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Mar y Sol: Classic French with a Costa Rican Accent

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

That a restaurant on the order of Mar y Sol would open in Costa Rica is evidence of the leaps the little Central American nation is making in the luxury tourist market. We are speaking of a level of resort dining one would expect to find in Saint-Tropez. It is a story worth the telling.

The scene is a converted two-story house on the edge of a cliff in Guanacaste Province, not far from Flamingo Beach, famed for its white sand and egret sanctuary. The principals are French-born Alain Pierre Taulere, his American wife Bonnie, and their grown son Jean-Luc.

The handsome twenty-something Jean-Luc greets us at the foot of the stairs and suggests we begin our evening with a drink and some appetizers up on the second level, a large space given to a swirling bar and lounging area whose deep u-shaped white sofas provide spectacular views of Pacific sunsets.

And so, as the sun set into the sea, we sipped sparkling Rosé and ate California rolls with an added twist: cilantro and mango, a sweet and tangy contrast against the sticky rice. It would be a harbinger of things was to come. Then we went downstairs and into the main dining room which seats 175 and is open on all sides to the balmy tropical air.

Alain showed us to a spacious round table and pulled up a chair for himself. A well-built man in his 60's, he has the rugged good looks of his Catalan ancestors and no small amount of Gallic charm. He ordered a bottle of Laforet Chardonnay 2006 from Burgundy, sniffed the cork, and had it poured for the three of us. Then he began his tale: "I represent the seventh generation of chefs in my family; Jean-Luc is the eighth. My grandfather was a great chef. My grand uncle was the number one assistant of Escoffier. I did my training 52 years ago at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo."

He went on, "While I was working in Courcheville in the French Alps, I met Martin Oppenheimer, the internationally well-known lawyer. We became close friends. He asked me 'What do you want to do with your life?' I said 'I would like to come to the U.S.' He said, 'Okay.' I left all my family and came here alone.

"I lived with the Oppenheimers in D.C. My first job was at the Mayflower Hotel. I lasted there four to five months. I didn’t really like it; the chef wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to do. But it was a good experience. Then I moved to a place in Georgetown, and it was there I first saw my wife. I told her I was a reporter because being a chef at that time had no cachet. We’ve been together 40 years."

Over our first glass of the Chardonnay, we hear the rest of Alain's story, his good fortune at being in shington in the wake of the Kennedy years as it was turning from a sleepy southern city into a sophisticated urban capital, leaving him well-positioned to put his skills to use as executive chef in 1789 in Georgetown. After three years, he returned to France to keep a vow he'd made to open a restaurant in the Pyrenees by the time he was 30 years old. But before long, he was back in the States, eventually settling in Sarasota where Bonnie's family lived.

As Sarasota evolved into a major southwest Florida destination, the name Alain Taulere became synonymous with the city's increasingly "haute" dining scene. He opened a French bakery/café  -- ultimately there were five of them --  renowned for having the best croissants and baguettes in town. Later he opened Café of the Arts which was voted best French restaurant in Sarasota for ten years in a row.

Absorbed as we were by Alain's story, our concentration began to drift as a tray of  bruschetta was placed before us. Rubbed with garlic, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and tomatoes, it was a resonant reminder of Catalonia. Alain agreed. Since the province is right at the French/Spanish border, he has always considered himself a true Catalan.

At this point, Jean-Luc stopped by to describe the evening's offerings. The signature dish is Coco del Mar, he told us: fresh lobster, mussels, shrimp and mahi-mahi cooked with lobster stock and coconut milk, ginger and garlic, with a julienned mirepoix (finely chopped carrots, onions, and celery) and served in a coconut shell. (Someone cuts fresh coconuts for them every day, he said.) We were both ready to commit. But when he moved on to the duck confit, cooked for six hours, with seared duck breast and mora (Costa Rican blackberry) sauce on top of mashed plantain, one of us weakened.

Both entrees followed sublime yellow fin tuna tartar with truffle oil, capers and avocado, “It’s fantastic,” Alain noted. It is. And the Portobello mushroom with camembert in roasted garlic sauce, and a bright, spicy gazpacho  to which Jean-Luc adds a zesty avocado puree.

The concept behind Mar y Sol is beautiful in its simplicity. You take a pair of experienced and talented chefs trained in the centuries' old traditions of fine French cuisine and let them loose in a tropical setting. New ingredients lead to new possibilities, and these are willingly shared with diners through the options of ordering several small portions. In this way, one can experience the ravioli with smoked salmon and cream cheese in a light dill cream sauce, and the swordfish with a refreshing watermelon and lemony lime sauce, and the grilled mahi mahi that comes with a salsa of mango, avocado, lime and tomato -- all in one seating.

"We can do these things because of the products we can get here," said Jean-Luc, pulling up a chair as our entrees arrived. "You can't get them so fresh in America or Europe.

Seventh & Eighth Generation of Chefs:  Alain Pierre Taulere & Jean-Luc Taulere - click to enlarge
Seventh & Eighth Generation of Chefs: 
Alain Pierre Taulere & Jean-Luc Taulere

"Everything we do is light.  I try to stay away from the heavier preparations in favor of Costa Rican products. Even though I am classically French trained, I try to use the local product as much as I can.  We found a purveyor with high quality Angus Beef in Costa Rica. And the fish is so fresh; it comes right from the sea  They'll catch it in the morning, drive up to the restaurant and ask 'Do you want it?'"

Our dinner was nearly concluded. We were waiting for dessert. But the story of Mar y Sol was still in medias res. When we last left off, the family was in Sarasota. What brought them here?

"It was through a couple of friends in Sarasota that I heard about Costa Rica," said Jean-Luc. "They had come here some years ago and liked it so much they thought of buying a couple of houses. When they went down a second time, I decided to go along. We drove all the way -- from Sarasota into Mexico, through Mexico to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and finally into Costa Rica.

"I immediately took to it," he went on. "I am an outdoor person. I go fishing, I go surfing. The Pacific here is so clear. Costa Rica seemed the perfect place for me."

He continued, "After I returned, my dad began going through a hard time. He had lost his mother and then his sister. To cheer him up, I suggested we take a little vacation in Costa Rica. He agreed. And that was the beginning."

"That was over five years ago," Alain said, picking up the thread. "We got the idea of moving down here. We found this place; it was owned by an Israeli woman. We put $40,000 down. That was very little money, but it was enough for her to hold it for us even when some businessman from Ohio gave her a much bigger offer. Since then, we have become great friends."

He went on. "We sold everything in Sarasota. Today Bonnie and I live upstairs next to the lounge. Jean-Luc has his own place not far from here."

"I have really enjoyed creating this place," Jean-Luc said. "It was not without its problems.  For example, I had to adjust to the purveyors. In Sarasota, I ordered something and if it wasn’t good, I could tell the purveyor, 'Look if you don’t give me what I want, I’ll find someone else.' Here, they’ll say 'You won’t find someone else.' And it's true.

"So it took some time. But today we have a great staff. My sous chef, for example, is a natural talent with an eye for presentation. My other sous chef worked on cruise ships so he knows what it's all about. Also he has had some formal training.

"And then there are the Costa Rican people. They are one of the highlights of living here.  They're much more laid back than we are. But they are so nice; they have such good intentions."

The eighth generation of chefs seems content, we tell him. He agrees. "Growing up in Sarasota, I never dreamed I would end up in Costa Rica. I’ll never say I'll live here forever. But for now, this is home."

Just then, the preparations for dessert arrived. We watched as they erupted -- a table-side flambé of tropical fruits and orange juice, glorious, golden flames! A suitable setting for the paterfamilias to take his final bow.

"You always come back to your roots," said Alain Taulere. "In moving here, I feel like I am coming back to my roots, starting out, beginning a new restaurant once again.

"Nobody can forget their childhood. I was born during the war. My father was an informer for the Resistance. My family was exceptional. I tried to educate my children the way my family educated me.

"And we are continuing now in Costa Rica. This is where I want to live. I love this country."

Mar y Sol Restaurante
Playa Flamingo
Costa Rica

Phone: 2654 4151

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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