Le Burgeon, Foster City

Last night, as we were driving around town in our new car, I was curious enough to see if Le Burgeon had opened.  I hadn’t been able to find anything about them online; my only knowledge of the place was the large banner hanging on the side of the building.  So, spur of the moment, I showed up at an almost empty restaurant in my (not even cleanest) yoga pants and t-shirt and (luckily) they chose to serve me anyways.

Walking in, you’ll notice fresh oysters on the bar which is always a nice surprise if you’re a fan.  They’ve got a great tapas menu and some fun happy hour drinks.  We both tried the Watermelon Margarita which was cool, refreshing, and delightfully strong.  The stick of watermelon marinating in the drink was the best part!

For starters we tried the Salt and Pepper Shrimp, Crab Rangoon, and Duck Confit Summer Rolls off the Tapas menu ($7/ea).  The shrimp were plentiful; crisp, salty, and cooked perfectly to bring out their tender sweetness.  The crab rangoon were nice, a bit heavy on the cream cheese but balanced perfectly if you utilize the garnishes of sweet chili sauce doting the plate.  The savory duck confit rolls were in a tender rice wrapper with fresh veggies; they just burst with salty, umami yumminess.  We also shared a bowl of the Vichyssoise ($7) – a little too light on the salt but a refreshing cool soup, perfect the warm summer weather.

For dinner, we grabbed a bottle of the Picket Fence Sauvignon Blanc ($34) and headed out to a table on the patio overlooking the water.  We sipped our wine and I watched the sunset blaze brilliant shades of orange, red, and purple on the Oracle buildings.  If you’re chilly, they’ll provide you with a soft, cozy blanket as they’re waiting for their patio heaters to come in.  I loved the blanket (as did many other patrons were) and hope that’s a touch they’ll keep.  

Dave and I both ordered the Crispy Pork Belly ($19) which was wonderfully caramelized on the outside and the tender, melt in your mouth fat was to die for.  The taro cake which is shaped like a little pear was the most visually interesting component and also the most difficult to describe.  Taro is often used for chips because it’s quite mild; this root vegetable in this dish has been pureed, turned into a cake, and breaded.  The flavor is subtle allowing it to pick up the slightly, licorice intensity of the sauce.  The fresh veggies were prepared perfectly.  

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Above: Pork Belly (Ignore the blurry, crooked picture – I had to snap fast because Dave wanted to eat!)

Dessert is when the meal began to fall apart and we really saw the truth about why they were doing an unadvertised soft opening.  There are some growing pains as the staff adjusts to a new menu, a new clientele, and the kinks usually get worked out (or perhaps more/better staff comes on).  I ordered the Panna Cotta ($11) and Dave ordered the Tiramisu ($10) with an espresso.  The espresso came out first.  Usually this is no big deal; he tried his best to sip it slowly and enjoy it but still save some to drink with his dessert.  The espresso was good, rich and chocolaty.  My Panna Cotta came out first which I felt was the biggest mistake because Dave’s dessert came out a good 20 minutes later – 25 minutes after his espresso and 30 minutes after we had ordered it.  I believe we were told it was being plated 7 minutes before it showed up.  This meant we were both staring at my dessert for a very long time.  At one point, Dave remarked that he was being held hostage because we couldn’t just leave.  Again, it’s a soft opening and there  will be some kinks but this is an area they’ll need to work on.  There was only one other table besides ours; had it been busy then I would have been a bit more understanding.

Moving on, the Panna Cotta was outstanding.  It was light, airy, tarte, and balanced.  The berries weren’t the freshest but not a deal breaker for me.  I wish I could say the Tiramisu was worth waiting for but I had one taste and didn’t feel like it was.  It was a very large serving (compared to my very petite serving) which was a nice plus if you like to share desserts, however, the espresso which would have paired perfectly was ice cold by the time it arrived.  

Overall, this is a good restaurant with a chef who’s genuinely talented and bringing a fresh perspective to food in Foster City.  The overall menu is a French-Asian surprise and I do look forward to trying more items like the Squash Blossom Tempura and the Cream of Scallop and Coconut Soup.  The chef, Colin Chen is a former instructor at the California Culinary Academy (where I, Sara, attended) and left his job as an executive chef at Oracle to start this bistro.  I hope it thrives as I look forward to seeing what Chef Chen has in store for us and I also hope the menu becomes seasonal so I have even more reason to return often.

BlogHer – Welcome to Silicon Valley!

When one of your favorite bloggers asks you to post an email you sent to your blog so she can share it with her blogging friends… does that make you a blogger?  I should have posted this sooner but I slacked off.  And drove across the country.  Seriously.  But more about that later because I’m still feeling mighty special… even if I am late to the party.

If you’re coming to San Jose for BlogHer or just coming to the area for fun, this is a compilation of things to do.  While any native will suggest you rent a car, I do realize that it’s not always an option.  Our area is really cool but a bit spread out and our public transportation is a bit lacking.  If you have the opportunity to drive and see areas like Santa Cruz and San Francisco – do it!  You won’t regret it!  If you can’t rent a car, then I will make notes of activities near CalTrain – a train that runs north and south along the peninsula on the east side, near the SF Bay.  This runs all the way to SF near AT&T Park and the Embarcadero.

Since the convention is in San Jose, I’ve focused on what we affectionately call the South Bay; this is the home of Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Ebay, Facebook, Yahoo, and Lockheed Martin – a few little start-ups you may have heard of.  It’s an awesome place to be and experience!  Sometimes it’s a bit difficult not thinking of ourselves as the center of the world.  In a very humble way, of course!

Ideas for things to do:
 
Thursday night Nightlife at the Academy of Sciences in SF 6pm-10pm – if you can get away for this it’s super fun!  It’s 21 and over and the aquarium/natural history museum pops up bars, workshops, and brings in a DJ, they often have themes.  Drink a martini while looking at fish and not hearing someone’s kid throw a fit?  Yes, please!  (I’m not against kids, btw.)  I will warn you that the rainforest closes early around 8 so jump in line for that early so you can see all the pretty butterflies!  Sometimes the planetarium shows are cool and sometimes they’re not…. if you do want to see them, grab tickets when you enter because they go fast since they’re free.
 
Shop where the rich people do at Santana Row in San Jose and Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto – ok, this might not be super fair because they have normal stores like White House Black Market and Nordstrom (both of where you’ll find me in the clearance racks) but this really is where those people with money here tend to spend theirs on $200 yoga pants.  Both malls are really pretty, open air malls with nice restaurants – they’re fun to walk around if you’re into shopping.  I do admit that when near Santana Row, we usually hit the Cheesecake Factory across the street in the super huge Westfield Mall which is more of your typical “mall.”  There’s this little family run grocery store in Stanford called Sigona’s where I buy dried fruit (mangoes!) and special vinegar (chocolate balsamic, lemon white balsamic, strawberry balsamic – all super yummy and nice gifts for foodies!).
 
*Stanford is easily accessible from CalTrain, it’s a short walk from the station
 
Santana Row also does Happy Hour at their restaurants:
http://www.santanarow.com/events/happy-hour-at-santana-row
 
I haven’t actually eaten at Santana Row (again – the darned Cheesecake Factory gets me!) but I have eaten at Straits, Maggiano’s, Left Bank, and Pasta Pomodoro in other locations.  All were good but Pasta Pomodoro is probably my least fave because I felt their food was average.  Straits is a fusion restaurant known for specialty cocktails, Left Bank has super good French food (I’ve done their lunches mainly which are reasonable but not cheap), and Maggiano’s I enjoyed when I ate there in Vegas (for some odd reason I mainly remember liking the salad that came before my meal).
 
If you’re thinking about wine tasting, head to Ridge Winery in Cupertino.  This winery is gorgeous and it’s not even in wine country!  It’s actually in a suburb near San Jose where the programmers for companies like Google and Linked In live.  It’s up on a hill, above the reservoir and it’s a really neat place with good wines.  The road up is narrow and windy, we went once during a storm in winter and it actually snowed on us (kind of magical because we have to drive 4+ hours to see snow in the wintertime).  
 
Fogarty Winery is another one that’s not nearly as far as Napa (actually it’s quite close) with really good wines!
http://www.fogartywinery.com/
 
On the campus of Stanford University is the Cantor Arts Center.  It’s free, is on the most beautiful college campus (Stanford), and has a Rodin sculpture garden that my husband has hung out in drunk in the middle of the night.  He swears I was there but I was working and fielding his drunk calls while he told me all about how he was being dared to hit on other girls.  
 
*also accessible by CalTrain
 
The Tech Museum is ok but it’s mainly a kid’s attraction; I’ve been there once and it was cool to feel like a kid again!  This maybe the only attraction I’m suggesting that’s walkable to the convention.
 
Best place to watch a sunset?  The beach of course!  Best spot at the beach?  How about a haunted distillery/restaurant with a killer Irish coffee and fire pits perched on a cliff?  Yes, please!
http://www.mossbeachdistillery.com/
 
I love kicking it on the SF Wharf, while the place is a total tourist trap, it’s fun to take a cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge or eat fresh seafood and visit the sea lions if they’re in town.  I prefer Fog Harbor for grub.
http://www.pier39.com/
 
There’s nothing – NOTHING like seeing a game at AT&T Park!  Yes, again, it’s in SF but we have the most gorgeous stadium, gourmet food (crab rolls are world famous and Ghiradelli sundaes, real fresh tossed caramel corn, and craft beers…. do I really need to say more?), and a decent team of hotties!  The San Jose Giants often feature our stars while they’re recovering from injuries and up and coming players, I haven’t personally been to a game there but I hear the stadium is nice and it’s super affordable.
 
*AT&T Park is a train ride north and it’s kinda cool seeing all the little towns along the peninsula 
 
A drive out to Capitola or Santa Cruz is also worth it!  I love Santa Cruz, the downtown which isn’t on the beach has some really killer restaurants.  Santa Cruz has parking meters you need to pay until 8pm, so be on top of that!  (Got a parking ticket the night after my wedding there…. so I’m not forgetting that lovely surprise anytime soon.)
 
There is an outlet mall in Gilroy which is MASSIVE!  Like 6 city blocks, need to drive between stores big!  It’s pretty cool but the outlets like Ann Taylor actually have different clothing made for them and while you can get nice stuff, sometimes it’s not the same quality.  Still, it’s fun and you can get super nice purses and accessories.
 
And we’re known for food here!  If you need something fast, find an Erik’s Deli for sandwiches which is a local chain using really good ingredients (way better than Subway!) or a local ma and pa owned deli shop (always worth it).  Sushi is almost always fresh and creative!  Some of the hippest restaurants can be found on Castro Street in Mountain View (*again, take CalTrain!) – you’ll often find me at New Mongolian BBQ which is super cheap and all you can eat – plus they cook it all in front of you (just put together a bowl of raw ingredients at the buffet and take it to the chefs).  They’ve also got hip pubs and bars in that area.  
 
Don’t shun the food trucks!  We have what is called Off The Grid in lots of the towns around here where a bunch of food trucks will take over a parking lot, typically from 5pm-10pm or during lunch time near big business areas; some are organized events but most of the trucks are nomadic and don’t stick to a set schedule.  The food is always fresh and super good.  I will make regular treks to eat at certain food trucks and it’s not uncommon to see an hour long line at some of them.  Most of the famous trucks (like Dosa Republik and Sam’s Chowder Mobile) can be found on Facebook posting where they’ll be since they like being stalked as much as we like stalking them!
 
University Ave in Palo Alto (*CalTrain accessible) is also super popular for good food, old movies at the Stanford Theater, and shopping boutiques.  Another cute area for spotting soccer moms in $200 yoga pants is Burlingame Avenue (*CalTrain accessible); a quaint downtown strip with high end stores, charming and really good cafes, and eclectic independent stores.
 
And that’s all I can think of for now… unless you’re moving there – then I have a ton more suggestions, just email me.  I haven’t even touched on the fun in the east bay like Oakland and Berkeley.  
 
As for what to pack?  Make sure you bring something warm if you’re going to SF.  Mark Twain has said the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.  Summer is when our fog rolls in and it can be a bit unpredictable.  If comfort is your thing then you’ll be right at home; that guy in the hoodie and converse sneakers is probably an engineer with massive degrees.  We don’t dress up or judge like they do in other areas but there are those of us who really enjoy looking cute.  Just be yourself!  Unless you’re trying to impress specific people at the convention… they may have higher expectations.
 
If you’re heading out this way for BlogHer, I hope you have an amazing time at the conference!  I hope this has given you an idea of all the greatness this area has to offer, even if it is randomly thrown together.  Thanks for reading and making me feel like the real deal!

5 Things Friday

This post is going to be without links because I’m sitting in Maui on my tablet and too lazy to try to handle something that complicated.  I’m disgustingly considering putting an “excuse the typos” disclaimer because I can’t type on this thing.  Oh, please do excuse the typos anyways, I’m sure one will slip.

Since I boarded a jet plane in Oakland this morning, I thought that the items that make travel more bearable would be appropriate.  I also haven’t been in Maui long enough to post my fave places here or anything that cool.  Now I don’t consider myself a normal traveler, I don’t dislike flying, it makes me excited.  Living near an airport, I get excited for people on the planes landing in my city – thinking about what they’re going to discover and fall in love with.  Flying is not easy for most; after getting through security, it’s enough to make even the most optimistic unicorn cry with frustration.  

So getting on the plane this morning, here are the items that made me happy:

1.  Earphones and music – should be simple right?  I got these great Truenergy headphones from my last Fab Fit Fun box; they have a secondary port so your honey could plug in and listen with you.  These would have been great for our trip back from Costa Rica when Dave rented Wolverine.  I would have watched with him but I didn’t want to pay for my own seat to play it so I read in silence instead.  Also, they blocked noise when I was trying to sleep and wasn’t listening to my music.  Oh, and the grooves I chose to bring?  Ed Sheeran, Fitz and the Tantrums, and Fleetwood Mac.  

2.  Pillows – specifically the fom pillow from Brookstone.  These were an impulse buy at the Houston Airport in December and I’ve been so pleased with them!  I say them because they sell them 2 for $30 and we each got one.  My gut actually told me I needed it and I use it in hotels to sleep on since it contours to my neck.  I can’t lug the large, contoured pillow I normally use and hotel pillows hurt me since I have a disc injury.  These are wonderful and easy to transport, I kept the cover and hook it to my carry on and no one bugs me about it.  Dave uses his for his lower back during flights and since I haven’t heard him in pain, I’d say that’s win #2 for these babies!  I also bring an inflatable U shaped neck pillow for sleeping while in the air.

3.  Contoured sleep mask – I look like a bug with it on but it seriously blocks out all the light!  I can even open my eyes with it on which is kinda nice and I’m not really sure why I feel the need for it but I do it.  I even use this at home since we’re not always on the same schedule; Dave can use his tablet and I’m not kept up by the bright light.  I’ve seen fancy ones at Bed, Bath, and Beyond but I got mine from Amazon for about $4 and they came with a pouch that I use for my glasses when I put the mask on.  I’ve also found the pouch to be handy when carrying my eye mask, headphones, and ear plugs all together.  Of course mine are all bright pink!

4.  Kindle – this is a given!  I used to carry at least 5 books with me on every trip or even to the park on a Saturday morning which gets heavy; I would also seek out bookstores while I was on vacation.  While it’s kind of nice looking at my copy of A Confederacy of Dunces on my bookshelf and remembering the trip to Tahoe it was acquired on, it’s really fabulous buying the next book of a series from a sailboat on San Francisco Bay.  I will still bring a paperback to the beach but my Kindle which brings the literary world gift-wrapped in lovely pink leather to my fingertips is priceless to me.

5.  Water – seems like a given but sometimes I forget to buy a bottle on the other side of security and I regret it.  I hate using the toilet on the plane but flying makes me dehydrated and then the jet lag feels more like a nasty hangover than just being worn out.  I think on my next trip I might bring a collapsible water bottle and fill it at the fountain to save $5.  Do they still have fountains?

So what are your travel must-haves?  I could think of a few others like reward point memberships, my Barclay arrival card which gives me great rewards, a great duffle bag that  holds the world, coats that are easy to pack, chewable airborne, and more.  I guess I’ll need to write a follow up blog!  I will have to fly home and we’re flying out 3 days later for Vegas so all input is welcome as I will be able to see if your routine items enhance my experience!

This is not a real post

You know when your mother in law has your father in law call you so she can ask you to bring your grill pan to cook Christmas dinner and you politely try to remind her that your pan is the smallest size and ask how long the roast is to avoid a disaster like that time she said she was buying small filets and ended up buying huge New Yorks that didn’t cook right and your hubby blamed you and so you ask how long the roast is and she says, “Three and a half pounds?”  

Oh you don’t have those moments?  How about when she asks you about bringing cauliflower for dinner “because you know David has to have cauliflower with his meals” and your husband is scream whispering “I don’t even like cauliflower!” next to you on the couch because she wants to avoid a situation like Thanksgiving when you spent hours preparing a cauliflower dish she asked you to bring only to have her serve almost the same dish but with green beans and no one ate the damn cauliflower?

And she asked for a paring knife but my father in law got on the phone and then told us not to buy her one.  So we did.  Christmas tomorrow with the in-laws!  Hope it’s better than the little boys coat my mom bought Dave!  (Just kidding mom!  He loves the coat that will never fit.)

All Good Goop

All Good Goop

While I’ve been highlighting the best parts of our Costa  Rica trip, I thought I would also mention the stuff I brought along that made me happy and comfortable.  This was an impulse buy from the counter of REI on one of our many trips.  It doesn’t work on bug bites (they lie!) but it made a great moisturizer, especially on the plane, and I continue to use it now on my face and lips before bed.  It smells lovely and goes on nicely once you warm it up in your hands.

AllGoodGoop_2and4oz_Lg_48k

Click the title for a link to the product

Costa Rica Part 3 – Tabacon

I write this as I sit in bed in one of the highest rated, luxury resorts in the world as confirmed by a thick book of luxury resorts sitting on the table in the room.  It’s quite nice, we arrived to discover we’d been upgraded to the garden suite; a massive apartment like room with a living room, dining area that opens up to a lush garden, a massive bathroom with a shower for ten (seriously! party in our room tonight!), a bedroom with a king-sized bed and a large tv that plays American channels, and the piece-de-resistance – the outdoor jacuzzi that could fit four or six surrounded by lush vegetation.  After six hours of driving on Costa Rican roads, the welcome drink was much appreciated.  

The Tabacon Resort is gorgeous and had this been my first stop in Costa Rica, I’d be more than impressed.  We spent our first night at the swim up bar eating cheeseburgers, a real treat after the lunch of peanuts and apples in the car, the best we could do at the Super Vaz #2 in Cahuita.  I am a bit disappointed in myself for ordering a burger here but it was burgers and nachos at the wet bar or Mediterranean food at the buffet, they grow beef here so I went for the lesser of the two evils and we were not driving back to La Fortuna in the dark and missing our first night in the springs.   

I wrote the first part of this post while I was sitting in bed, waiting for Dave to wake, on his tablet.  I thought I would start my blog then but it didn’t happen as we were so busy and I couldn’t bogart Dave’s tablet long enough to really do so.

I’ll admit that I was a bit sad about arriving at a large resort that tries to be personal and works to hard to please, a place that is gorgeous and beyond the expectations of most, but it was sad leaving my first Costa Rican love.  That experience will always be rose colored for me and while I will return to Cahuita, I’m not so naïve as to expect it will ever be as magical as that first time.

Moving on…. Tabacon is a lovely resort outside La Fortuna and near Mount Arenal, a large and somewhat active volcano that stopped visibly spewing hot magma about two to three years ago.   The resort itself is two parts – the large a lovely hotel and the natural hot springs down the road where you can play in waterfalls, relax surrounded by palms and ferns, and listen to the nocturnal birds sing.  Or get sloshed in the swim-up bar and go on the waterslide.  The first day there we headed into La Fortuna and ate at a restaurant where Dave had had a wonderful meal before.  It didn’t live up to my burger that first night but it was ok.  We debated going to the springs but opted to drive around instead.  Taking a wrong turn, we ended up at Sky Adventures.  We got some info on the zip-lining but it was too cloudy to really see the volcano so we opted for drinks in the bar and hung out on the deck enjoying the forest and peeks of Arenal through the fog.  That night we explored more of La Fortuna and had some “typical” Costa Rican food at a restaurant recommended by a local.  I had steak with tortillas, beans, guac, and pico de gallo; the waitress brought us this jar of picked peppers and veggies that was oddly the highlight for me.  I should Google how to make it!  Later that evening, we enjoyed the springs and relaxed.

The next day was clear so we headed back to Sky Adventures, seeing the zip lines the day before had really sold Dave.  There was a large tour bus unloading when we arrived so we stalled for time and stopped in a butterfly sanctuary where we talked to the shop owner and saw her collecting the freshly hatched butterflies from that morning.  A bit later we headed back to our zip lining adventure.  We got really lucky, because we waited we ended up being a group of 6 – 3 couples with 5 of us zip lining for the first time and a Hollywood stuntman.  No joke.

Our zip lining guides – Luis, Edgar, and Drexel were excellent.  I was such a nervous nelly with my dislike of heights, things that go fast, not having my feet on solid ground, being outdoors - you name it and it’s likely one of my fears or soon to be, I just didn’t know about it yet!  Since our three guides went through the whole course with us and were super thorough, this first time experience became really enjoyable for me.  The first two zip lines are for practice and to get comfortable, then they put you on line number 3 which is the highest line in the whole course and the highest in the country they claim.  Great idea, right?  Oh and before the highest line is the last chance to back out so it’s do or be the laughing stock forever.

Zip lining was exhilarating!  I loved every second of it once I was in the air; taking in the sight of the volcano, the lake, the trees – it was so amazing.  The equipment was very well taken care of and I felt safe during the whole process.  In between the guides would joke with us and make sure that we were having a wonderful time.  I am so happy Dave talked me into it and the sangrias afterwards with the view of the Volcano was priceless.  We also had a great chat with Diego, the bartender who would like to visit Arizona to see the white horses.  While I haven’t been to Arizona, I can honestly say that after this conversation I saw white horses everywhere in CR!

After that we went back to the butterfly sanctuary where we did the full hike.  Seeing the butterflies was fun but in all honesty, seeing them in the forest was more exciting.  I was happy to support a local conservation effort though and we met Glenn, the owner who’s from Texas which was cool.

On our last night at Tabacon we enjoyed drinks at the swim-up bar, relaxed in the springs (we even found new waterfalls!), and dinner at the resort which was pretty good.  We headed out of town the next morning with one last stop – to buy our biggest and most delicate souvenir.  That story to come!

Costa Rica Part 2 – Kelly Creek

Let’s take a second to address the elephant in the room, shall we?  Yes, I will be posting pics!  Yes, it will be soon!  Yes, we did absolutely use the camera Dave bragged about on FB for weeks before our trip.  But he has all the pics and I want to get some of this stuff out before my mind gets all consumed with work and my memories start to go fuzzy with age.

Updated: pics are now included!

I found Kelly Creek through Trip Advisor.  Our original game plan had us staying at a hotel in Puerto Viejo until we changed it all up which left us with 3 nights to fill and no hotels on the Caribbean side of the country.  I knew I wanted to visit that side for a multitude of reasons but yes, number one being that Dave never made it there when he went to CR the first time so we’d be starting off with an adventure that was new to both of us!  I researched Puerto Viejo and came across Cahuita, a smaller town that’s less travelled by the Spring Breaker crowds you find in Puerto Viejo plus the swimming was supposed to be better, the national park was right there, and people had such amazing things to say!  What really drew me in was a review on the paella which needs to be ordered in the morning as they spend all day getting the local seafood that goes in there and making the dish as per old Spanish tradition but we’ll get to that.

We arrived at night and met the proprietor, Andres who showed us to our room which I immediately fell in love with.  The walls and vaulted ceiling were gorgeous wood beams, the mosquito net although a requirement made me feel like a princess (I never grew up), the windows were plantation shutters that let all the sounds of the forest and ocean flow through our room, there were gorgeous hibiscus flowers in our towels, and the electric showerhead I’d heard about wasn’t nearly as scary as Dave had made them sound.  Clarification – the water is “heated” by two electrical wires; I had visions of these wires just hanging out in the shower stream where any voracious shampooer could accidentally kill themselves by hitting the wires but that was not the case.  It was an enclosed unit placed high enough out of the wall that there was no danger of my pretty little head being fried off.

After we settled in, Andres told us they had fresh shrimp they could made us for dinner – he was almost apologetic about it.  Since they only have 4 rooms, they don’t run a full service restaurant as many guests probably expect and they only cook fresh food.  We were so grateful for food and shrimp is one of my favorite foods in the world so we were in heaven!  How can I describe our first meal there?  It was so magical and over so quickly but I savored every bite.  The dish we were served was beautiful – a mound of rice pilaf (the real stuff, not the San Francisco treat) surrounded by huge shrimp with the heads intact in a lovely garlicky, shrimp based cream sauce.  I daydream about this meal.  Andres explained to us how to suck the heads out (he’s Spanish) and the flavor was so amazing.  I would normally be hesitant to suck the heads but I dove right in.  They were intense, briny, garlicky, buttery, sweet, and so rich.  Everything felt intensified and I’m not sure if it’s because the shrimp weren’t raised in some farm and shipped thousands of miles frozen to their destination but it could have something to do with it; or the fact that we could hear the ocean from our table; or the fact that we were finally in Costa Rica.  We’ve had good meals but this surpassed so many of them; I like to think I can cook but every once in a while I come across someone like Marie-Claude, who shows me that I have only broken the tip of the iceberg.  Marie-Claude is from France where food is taken very seriously, married to a Spaniard who’s mother has taught her the old Spanish culinary traditions, living in Costa Rica where seafood is abundant, fresh ingredients are really fresh, and people know how to slow down and enjoy what’s important.  She’s an amazing woman and a phenomenal chef!

Then there was the dessert!  How can I explain it?  The chocolate was gritty, bitter, only slightly sweet, and thick poured over bananas with some whipped cream.  I have never had chocolate taste like that.  When we asked about it later, we learned that Adilia, who helps them run the place, makes it in their kitchen.  Wait, you make chocolate?  It doesn’t come from a factory?  This country blows my mind.  I know, I have studied cuisine but still, this kind of stuff makes me stop dead and realize that our life in America is so far from amazing (natural) experiences other cultures enjoy daily.  Moving on….

Our first morning was exciting, even though we woke to bad news that the ocean was too angry for us to snorkel, we enjoyed a lovely meal of eggs (the yolks were orange!), sausage (Andres told us we’re not having ham which is the only meat on the menu because he had something better), fresh fruit (pineapple, papaya, mango, bananas), toast (French bread with pineapple marmalade and orange  colored butter), and of course, coffee for Dave and tea for me.  This became our morning tradition, ordering one of each off the menu and splitting it, also learning to order double the sausages because they’re so rich and so different from anything we’ve ever eaten.  I’m not a morning person and not a breakfast person but they changed me.  We also got a really special treat that first morning and we didn’t even know it.  Roberto and Roberta, the resident alligators who live in the creek behind the hotel, came to visit along with the birds, capuchin monkeys, and iguanas.  We watched Marie-Claude feed Roberto chicken feet which the large birds tried to grab, too and we enjoyed seeing the monkeys jumping around on the roof and the lizards sunning in the trees.  Over the next mornings we saw a couple monkeys and Roberto once more but not all at the same time like this.  We were also greeted daily and at random times by Verdi, the parrot who greets guests, has chatty conversations, and seems to really be in charge.

The first full day there, we went for a walk through Cahuita National Park and a swim in the ocean.  On our hike we came across leaf cutter ants which would have been really cool had I not been wearing flip flops.  For the record, this is the ONLY time I really freaked out during the trip.  Dave may say otherwise but I think I held my cool except for when I had to cross a swarm of these ants which are known to bite and jumped up and down begging Dave to get them off my sandals.  Oh and I screamed.  I am a screamer.  After that nasty incident, we made it through our hike pretty much unscathed.  I did wish we hadn’t swum before because I was all wet and my insect repellant had washed off but those concerns start to evaporate when you’re surrounded by lush forest.  I had never seen crabs hanging out in a forest before (refraining from making those kind of crab jokes), it was pretty neat and they were these amazing shades of blue and yellow with only one big claw that makes them look lop-sided.  We had tons of lizards crossing our path (hope that means good luck!); heard more birds than we spotted; witnessed beetles, dragonflies, and butterflies going about their business.  Walking along and considering turning around to head back to town and grab lunch, we passed a guy heading out who told us there were monkeys ahead so we trudged along.  Wow, was it ever worth it!  The monkeys were in the path, on trees nearby, and so interactive.  One walked right passed me but I moved out of his way (despite Dave’s protest) because I think he was getting overwhelmed by all the people trying to get his attention.  They were so cute - checking leaves for bugs, chasing each other, staring at us, and being chatty.

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Once we got back, we headed south to Puerto Viejo and the chocolate museum (our hosts recommendation).  We followed a guy into the museum who didn’t speak any English to find out from another girl who didn’t speak English either that they were closed – a running theme in CR on Mondays.  We stopped in Puerto Viejo at the bank where you stand in a long line waiting your turn to go into a tiny room one at a time with the ATM.  I didn’t feel safe even though there were guards inside but that has to do with visibly showing we just got money!  In line we met Steve, a Canadian who moved to CR.  He looked decades younger than his age and he gave us his email so we could contact him about buying real estate in the area since he already knew the ins and outs of dealing with local authorities and the CR rules about owning property.  He warned us to stay away from the touristy restaurants which we should have listened to; we ended up paying way too much for under cooked steak and some ok jerk chicken.  Driving through Puerto Viejo is the polar opposite of Cahuita; while Cauhita is primarily homes dotted with small hotels and hostels, Puerto Viejo is a long row of hotels and hostels dotted with restaurants, smoothie bars, yoga studios, and souvenir shops.  We stopped at a few shops where I didn’t find anything interesting and then ended up popping into a tiny jewelry shop next to a “casino” (a small bar with slot machines instead of tables).  I found a bracelet I liked with a turtle cutout on a piece of coconut, the “artist” told Dave she used a tiny saw to make the cutout which turned out to be a lie because returning to Cahuita, I saw a ton of the same bracelets.  It’s ok though, I still like it.

Returning home, we waited anxiously for our paella which had been keeping Marie-Claude busy all day.  Dinner started with Sangria, Andres suggestion, which was stronger than we anticipated and we were presented with a paella pan meant for two that could easily fill four starving Americans (we eat more than anyone else, am I right?).  The pan was full of fresh seafood – shrimp, tiny little crabs, octopus, mussels, chicken, sausage, and so much yummy goodness.  The flavors were intense; it seemed like every individual item had it’s own unique signature on your tongue if eaten separately and marrying them in bites made each bite so different.  Later Marie-Claude explained to us how she learned to make paella from Andres’ mother and each item is prepared differently then combined later which allows the delicate flavors to remain intact.  We couldn’t finish it, even though we tried and Marie-Claude graciously offered to save it for us so we could enjoy it the next day which we did.

Walking around town that night was particularly eventful; I wanted to check out the souvenir shops while we walked off dinner and we happened upon a fireworks show.  The locals celebrate Christmas all month long with large explosive shows fired over a vacant lot from a cardboard box.  The mortars were the real deal with large bouquets of sparks flying over our heads and pieces of shells floating down around us (occasionally hitting us but that’s not eventful seeing as it’s normal for me to get pelted from our view point in Foster City on the 4th of July).  It was loud and festive and the locals were loving it!

The following day we drove around; we discovered we had missed the tours for the Jaguar Sanctuary in Puerto Viejo and headed to the Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita to the north of town.  We got to get fairly close and personal with the sloths that have been saved and deemed too fragile to go back out into the wild.  We also saw some babies and took a canoe ride around an island that formed in an earthquake.  On the canoe ride we saw some gorgeous trees, tried a wild banana (crunchy, hard seeds with the same banana flavor), saw tons of howler monkeys monkeying around in the trees including a little guy showing off, hanging by his tail, and brightly colored birds.

We returned to Cahuita and enjoyed Heinekens by the beach while we hung out with Ruby and Gypsy, the resident puppies of Kelly Creek.  Marie-Claude made us our left-over paella and we enjoyed a later dinner of our favorite shrimp and sangria.  Our last night there, we headed out into town and ended up at a little dive with live reggae and Christmas music.  Dave tried a Mai-Tai which resembled a 7-eleven slurpee (and tasted about the same) and I sang along with the music!  We were joined by a sweet Australian couple staying at the hotel with us.

The  next morning Andres’ friend who runs snorkeling boats offered to take us out for half price because of poor visibility but we declined in favor of a tour of the Jaguar Sanctuary.  After seeing the ocean looking fairly clear later that day, I often wonder if we gave up our best chance of diving but the sanctuary was so so so worth it.  We drug Jack and Emily, our new friends from Australia along and had loads of fun with the animals.  We got up close and personal with a white-tailed deer named Chai who licked the salt off our hands and legs, held a toucan (who wasn’t part of our tour) who nibbled on our fingers, pet monkeys (Dave’s face got hugged by one while his tail was wrapped around Jack’s neck), and Dave became a tree for one very adventurous squirrel.  We also got to see a rhinoceros beetle, sloths, owls, frogs, tadpoles, snakes, baby deer, a kinkajou, and an ocelot.

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Our Toucan friend

Our Toucan friend

Leaving Kelly Creek was sad; I knew we had great adventures ahead of us but our hosts were so kind and it far exceeded our expectations.  We can’t wait to go back.  One of my goals in life is to eat a homemade meal everywhere I travel in the world, I feel like this was met here.  Eating recipes passed on for generations and food made with such love and a passion for cooking is what it’s all about.  I can’t wait to return and stay, spending lazy days on the beach sipping sangria and hours in the small kitchen learning how to make chocolate.

Our last night at Kelly Creek

Our last night at Kelly Creek

Costa Rica – Part 1 Getting there

Arriving in Costa Rica, I was filled with the same type of giddiness kids often feel on Christmas Eve.  The view from the plane window was lush and green with bright red roofs dotting the countryside, rolling hills, and the airport in San Jose which is new and shiny compared to the older factory/warehouse type buildings surrounding it.  The exhaustion of leaving SF at midnight and getting little sleep mainly due to the fact I was ridiculously cold on the plane started to melt away, replaced with an awe that I had finally done it.  I had finally left the US and landed in a foreign country full of the unknown.  I arrived with hope in my heart and armed with about three Spanish phrases in my arsenal.

The first thing that surprised me, beyond the gorgeous red roofs, was how clean and nice the airport was.  There were some ads on the walls but they seemed to be foretelling experiences to come, a far cry from the US ads of buy this or eat that.  Customs was a pleasant surprise; even though the Spanish form befuddled me, we made it through easily – much more easily and less invasive than security at SFO.  We met a representative from our rental car company and hopped on the shuttle.  The roads immediately seemed odd; the exit off the freeway to get to the rental car office was on the left and our driver had to cross traffic heading the opposite direction on the highway.  I didn’t see the puny streetlights hanging from wires which made trying to figure out how it worked all the more confusing.  Then there were the people carrying groceries trying to cross the road (*ahem* “freeway”), they were risking their lives for a gallon of milk?  Already the people are far braver than I am but we made it safely to the rental car office where I came across my first major disappointment in Costa Rica – Denny’s.  Really?  We’re in this amazing country and someone would choose to eat there?

Getting the rental car was quite the experience.  When you arrive, you find out about the mandatory insurance that costs $24 per day and that’s the cheap insurance, you can get an upgraded version for $35 per day which will protect you against pretty much anything that could possibly happen (accident, theft by monkeys, forgetting to fill your tank with gas, getting stung by jellyfish, and birds pooping on your windows) or so they say.  Forget about your standard credit card coverage that you get with rental cars, while your credit card will cover you, the agencies will still charge you these fees.  They also tried to upsell us on the GPS which we declined since Dave had downloaded a CR map to his phone.  And off we went, navigating ourselves across traffic to get on the highway with our very clear directions (turn left at the National Theater and drive towards Limon, you’ll figure it out according to the lady who runs the rental car office).  About five miles down the freeway, we realized the stories we’d heard about there being almost no directional signs were true.  Back to the rental place we went; we were impressed we made it seeing as there are almost no overpasses and getting back on the freeway going in the other direction is nearly impossible.  On the way back, we hit a toll road and gave the guy a US $1; he yelled at us in Spanish and we were relieved to find out when we got to Thrifty that we had overpaid and he was yelling at us to stop for our change.  Once we got our GPS (worth EVERY penny!), we were really off and the fun was about to begin!

Winding through the hills on two-lane roads, learning that passing in the on-coming traffic’s lane is normal, and singing along to bad American music (every other radio station!) was amazing.  I discovered up close that those super bright, pretty red roofs I’d seen from the air are actually rusted sheet metal – a far cry from the red tile roofs we see here in California.  The way people live is so different, there are these homes made of sheet metal with cardboard or sheets instead of windows that look like they’ll blow over in a fierce wind that have new looking satellite dishes on the roof.  The juxtaposition was so interesting to me.

Coming into Limon in the dark was scary.  Almost terrifying.  We had been warned not to drive at night but we had hotel reservations and didn’t have much of a choice, we didn’t stop between the rental car place (visit number 2 of course) and our hotel which took us almost 6 hours to get to.  How can I explain Limon other than overwhelming?  Imagine a bustling town with almost no streetlights, people riding bikes and walking on the narrow roads because there are no sidewalks or shoulder, every house has a gated patio and driveway and bars on the windows – even the scary looking homes; all the stores have massive security bars on the windows.  There is little signage indicating which lanes have the right of way and those signs are all in a language we don’t read.  Now magnify it by 100 because you’re exhausted and hungry and overwhelmed.

After heading out of Limon, we still navigated one lane bridges which we didn’t learn how to yield on until we saw how they worked in the daylight the next day and continued on for an hour when we pulled into Cahuita, a town of dusty, bumpy dirt roads and cobblestone streets.  Once we arrived and heard the ocean, we knew we were home for the next three days.  The charm was already luring me in…

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