The Tabacon Private Gala Dinner is Served in the Middle of the Jungle.
In a country where rice and beans rule the gastronomic scene, happening upon the exotic offerings of Ayurvedic, Tandoori and general fusion of international cuisine at the Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa was more than a breath of fresh air – it was a culinary awakening.
My boyfriend and I had the privilege of spending a long weekend at the infamous Tabacon Resort. Already splattered across travel magazines for its iconic hot springs that are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the hotel always came off as slightly impersonal to me, like a giant water park in the middle of a tourist jungle.
This, I was soon to discover, is an image that Tabacon is content to have left in the past, along with its days of full occupancy and 1,000 daily guests to the hot springs property. Under the management of Uwe Wagner, a German hotelier who came to the resort two and a half years ago with a weighty international resume, Tabacon took a turn toward exclusive luxury and personalized service.
Having worked at reshaping hotels in Europe, Africa and Mexico, Wagner brought an international perspective and a strong dedication to the idea of – oddly – less clients. While this may sound like a recipe for disaster, the refocus on intimate has redefined the resort and crafted the scene of my most memorable and scrumptious weekend in Costa Rica…
We were welcomed at reception with a fruit cocktail and made plans for dinner before speeding off to soak in our en-suite Jacuzzi with jungle views. From there on out our daily activities circulated between the two on-site restaurants, hot springs and our amazing room, never sure which merited the majority of our time.
The morning breakfast buffet is served poolside at the Los Tucanes restaurant. This included five serving stations, mixing Costa Rican, Spanish and American breakfast traditions, with made-to-order omelets, cold cuts, yogurt, fresh bread and pastries, gallo pinto (rice and beans flavored with cilantro and spices), pancakes, bacon, sausage and much more. Waiters continued to circulate with their attentive service offering local coffee, water, orange juice and vino espumante, oh the luxury!
For lunch we would stop by the Ave del Paraiso restaurant located on the hot springs property. On top of an extensive menu of heaping dishes, it was here that we were discovered one of Tabacon’s best kept secrets: sous chef Pravesh Bhatnagar. There in the corner, looking over the main pool and wet bar, was a small glass-walled kitchen designed to put the Indian chef’s Tandoori cooking on display for all to see.
An unexpected find in the heart of the Costa Rican jungle, this Hindu style of cooking involves a clay oven, usually found underground, in which long metal kebobs are laced with heavily seasoned chunks of fish, cheese, beef or chicken and vegetables and cooked in less than 10 minutes. All dishes are served with Butter Naan bread, a yogurt mint sauce and Dal Makhan. After a willing tutorial from one of Bhatnagar’s assistant, we were able to sample the Tandoori cheese plate; a heaping snack for two.
Dinner back at the Los Tucanes restaurant became the highlight of our evenings, set to relaxing live music every night from the piano, guitar or saxophone. Not only is the food amazing, the formal dining experience was executed with style and proficiency that could please any urban sophisticate, let alone our own humble standards.
My first meal began with a green salad with goat cheese, strawberries and caramelized walnuts. We were then presented with a tasty canapé del día ranging from salmon to tomato and truffle flavors. After the appetizers, the waiter brought out a fresh fruit sorbet to clear the palate. Finally, I arrived to my main dish of Yellow fin tuna on taboulé with a vinaigrette dressing. The fish was cooked beautifully, with a toasted grey outside giving way to a moist, brilliant red inside, which tasted equally as brilliant.
It was then that we learned of Tabacon’s policy of using locally grown seasonal, organic ingredients that are never microwaved, frozen or fermented. Not that I would have cared what was done to it to arrive to that state of greatness on my plate! Come desert time, my boyfriend saved just enough room to order a Chocolate Mille Feuille, later to find out that a plate of three tiny desserts is also included in the meal!
With my sweet tooth, savory tooth, and wine tooth thoroughly satisfied, we turned in early with some borrowed movies from the front desk to get an early start the next day. And thus began the cycle of eating, leaving us wondering how the next day could possibly top such an experience.
Well, never doubt the capacity for surprises and attention to detail at this hotel. You have been officially warned! Top this they did, in one of the most beautiful gestures I have ever received from a hotel. On our final night with Tabacon, after a day of canopy touring and hot springs bathing, we ran into Victor, the hotel marketing manager who had accompanied us on the zip lines and sat down with us for a late afternoon snack at the Caña Brava bar. He told us to return to the reception at 8 p.m. sharp and dressed for celebration.
After studying his expression, we rushed to get ready, arriving with elevated expectations. Through a light drizzle, we were led along a jungle path behind the hotel lit by tiki torches and moonlight until we reached a single wooden rancho with a palm leaf roof with a floor covered in scattered rose petals. Our waiter, David, took my hand and led me to my seat at a table set for two in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest. Low music, the rushing rain and guarded gasps of awe were all that was to be heard by us and a handful of hidden jungle creatures.
And here it was, over a bottle of red, and an exquisite six course dinner that I discovered the most romantic meal in all of Costa Rica. Set amid rainforest, clouds, volcanoes, hot springs and cold rivers, this privileged location paid tribute to the genius of the food and service traditions, and made us feel like the most important pair in the country.
In a search for restaurants in Arenal, there are none that compare to the offerings of Tabacon Hotsprings. Overlooking their vast array of international awards and affiliations, the personalized visitor experience is enough to qualify this hotel as a contender for best in the region, though it is clear their aspirations are global.
|Written by Claire Saylor|
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Filed under: Hotel & Restaurant Reviews on April 3rd, 2009