Crossing the Border
Of all the decades of world travel the Dining Duo has experienced together and apart, crossing the border by car from Costa Rica into Nicaragua was perhaps the most interesting and proactive to date. Thank god we were with friend and local realtor extraordinaire (see sidebar article)Barry Oliver who made the experience painless; or we would still be at the border trying to navigate the situation.

Even “Checkpoint Charlie” was easier to navigate. First we crossed over the Costa Rican border into a sort of no-man’s land and had to stop at some official building where it smelled like an open sewer, and it probably was. We had to get special clearance for the car. Of course, if we had gone in a rented car, we would have had to park the rented car from Costa Rica, and then rent a new car from Nicaragua. From here, we drove a few meters more where there were all sorts of scary looking policia walking with guns over their shoulders. The car was suddenly swarmed with kids and men, banging on the window. Barry took it in stride as Michael and Scott had visions of Midnight Express crossing their minds. It turns out that “Big Dick” was the local guy who for a few bucks ran the paperwork through some other office down the dirt road. We reluctantly handed over our passport to this toothless guy, along with 20 bucks and then waited patiently in the car while an assortment of other characters tried to either get our attention for money or sell us hammocks, something we clearly couldn’t use in the current situation. After about half an hour, Big Dick came back out and handed us the fully stamped documents, asked for a few more dollars which he clearly earned, and sent us on our way. We waved goodbye to the kids trying to extract more money out of us and crossed peacefully over the Nicaraguan border. Mission accomplished.

Pelican Eyes, Nicaragua - Villa Encantado.
“The Enchanted Villa”. “Haunted” or “Haunting” that is the question.

After driving several hours across the border and through thickly overgrown roads with lakes and active volcanoes looming in the distance, arriving at Pelican Eyes Hotel and villas was like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert. High atop the hill overlooking the sleepy and happy town of San Juan Del Sur, Pelican Eyes is the creation of visionary Yank attorney Chris Berry (see side bar), and every inch and every detail proves his status as a visionary, especially in a country where time is irrelevant and being happy is more important than having a bank account number to try and keep you happy.

The lobby and restaurant are side by side, with a gracious pool in the middle of the bar and restaurant. We’ve been told that Wednesdays and Fridays are happy hour nights, and that after zealous drinking by locals and ex-pats alike, the swimming pool becomes an active sight for cooling off. Even Matthew Mconaghy jumped in recently. Unlike it’s Costa Rican neighbor to the south, this is a country where almost no-one speaks English, and yet Chris has finely trained his staff to speak English and run things as close to North American standards as possible. For example, we asked for breakfast to be delivered to our villa at 10:15 am, and we were shocked when two happy, smiling hombres were at our door at just that time.

We digress; after checking in, someone drove us high up the hill and over bumpy roads to one of the highest villas (and the one we recommend to rent) called Villa Encantado. We were greeted by the tinkling sounds of falling water from the fountain in the front yard, as well as by a few geckos and other assorted insects. We entered into a two story, two bedroom 2.5 bath home that was indeed enchanting. With rich wood arched windows that draw in the vistas beyond, saltillo tiles, authentic cane roofs and a sweeping staircase to the second floor, we knew we never wanted to leave. The bathrooms are covered in whimsical puffy tiles of assorted colors, gracing the stone floors and centered by a hand painted sink of birds that will make you smile every time you use it. The bathrooms are large, and the closet unusually large as well. The fountain in the dining room makes it feel you’re in a rain forest. The unobstructed views out the front of the house are of the gorgeous bay below, and the views from the back of the house are of the mountainous terrain covered in a rich blanket of verdant foliage. In fact, when we went on the back balcony at night, there was enough odd animal noises that we decided to retreat into the house until morning.

With the sunshine of a new day came the awe-inspiring views below us and then the warm breakfast we previously described. As everything was set before us, we scarfed up the fabulous eggs benedict and the cream cheese stuffed French toast (the following days we enjoyed fluffy thin pancakes that you just can’t find in Central America) with crispy bacon, while all the time sipping on fine Nicaraguan fresh coffee. And all this whilst rocking in our chairs and listening to the birds chirp all around us. Oh, and did we mention that this feast is at no extra charge? Can there be anything better?

So why is it haunted? Well, according to the locals here, when they were constructing this villa, there were workers sleeping in the bedroom, only to find themselves on the balcony in the morning, with no recollection of how they got here. Instantly, the superstitions of the local people gained momentum and before long, there were rumors of “Fantasmas” or ghosts in the house. After staying in the villa a few days, the only ghosts we encountered were our own internal demons begging us to stay forever, and upon further study of the word “Encantado” we realized that this particular villa was more “enchanted” than “haunted” immediately putting us at one with the divine spirits that brought us here. And by the way, if you mentioned that you’re gay/lesbian, Pelican Eyes will give you a ten percent “purple triangle” discount; how’s that whip cream on the Homosexual cake?

Not only is the service fine-tuned here, but also the food is fabulous. The dining room is set under a giant wood and thatched open-air roof that is an architectural wonder. With ropes and giant tree trunks the setting is accentuated by the view to the San Juan Del Sur town and bay below in the background, and that beautiful inviting pool in the foreground. At the capable hands of Chef Lbee (see sidebar), we dined—no, we stuffed ourselves—on the best meal we’ve had in Central America. We were lucky enough to meet the humble woman behind the gastronomic delights and she apologized for her “simple country cooking”; to the contrary, each and every item placed before us was delectable and delightful.
The servers hovered over us so that our every need was looked after, and we shared in some fabulous wines from South America, our favorite being the Shiraz from Chile.

Michael started with Lbee’s Napoleon fresh ceviche, served with fried plantain chips, chiffonade of cilantro and pink peppercorn oil, which quite possibly could have been the freshest ceviche we have ever been served. Before we could put the fork down, it was followed by lobster bisque loaded with fresh lobster just pulled from the ocean and served with pastry straws, delivered at the perfect temperature and loaded with lobster.

Michael is not necessarily a red snapper fan but with Lbee’s snapper, he decided to rethink his slight aversion to the dish. The fish was served with a curried spaetzle, miso vinaigrette, laced with a hint of garlic and a side dish of broccoli. It was a treat and was followed by grilled ahi tuna filet, with beet risotto, and citrus foam accompanied by fried julienne of carrot. We were shocked and overwhelmed at experiencing this level of gourmet dining in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the western hemisphere.

If we had to search for fault somewhere, the meat course was our least favorite; but that’s like saying we don’t like one of our children because it was still worthy of a fine dining experience. The stuffed beef tenderloin served with caramelized onions, gorgonzola and spinach, as well as rosemary-gruyere potato au gratin (our favorite part, we are suckers for gourmet potatoes and dijon demi glace).

Although this would certainly have been enough to satisfy, we felt that we wanted to try everything, so we next indulged in the rack of lamb with balsamic marinated coriander and crusted baby red potatoes with oven roasted tomatoes served with Mint-Jalapeno Marmalade. Scott, the lamb lover of the duo, said this dish compared to the finest restaurants we have dined at around the globe. It was delivered at the requested medium rare (exactly) which so many restaurants have been unable to master.

As if we had room for desserts, Lbee would not hear of us skipping them and what a fitting end to an amazing feast. We were completely happy with the trio of desserts, which included flourless chocolate cake, lemon panna cotta with blueberry sauce as well as white chocolate bread pudding with whiskey sauce. All were memorable but the Panna Cotta was legendary. It is worth traveling to Pelican Eyes just to eat at this gorgeous little restaurant in this gorgeous little hotel hideaway in the middle of nowhere.

As if all the food and drink wasn’t enough to sink us into the comfortable bed of our villa, we had to top things off with an assortment of desserts, all still at the hands of Chef Lbee. The warm bread pudding was delicious, but the real taste-treat (and this coming from Scott, the confirmed chocoholic) was the flourless chocolate cake that virtually melted in our respective mouths. The chocolate was fine quality and the preparation ranking world class. Shame on you Chef Lbee, for being so self-effacing, when her creations are way beyond country cooking. But then again, this humble attitude seems to be pervasive of the gracious people of this beautiful country, and the reason we are loving it here.

The other eatery of note in San Juan Del Sur is El Pozo (The Well) headed by Californian chef Christian Dreyfus. This chic spot in the middle of a funky downtown will surely become our hang out as we spend more time in San Juan Del Sur. El Pozo is loaded with a mix of Ex-pats, tourists and successful locals. The service is comprised of well-trained beautiful Latinas and while the food simply did not compare to Pelican Eyes in either sophistication or presentation, we are told that when Christian is cooking, it is the town’s close second. That being said, the Chilotomas Rellenas con queso and salsa roja, approximately $4 (Chile Rellino with cheese and red salsa) was flavorful and delicious, as were the Pipian Cakes (shrimp cakes prepared similarly to crab cakes). We also recommend their Big Indiana Burger, a real bargain at $7.50; it’s a mystery as to why they call it “Indiana” when they use high-end Nicaraguan beef, which is actually exported to places like Argentina. It was served just as requested, medium rare with perfect hand cut French fries. For dessert, Christian’s Chocolate Sabayon with bitter orange curd (approx. $4) was a superb chocolate mousse, but since The Duo prefers their chocolate uncluttered with fruits and nuts, we ordered it sin naranja.

The truth is that we enjoyed cracking open local cervezas while chatting up new friends over good food at this very friendly nightspot. We’ll be back pronto.

Stay Tuned for Nicaragua y Costa Rica, part Tres

Posted by The Dining Duo | 9:44 PM | , , , , , | 0 comments »

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