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.
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
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
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
"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
|"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
"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.
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
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