Executive Chef Francis Canal Bardot is also a farmer. He not only grows many of the organic produce used in the dining room of the Hotel Grano de Oro but also raises the geese for his exquisite foie gras. Yes I’m well aware that will immediately raise controversy, yet that’s due to a common misconception.
Force-feeding geese to grow plump livers is never necessary. Allowing the geese to roam free-range eating healthy food produces the tender succulent livers Chef Bardot uses in creating such imaginative taste bites as his amuse bouche of foie gras topping a scallop. This sensitivity is at the core of Hotel Grano de Oro and tourism in Costa Rica.
The Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica of which Hotel Grano de Oro is a member commit themselves to leaving the smallest possible negative environmental impact on the planet – nothing we humans do is devoid of all negative impacts. From the point of view of creating a luxurious boutique hotel, Canadians Eldon and Lori Cooke used methods well established in that sector of economic development. They became enamored with the beauty and life style of Costa Rica in the 1980s, but disappointed in hotel offerings in its capital San Jose.
Eldon and Lori Cooke transformed an early 20th century Victorian mansion into a 21 room boutique hotel. Several years later they added the adjacent house owned by the same family expanding to today’s 34 rooms. Each room has a unique interior including number 6 with its own private courtyard garden complete with a fountain.
Connecting the two structures by a modern lobby, original interior courtyard gardens and maintaining many original features such as a second floor hallway of windows overlooking the dining courtyard melds the two structures while adding 21st century conveniences. A rooftop garden in the newer house overlooking downtown San Jose is complete with hot tubs. Discrete signage remind guests to keep noise at a minimum to maintain the Grano de Oro’s atmosphere of being a house guest in a grand home.
That’s the luxury side of Hotel Grano de Oro, but this is a Small Distinctive Hotel and, besides the culinary excellence of Chef Bardot, there’s another dimension. Eldon and Lori Cooke became concerned with a social problem that plagues many areas of the world, not just Costa Rica, the sexual abuse of young women. Beyond the abuse were the issues of abandonment, especially of the children that often resulted from abuse, and life long psychological scars.
Eldon and Lori Cooke were instrumental in creating the Asociacion Reaccion en Cadena por Nuestra Ninez and opened Casa Luz (“House of Light”) in San Jose. Casa Luz provides multi-year residential programs for abused teenage mothers and their children and a safe home. The program includes all necessary monetary, emotional and psychological support victims need. Just ask and the front desk will be pleased to discuss this significant humanitarian project while you enjoy the elegance of Grano de Oro, knowing a portion of the hotel’s profits help support this house of light.
I had the great pleasure over several breakfasts, lunches and dinners in conversations with Marco Montoya, Michelle Cooke and Ciro DeAngles to learn about Eldon and Lori Cooke’s vision for Grano de Oro. In an age when employee loyalty in the hospitality industry is measured in months, the hotel’s staff are lifers. Marco Montoya, general manager, started his career 25 years ago when the hotel opened. Chef Francis Canal Bardot has been in charge of the restaurant for 23 years and many of the chambermaids will eventually retire after life long careers.
Eldon and Lori now concentrate on Casa Luz while their daughter Michelle and her Italian husband Ciro DeAngles, a certified sommelier, continue to improve Grano de Oro maintaining the hotel as San Jose premier accommodation. That takes work in Costa Rica, which is blessed with a vibrant tourist industry. Success is in the details and remembering that nothing should be taken for granted. For myself as a chef and culinary travel writer the details are discovered in the dining room.
A relaxed yet elegant atmosphere with a staff well trained in the best of European service is the setting for extraordinary cuisine. Chef Bardot misses nothing in creating an international menu that utilizes Costa Rica’s abundance of superb products prepared with classic precision and presented for perfect photo opps. Menu items satisfy all from omnivores such as myself to the most committed vegan.
Not only does Chef Bardot maintain his own small farm, but also most items undergo their fabrication from the foie gras to the smoked salmon in house. The pastry chef – she’s also a lifer at the hotel – makes all the breads and desserts in a dedicated air conditioned pastry kitchen.
Ciro DeAngles personally oversees the Grano de Oro’s select wine cellar. Selections range from Le Garde Malbeck 2014, an Argentine full bodied wine with distinctive cherry notes, Spain’s La Atalaya del Camino, a garnacha tintorera and Monastrell old vine red blend to smooth and fiery grappas that pair well with desserts such as an excellent cheese selection or artistically arranged frozen orange soufflé.
Dinners begin with an amuse bouche, daily special mini dishes created from the chef’s fertile imagination served on spoons. Papaya with salmon and herbs and salmon tartar encasing hard boiled egg at another dinner are meant to make a diner smile.
As a chef I love appetizers. The imagination and artistry in creating a small plate that satisfies both the eyes and the taste buds is the true test of a skilled chef. Chef Bardot exceeds with the selections I enjoyed: mini empanadas with buffalo mozzarella and balsamic reduction, suckling pig rillettes wrapped in homemade brioche with Nubosa Costa Rican craft beer sauce, in house smoked salmon, fennel salad and a creamy tarragon vinaigrette and house made country pate with pistachios accompanied by pickled red cabbage, mushrooms, gherkins and red grain mustard.
Locally raised braised saddle of rabbit stuffed with a mousseline, red wine reduction and potatoes dauphinoise was but one choice in a select entrée menu. A prosciutto and porcini mushroom mousse was encased by a chicken breast. Perfectly grilled rare duck breasts were accompanied by caramelized fig, grilled butternut squash and a pate crostini.
There are an abundance of fish dishes and some vegetarian options on both the lunch and dinner menus. The lunch menu tantalized with that most iconic of Costa Rican soups, cream of pejibaye. Nearly impossible to have outside of Costa Rica this smooth, tasty palm fruit is a must have when visiting the country. Fortunately, good latino markets in the United States carry preserved palm fruit, and you can follow my recipe for this classic.
A quinoa cake on the lunch entrée menu shined with imagination and taste. Tender chunks of grilled octopus, peas, scallions and herbs blended with the ancient South American grain of quinoa accompanied by a tomato relish was light yet filling but most of all perfectly executed.
Breakfast receives the same attention to detail. Freshly squeezed organic juices, plates of glistening fruit and homemade sweet breads certainly provide energy for a day of exploring. Yet poached eggs in truffle cream with oyster mushrooms and asparagus or eggs benedict with a white hollandaise may make you question whether you should just remain at Grano de Oro and eat all day.
When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive of downtown San Jose and Hotel Grano de Oro
Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Hotel Grano de Oro, Small Distinctive Hotels, ENroute Communications and Revista Ander de Viaje. Special thanks to my guide throughout my stay in Costa Rica Mauricio Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels. Transportation within Costa Rica was provided by Toyota Rent a Car of San Jose. A Rav4 made Costa Rica’s mountain roads, especially the few unpaved, safe and comfortable.
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