By Michael Cavanagh
An explosion of heat and light emanated through the kitchen window, crackling through the dense night air and delivering wafts of salient aromas. The chefs were in overdrive as the restaurant was abuzz with a flurry of activity on the late April night. It was a welcomed sight for the crew as the high season in the Costa Rican beach town had come to an end two weeks prior, resulting in predictably sparse crowds. Yet, that night it felt as if the town was awash with tourists as colorful watermelon martinis, luscious wines, and an array of carefully crafted dishes found their way to eager guests. And even though the population in Playas del Coco may have been diminished, Citron Restaurant seemed to attract those remaining in the seaside town.
In the Northwest province of Guanacaste, Playas del Coco is situated on the picturesque Golfo de Papagayo. The dry tropical forest of the area is home to hundreds of exotic birds, rambunctious howler monkeys, and yearlong pleasant weather. The warm waters of the Pacific Ocean are a fisherman’s delight with the occasional migratory humpback whale providing moments of diminutive realization. The Gulf provides the locals with plenty of seafood options while the nearby ranches and farms of the interior of the country offer beef, pork, and chicken. The nutrient-rich volcanic soils of Costa Rica also enable bountiful produce. Yet, despite the variety, not too many restaurants in Coco have taken chances with innovative recipes or methods of presentation. The typical beach fare of pizza and burgers are readily available with Mexican and BBQ options interspersed. Some venues have taken advantage of the fresh, local ingredients but few have attempted the refinement on display at Citron.
The Latin American fusion restaurant is the one spot in town that has elevated the dining choices above run-of-the-mill options. With menu items such as the Run Sautéed Shrimp Salad, Tenderloin and Portobello Risotto, and Sea Bass Fideau, Citron is giving food lovers in Coco a chance to celebrate rather than merely eat. The menu is littered with adjectives and culinary terms that provide insight into the kitchen’s finesse such as reduction, puree, infused, and soufflé. On that particular night, my wife and I relished in a shared three-course meal consisting of salad with caramelized walnuts and goat cheese (a rarity in Coco), spice crusted caramelized pork with an inviting honey/lime sauce, succulent beef tenderloin in a red wine and Dijon reduction, and finally a decadent chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream served on the side. With each course, we selected a different glass from the wine list, which proved to be another pleasant surprise. Even though it didn’t contain an abundance of options, the wines offered can only be found in local 5-star resorts and was a welcomed change to standard Chilean and Argentinean choices. As the night waned, our hunger satiated and thirst quenched, patrons slowly making their exit and the frenzied activity winding down, we reveled in the satisfaction of the meal. As we contently sat and sipped on the last remnants from our wine glasses, curiosity steadily built in our minds. In a popular, growing beach town, with no lack of accessible local, fresh ingredients, why was this place the only one aspiring to elevate dinner options? Luckily for us, the two people who hoped to change that were willing to tell us.
Citron was barely a thought when Claudia Posner and Xavier Urbina, a married couple that met in Claudia’s native country of Venezuela, first leased the property on the main strip of Coco, a few hundred yards from the beach. Claudia’s original idea focused on catering to boat owners, personal as well as commercial, by offering gourmet frozen foods to be prepared at sea. Through conversations with friends and colleagues, she learned of the demand for quality nautical meals other than cold sandwiches and chips. Yet, the space wasn’t exactly conducive to that particular business. So, innovation led to the establishment of the restaurant. But how did the two, without one iota of restaurant ownership experience between them, manage to pull it off?
As the old adage goes, it’s not what you know but who you know. And having a brother that graduated from the Culinary Institute of America certainly aided in their endeavor. Claudia’s brother, David, used his education to develop his kitchen skills in restaurants in New York City, Barcelona, and his hometown of Caracas. In fact, he was the culinary force behind the establishment of four different eateries in the Venezuelan capital. Not surprisingly, Claudia and Xavier would frequent David’s establishments, picking favorite dishes at each place along the way. And as they stood in their newly leased storefront in Coco thinking of alternatives for the space, the collection of dishes suddenly came rushing back to the forefront of their minds and Citron was borne.
Of course, simply having an idea does not create a successful business. Claudia and Xavier still had to contend with aspects such as ambiance, business, and the menu. Luckily, they could draw from personal and familial expertise to launch their entrepreneurship. Claudia relied on her interior decorating talents to design the look of Citron, including the bamboo-like “cana brava“ roof, which had to be painstakingly nailed to the existing structure one piece at a time. Xavier, with an MBA from Santa Clara University, handled the accounting and numbers while David not only supplied the menu but also the cooks, who came fully equipped with the skills to execute the menu. With a seamless transition in the kitchen, Citron was well prepared to bring Coco a different international dining experience. A year and half later, the restaurant is thriving, offering locals and tourists a different option to the typical beach fare. And while it may not have the scenic views of the Gulf of Papagayo, it certainly creates lasting memories through its cuisine.
About Michael Cavanagh
Michael Cavanagh is a freelance writer in search of memorable locales, delectable cuisine, and delicious drink. An experienced world traveler, Michael views globetrotting as an adventure like no other. He hopes to share his discoveries with other oenophiles, foodies, nomads, and travel enthusiasts. Michael has been published in The Wine Enthusiast, PalatePress, Destinations Travel Magazine, Terroirist, and has a regular column at Examiner.