
The owners of Pacuare Lodge, Roberto Fernández and Luz Cáceres, visited Kapari in 2017 and were so impressed by the food that they invited Belesis to Costa Rica to overhaul the culinary operation at their riverside lodge. Later the couple, along with their partner Jack Loeb, acquired the three other hotels to form the Böëna group. For all four lodges, Belesis created new menus, overhauled the kitchens and trained the chefs to make fabulous food according to his innovative recipes.
“My thinking is that I love to have access to these beautiful ingredients that I’ve found here,” he says, “so I am striving to create a mix of my memories of food from my country with the ingredients of Costa Rica. But this is not Greek food, it’s international food based on Costa Rican ingredients.”
There’s also a big movement at Böëna toward a plant-based menu for all the lodges. Although all serve meat, they want to offer diners an additional selection of 100% vegetarian or vegan dishes that are robust and imaginative.
Allan Mata, 35, has been working as a chef at Pacuare Lodge for 12 years, but with the acquisition of the new lodges he became the executive chef of all four. He was instrumental in assisting Belesis in implementing a new culinary vision at all the hotels, and he continues to oversee quality control and help with menus and logistics.
“We remember very well the first dishes we made at Pacuare,” Mata says, “and I think the most important thing we have to keep in mind, and what I always try to communicate to all the staff, is to have great responsibility, passion, love – that’s the primary ingredient.”
Belesis said the menus at all four lodges are as different as the ecosystems they occupy. Monteverde’s cold mountain air inspired a menu meant to take the chill off. “Monteverde is more warm food, I call it winter food, but the weather is colder, so our food is more earthy, based in ingredients that are warm, with more hot dishes.”
Lapa Rios is in a totally different climate – lowland tropical rainforest where it’s usually sunny and hot. “Lapa Rios has more fresh and light food, because it’s hot, it’s Pacific, it has sun, so the food there is fresh, tropical, exotic,” he said.
Tortuga Lodge inspires a more Caribbean style of cuisine. “The ladies there have a nice base, using roots, seafood, coconut milk, and it’s all natural, made every day from fresh coconuts.”
As for Pacuare Lodge, the one that started it all, it has a brand-new menu and a new kitchen and dining area built on a platform around a tree.
The new plant-based “menu within a menu” at Pacuare offers vegetarian dinners like vegetarian poke, coconut curry, beetroot risotto, orzo pasta, falafel bowl and handmade ravioli with goat cheese and spinach. Or you can still order beef filet, lamb shank or pork stew.
“We have upscale food that surprises people in the middle of the rainforest,” says Belesis. He says that after whitewater rafting or other adventures, people often want to eat something more casual like the Pacuare burger, where even the buns are made from scratch. He says the food at Pacuare is a mix of casual, comfort and traditional, but with lots of surprises. And the dinner menu takes this to “a totally different level,” with fine dining and wines from all over the world.
“At this stage of my life,” he said, “I am in the comfort zone of food, of fine comfort food.”