La Luna at Gaia... Sweet Bird of Youth

Every morning at 3:30, a young Costa Rican boy stood in the kitchen doorway, wearing brightly colored pajamas, rubbing his sleepy eyes open to watch his mother make sandwiches to sell to the local fishermen. As soon as he could hold a knife, his mother taught him to slice vegetables.

By age 12, Miguel Monge Solís was a vital part of his mother's kitchen operation. He learned to reach outside and grab the bountiful flavors, and cook. In Costa Rica, banana trees are like pop-up restaurants -- coconuts, plantains, coffee, and tamarind grow for the taking, and making, of creative food.

After professional training in San Jose, Miguel "Mayky" is now the executive chef at La Luna, the diamond-in-the-rough Costa Rican jungle fine-dining restaurant at Gaia: Manuel Antonio's unrivaled luxury hotel, spa and nature reserve. Everything about this resort is overwhelmingly refreshing. Even Chef Mayky -- he's 22.


Gaia sign on gate Gaia Hotel Costa Rica with purple flowers on the ground

During my luxurious stay, I had three glorious meals a day at La Luna. Four, if you count the tapas they serve in the afternoon. 

I started each day with a reverse lullaby; in Costa Rica, birds sing you awake. You then climb the stairs to La Luna and walk into the world's best tree-house restaurant.

Waiter setting table in Gaia's restaurant La Luna

They left the front wall open to the bright blue sky -- Gaia puts you in nature and nature in you. The Japanese phrase feng shui translates to "wind-water," honored here with a pool fronting the entire length of the room.

You notice a distinct smell in the air and turn around to see Chef Mayky holding a basket of warm, magical baked puffery.

bread basket La Luna

Don't ask questions -- open one up and all will be revealed.

pastry cut open at Gaia hotel

From their expansive fantasy dining perch, the lush, sweeping hills and ocean coastline are yours for the gawking. The generosity of the country's resources is offered on a silver tray by the friendly staff. The local star fruit at breakfast points you toward its source, the jungle and farms nearby where most of the ingredients come from.

bacon, eggs, toast, potatoes, star fruit

Chef Mayky only needs to import 15 percent of his inventory. As I walked up the steps that very first morning, I swore I heard a rooster wake a chicken up with a cocky Lay his eggs, woman!

Nothing traveled far to hop on my plate -- they really did bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. Care itself cut the potatoes, and a gentle hand turned the eggs. As I ate, I watched huge hawks circle in the sky and wondered what they were searching for. After breakfast I went to find out. 

Hiking through the humidity-enriched rain forest made me so hungry that one of the lusciously colored toucans started looking tasty. Darn that cereal box. My appetite rose proportionately to the mid day sun. 

Being the reflection of his country, Chef Mayky served up a fitting lunch with his Chef's Garden Salad, local vegetables over pineapple carpaccio with fresh mint sorbet. He saw the same salad-green sloth clinging to a tree that I saw in the jungle and sketched it for me on a plate.

pineapple carpaccio salad with mint sorbet

A carrot fence held the sorbet back, possibly out of fear the mint would be too strong a flavor. I released it to melt gently into each bite. The icy mint was a perfect complement to the freshly picked greens without stealing the show. I wished I were alone to lick the bowl. I held the pineapple carpaccio up and wiggled it, marveling at the Chef's innovative taste of things to come. It was tart, sweet and perfect. 

In Costa Rica, the ancient "teach a man to fish" lesson is just some guy pointing to the sea, The fish are waiting for you, go get them. Once caught, the fish are traditionally and kindly "cooked" without fire by simply being soaked in citrus till they reach a lovely state.

Cold, lime-drenched ceviche is what a hot, sun-soaked body wants.

ceviche in a dish

The fish is firm, and the citrus driving the cooking process takes a back seat to other flavors once it reaches its destination. The pickled red onion and cilantro play good cop/bad cop -- and it's effective.

The Spicy Tuna & Mango Wrap that my companion greedily ate was stuffed with tender, succulent mango and tuna -- I tried to paw at it but he wouldn't share. This sandwich cost $10 but I'd have paid $20 for a taste.

A little dish of pineapple sorbet slid onto our table. Like a blonde at UCLA, she got noticed. A sorbet palette-cleanser at lunch -- a welcome respite. 

mango sorbet in a small bowl

I dove into the Seafood Risotto and dug through the seafood-encrusted rice, mining pale rubies of fantastically fat shrimp, but it was drier than risotto -- still really good, but my tongue sensed paella. Tart tomato sauce deliciously confirmed it.

tomato seafood risotto

Lunch ended. I got what I needed and pushed back from the table with renewed energy and enough strength to float in one of the hotel's tiered pools, holding onto my breath and a smoothie prepared by La Luna chefs. I couldn't help singing the local TV theme song I Love Juicy.

glasses of fruit smoothies

Costa Rica knows how to show you a good time all day long, then gets so excited about the sunsets that she can't wait past 6 p.m. to get on with it. The Ambar Lounge offers tapas and cocktails from 5 to 7 p.m., the perfect chance to belly up to the bar and buckle up for daylight's final dazzling show. Hear the sizzle as the fiery sun slips into the sea -- a deliciously gentle way to ease you into the night.

sunset over the jungle

If I find a sweater I like, I want it in every color. Chef Mayky's Ambar Lounge tapas menu reads like a sweater I like and I wanted to order everything on the menu, but I decided to pace myself -- dinner was in two hours. I chose Enyucados -- sweet, lively corn cakes that put the national motto, Pura Vida, on a small plate. They're like Costa Rican blinis, upon which I loaded the olive tapenade that's like vegan eco-friendly caviar. The crisp corn disks had picked up bits of flavor from the griddle, and the olive paste was so smooth that it must have been blended by the trampling feet of millions of howler monkeys.

corn cakes tapas on small plates

The Beef Pasteles sprang to life immediately when dipped in the accompanying sour tamarind sauce -- one of my favorite flavors. The taste, when mixed with tiny beef pasties, took me to India, but wild birds outside broke out into a cat fight, and their screeching snapped me back. In Costa Rica, birds announce sunrise and sunset like bickering butlers.  

I took a short break before dinner like I was a band, slapping the beautiful wooden counter and winking to the bartender a We'll be right back.

By the time I returned, dinner was in full swing and I was played to my table by a Latin jazz duo on a small stage. There are no windows to close here, leaving your heart open to the love that Chef Mayky serves course by gorgeous course.

The smiling waiter offers an amuse bouche of feta on toast with basil and tomato. This kiss from the chef was as warm as a hug. We were offered a taste of every wine we asked for, even those sold by the glass.

This restaurant was built from the ground up by three well-traveled and perfectly seasoned owners with a foundation of great service. The waiters support their mission with sincere enthusiasm and expert knowledge. Point outside and ask what the distant cluster of lights is to the right. It's a village, and they'll recite the details as if a live-action Wiki page. I'm instantly aware that I'm dining in a place that wants me there; they've locked me into a luxuriously long dinner with foreshadowing rows of flatware emanating from either side of my recently tanned arms.

Like separated lovers staring at the same moon, Chef Mayky must have watched the sunset because he served me seared, just-caught tuna that was the same sunny-hot pink. He curled it around a tropical cabbage salad that flattered the fish with a flirty kimchi vinegary glance -- just the right amount of an advance by rice wine not to insult the shy, soft tuna. He plopped it on a supportive stack of dried banana chips. The melt-in-my-mouth fish was still pleasingly chilled on the inside.

I paused to appreciate Chef Mayky's detailed, precise plating and artistic garnish. This dish had the makings of a deliciously edible bonfire.

seared ahi tuna salad

His Peruvian sea bass ceviche surfed in on boards of crisp tortilla, with an aioli sea foam still clinging to it. Unlike a surfer chick, the creamy little avocado fin had a reason to be there other than to look pretty. I loved the contrasting textures of this dish -- it's exciting to transition from the crisp, cold ginger into springy fish, then back to crunch with the tortilla. The rich avocado finished the bite like a firm hand smoothing down wild hair in a strong wind. 

sea bass ceviche on tortilla chip

I leaned in to taste the entree of mushroom risotto my companion ordered, but first admired the chef for shaping his rice into quenelles. Before my hand was knocked away I stole a forkful and found it too salty, but before I could protest, my mouth was pleasantly and immediately slapped shut by the chef's follow-up flavor: a strawberry jam-like sauce. That unexpected weirdo smashup cut the salt and turned it into a very well-balanced dish.

My Chilean clams on yucca majado and seafood fume wore a flashy-fried basil headdress of a Vegas showgirl. The clams opened just as easily as those high-kicking legs, exposing tender, plump smoked seafood mixed with mashed yucca. I decided right then that I wanted all the potatoes in the world sent back to Ireland and my luggage filled with yucca.

smoked fish salad with yucca, fried basil leaf sticking out on top

I was surprised to find smoked fish, and really good smoked fish, but I shouldn't have been. Costa Ricans held the key to smoking and drying fish way before U.S. delis offered lox. 

At just the right time, a dab of fruity paint was picked up from the jungle palette with a brush, and frozen into a house-made sorbet -- a palate cleanser to pace the meal. I love being reminded to slow down.

fruit sorbet in small dish

The Gorgonzola & sun-dried tomato tart, with mushroom ragout is in a pastry shell so rustic it could have been stolen from a windowsill by this mischievous kid of a chef. The sauce was slowly cooked and given the chance to mature; it calmed down the stringy cheese inside.

But the balsamic vinegar used to caramelize the onions, not just in this dish but others as well, is too heavily relied upon. It made me too delirious to take a good, clear photo. 

cheese tart with balsamic onions and mushroom sauce

Think of balsamic vinegar as an exotic and intense dancer. We can't send her on stage for every number, she's too strong and the audience will get overwhelmed by her performance. Send in that milder, gentler dancer, Citron, every now and then. Or Chardonnay; she's lovely. Reserve Butter for special occasions -- she's a little fat, but can still jump in when needed.

Shrimp, calamari and chorizo trio with a chipotle gelée won the trifecta. The shrimp was grilled in the shell to keep it soft, and the calamari must have been fried in oil so fresh that it squeaked. The hot chorizo spicily twisted the dish into surf-and-turf.


shrimp, chirizo and mashed potatoes

In an homage to molecular gastronomy, cubes of tangy chipotle gelée were dolloped on before the dish left the kitchen. By the time I dredged the mashed potatoes, the gelée had surrendered and melted. Substance+Style+Purpose+Whimsy+Flavor=Relevant.

The good back-beat of the jazz band's music was the metronome for the smooth rhythmic flow of the evening. The attentive waiters served from the left, the direction expected for fine dining. They presented the plates all at once, gracefully hovering until they were all in place, and then gently lowered them down. This moved the service of La Luna into exemplary.

With every dish I was learning more about this chef. His youth stands for hope, his smart Costa Rican cuisine represents promise for his entire country.  His coconut and plantain crusted sea bass makes use of what he has to work with. You'd think it wouldn't make sense, but it does.

He wove sliced jalapenos into angel hair pasta to serve with his Peruvian-style seafood casserole, and I wonder why this isn't always done. The peppers were a tiny bit hot, and although it was a side dish for the richly-traditional and tasty casserole, I moved the pasta to center stage and ate it alone and naked.

angel hair pasta with jalepenos

Ginger and panko crusted tuna with orange juice risotto is one of the stars of the menu. The tuna was so fresh it still glistened. I poked at the crust a bit to see if I knew this fish; maybe he swam by me earlier. Japan will want to slap this wonderful ginger/panko combo crust on everything. They will trend it so thoroughly that by autumn it will be a verb.

seared tuna in ginger and panko crust

Orange juice brightened the risotto; it just needs another name so we don't confuse it with the creamy Italian preparation. Each has its own separate merits. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but we also need to call a spade a spade. I humbly suggest his side starch be known as arroz con jus de naranja -- fittingly exotic.

Next I was presented with this gorgeous bundle of Costa Rican Fish Papillote. It was as strong a Polynesian/French fusion as a Gauguin landscape. But no soft, fleshy, Tahitian girl emerged -- the banana leaf can't be sealed like parchment so the fish was dry, making the entrée more like a gift that's wrapped prettier than the present inside. 

fish wrapped in banana leaf

The coconut and cinnamon sauce inside helped the dish a great deal, but not enough to save it texturally.

Chef Mayky is surprisingly accomplished for his age. His food is thrilling now; I imagine how advanced it'll be once he's traveled more. I can see him in Napa -- smilingly wide-eyed -- having his own innate belief confirmed that local, fresh ingredients make the best cooking partners. He might find inspiration that supports his own practices and broadens his culinary horizons.

If I had 12 children I'd love them all, but I still might have a favorite. Honey garlic calamari salad served in a rice paper basket is that child. A vast array of impressive flavors and ingredients mixed into an array of countless preparations was paraded by me. One assumes that calamari can't possibly be the special one, but this one was.

honey fried calamari in a rice basket

The calamari was chunky and, although it tasted unbelievably good like honey-coated fish, it felt like chicken. These nuggets were nestled down in an edible bowl that looked like a sea-fan coral waving in a strong current.

The amount of honey was so dead-on right that I presumed it was applied by the fluttering wings of bees. I used the same imagery Meryl Streep does before a fight scene. I viciously tore the gentle fan apart and dragged it through the garlic sauce, sobbing with joy as I ate.

For my three days at Gaia, Chef Mayky prepared seven-course dinners every night, and even though I was full, I hadn't had enough.

He tosses salads with papaya and Parmesan, shaves truffles in cream sauces (then shaves in a little more), brashly plays with delicate combinations, and is never afraid to try a new recipe. He keeps his ego tucked under his toque and enjoys the admiration of Gaia's owners, diners, and the respect of the large kitchen staff he manages.

Dessert came as this Chocolate volcano cake with crème brûlée ice cream and it seems so final, but kind. Dark cacao beans were once used as currency in Costa Rica, and this cake was so rich I can easily imagine immigration accusing me of melting down money and trying to smuggle it out of the country in my stomach. I rolled it around with my tongue as if I were painting the inside of my mouth with the warm, gooey, bittersweet, half-baked cake.

Chef Mayky created the crème brûlée ice cream and found a great balance between burnt sugar and sweet milk. I loved finding bits of the hardened candy; it made me pause and think how lucky I was to be there. Another chef would just plop a cherry on top; here, it's a clever, deceptively sliced grape. 

chocolate molten cake wth creme brulee ice cream on the side

Chef wasn't through with me yet -- he pawed this plate like a jungle panther digging through the soft earth to unearth a treasure, and laid Gaia's Secret Sin at my feet. Paper-thin pineapple slices formed into ravioli filled with ricotta and dulce de leche.  

pineapple raviloi filled with ricotta cheese

This puff of a ravioli is dough-tender pineapple stuffed with creamy, luscious, sweet Jesus it's cheese! filling. The sour pineapple puckered my lips to kiss each loving spoonful.

From the dining room each day, I watched the sky go from sunrise to sunset and then moonless, void of any light. Staring into the night, the air was so black it looked like the sky just ended and was now a wall I could reach out and touch.

Emily Dickinson waxed poetic,
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tunes without the words and never stops at all.  
She'd have loved Gaia. She could have finally gotten a great tan and written about Chef Mayky's passion and love of other-worldly cooking.

Chef Mayky Monge and Greg White

I looked up to see him rightfully preening in the doorway of his kitchen, wearing a bright blue chef's jacket -- reminiscent of the luminescent brilliant color covering the neck of a fantastic peacock. 

La Luna. Gaia Hotel & Reserve. Km. 2.7, Manual Antonio, Costa Rica (506) 2777-9797

2 comments:

  1. I wanna eat you... with you! This, I wanna eat this.. all of this.. every morsel! With you. Soon!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Amazing post! I could taste the dishes through your words! I can't wait to visit La Luna at Gaia and get a chance to meet Chef Mayky.

    ReplyDelete

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