Flying around Costa Rica

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Tortuguero National Park from the air

DonQui’s destination after San José is the nature reserve of Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. There are no roads there. This leaves DonQui with two transportation choices: Four hours in a mini-bus followed by 1 ½ hours by boat; or a 20 minute flight from San José to an airstrip opposite the Tortuga Lodge where he will be staying.

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Sansa is Costa Rica’s domestic airline

Unsurprisingly DonQui thinks the flying option will be the least uncomfortable so he books a flight with Sansa, Costa Rica’s domestic airline. He is very glad he did.

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The domestic terminal of San José airport

Sansa’s 12-seater Cessnas fly to most places of interest throughout Costa Rica from San José Airport’s spanking new domestic terminal. The domestic terminal is just a couple of hundred metres from the international terminal.

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Check-in is fast and efficient

Check in is fast and efficient with careful attention being paid to weight due to the small aircraft. Each passenger is limited to 30 lbs (13.6 kg) including hand baggage. DonQui likes to travel light so this is no problem for him. Those who like to take lots of things on their travels will need to use other forms of transportation.

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Don’t check in too early as there is not much to do inside the terminal

The waiting area is comfortable but facilities are limited. DonQui checked in far to early and ended up sitting around for ages. One hour before take off is more than enough time to arrive at the terminal.

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Descending towards Tortuguero airstrip

The flight itself was quite a bit of fun with the small plane flying low enough for DonQui to get a good view of the country.  After 20 minutes he is descending towards the jungle airstrip.

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The Tortuguero airport taxi

There a small boat is waiting to take him to his accommodation across the river.

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The Tortuguero terminal

The check-in facilities at Tortuguero airstrip for the return journey are slightly less luxurious than at San José.

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The beach right beside the Tortuguero airstrip

But the view is much better.

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Tortuguero airstrip

And the flight just as much fun.

Overnight in San José, Costa Rica

On his way to Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast, DonQui Oaty decides to break his journey in the Costa Rican capital. It seems more restful after a long international flight to spend the night in San José before hopping on a domestic flight to the coast

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San José is not the most attractive of cities

At first glance San José doesn’t seem to have much to offer. DonQui notes the urban sprawl, dusty streets and dull architecture. He is fairly certain that those that know the city will tell him that there is much to see and do. But it is a Sunday afternoon, not much is happening and the restful atmosphere of the low-rise Hotel Colonial invites DonQui to take a siesta rather than go out to explore Costa Rica’s capital.

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DonQui stays at the very pleasant Hotel Colonial

With its pleasant neo-colonial architecture, large spacious room and friendly staff, the Hotel Colonial is a great place to stay. It is right in the centre of town close to the Jade museum which would have been handy had DonQui decided to explore.

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The hotel courtyard

Instead, after his siesta, he has a coffee and plays a game of cards with Duchess in the pleasant courtyard by the small pool.

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Esquina de Buenos Aires Restaurant

The Esquina de Buenos Aires restaurant is right across the street from the Hotel Colonial. DonQui has learned that it has an excellent reputation and is hugely popular. He is, therefore, thankful he had the foresight to make a reservation as the place is hopping when he gets there for dinner and he would not have had a chance of a table without it.

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DonQui imagines he is in a classic black and white film

DonQui immediately sees why the restaurant is so popular. It oozes with atmosphere. The wood panelling, ceiling fans, posters from classic Argentinian films and old photos of Argentinian celebrities, make DonQui feel at though he has been transported into classic black and white film set in old Buenos Aires. All that is missing are two gentlemen in fedoras smoking cigars in a corner as they plan some dangerous adventure.

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The ‘mini’ striploin is plenty big enough

The food, drink and service are as good as the atmosphere. It being an Argentinian restaurant, beef steak is the thing to have. DonQui’s Bife de Chorizo (striploin) is superb and he is glad he ordered the ‘mini’ portion as at 250g of beef it is more than enough. The full portion is a whopping 400g!

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Banana crepes flambéed in rum

There is more than steak on the menu. Duchess’ sopa de zapallo y choclo (pumpkin and sweetcorn soup) is delicious as are the rum flambéed bannana crepes that DonQui has for desert. The house red wine, a Pequeña Vasija is excellent. Prices are a little on the steep side for Costa Rica but quite reasonable by European/North American standards. Reservations are essential.

rice and beans

Certainly, DonQui could have been more energetic to make more of his short overnight stay in San José. Nonetheless he thoroughly enjoys himself. He feels perfectly relaxed as he eats his breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans) with egg and sweet fried plantain the next morning. He is now ready for a proper adventure.

 

A Matter of Class

DonQui Oaty is quite excited to be flying British Airways First Class across the Atlantic. Not business class but real proper first class!

‘Will it be worth it?’ He wonders.

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BA’s exclusive First Class check-in and security area at Heathrow

On arrival at London Heathrow terminal five he is whisked into the private First Class check-in with its own security screening area. With no queues DonQui thinks this is how flying should be like — no crowds and no stress.

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The Concorde Lounge

The British Airways Concorde lounge is quite a step up from the usual business lounges.

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So DonQui settles down comfortably with a glass of good Champagne and a few nibbles to await his flight in comfort.

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The spacious first class cabin on board

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There is plenty of room for a Donkey with relatively short legs to stretch out and have a good snooze.

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There are some seriously excellent wines on offer and the food it pretty good too. 

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Without a proper kitchen on board it is never going to be haute cuisine but they make a good stab at it.

‘So is it worth it?’

 

DonQui’s view is that it all depends on what you pay. First class  is marginally better than business class on board but the private check-in and superior lounge makes it much better. Bear in mind that these will not be available at all airports. 

Having now flown across the Atlantic on every class of BA cabin, his assessment is as follows:

Economy is no better and no worse than other airlines — long queues, cramped seats and rubbish food.

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The BA premium economy cabin

Premium economy is a big step up for not that much more money. With much more spacious seating and better food it begins to turn the flight into a moderately pleasant experience.

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DonQui buckles up in business class to enjoy a good night’s sleep

The big advantage of business class is the flat bed seat which allows for a proper sleep. You also get lounge access and priority boarding. The problem is that the cost can be be double or more that of premium economy.

DonQui prefers to book premium economy and snap up any upgrade offers if available as a full price business class seat is probably not worth the price differential.

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The first class seat takes up twice the space of a business class seat

The First Class experience is very pleasant but it is not significantly enough of an improvement on business class to warrant the sometimes eye-watering full ticket prices. It is really only worth it is you get a really good deal, or use air miles to get an upgrade which is what DonQui did in this case.

 

Casamia, Bristol

After enjoying his day at Jekka’s Herb Farm, Duchess treats DonQui to a meal at Michelin-starred Casamia — Bristol’s finest restaurant. Many of the herbs they use are sourced from Jekka’s farm.

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The entrance to Casamia

After the slightly disappointing experience at the Black Swan in Yorkshire, DonQui wonders if the multi-course tasting menu at Casamia will also be a little over-fussy. He need not have worried. The meal is utterly exquisite — each small dish of the 12 course menu is a wonderful gastronomic experience in its own right and the courses build beautifully.

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The open kitchen

Tucked away on a pedestrianised road beside the Bathurst Basin water, the contemporary styled restaurant has room for only 35 diners, creating a nice intimate atmosphere with the tables spaced well enough apart that there is no crowding. On arrival Duchess and DonQui are treated to a quick tour of the huge open kitchen where the enthusiastic young cooks prepare the dishes. 

We are given no menu in advance. Instead we are advised to sit back and enjoy the journey. Every dish is brought to our table by one of the enthusiastic cooks who helped prepare it. They give detailed explanations and are happy to answer questions. The pride in their creations is palpable. 

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Parmesan tartlet

The meal begins on a high note with an incredible parmesan tartlet. The ultra-fine crisp pastry filled with a parmesan cheese mouse and topped with grated parmesan is a taste explosion with beautifully contrasting textures. It is one of the most wonderful things DonQui had ever eaten.

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Prawn on lava

Hot on its heals came a fabulous dish of Canary Islands prawn served on a lava rock evoking the islands’ volcanic state.

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A tiny but delicious salad

The dishes are very small — tiny even, but with 12 courses to get though this is a good thing. Every dish is exquisite and DonQui finds it hard to find the words to do justice to the tastes. In addition to the parmesan tart a couple of other dishes stand out.

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Trout with served with hot charcoal

The brown trout served with a white-hot piece of charcoal on top still cooking the fish is not just a piece of showmanship. The lingering taste of charcoal infuses the fish with its flavour and the crispy skin is served on the side, much like a piece of pork crackling. The monkfish tail with a champagne sabayon is also quite delectable and definitely one of the stand-out dishes. It is helped by the fact that DonQui opted for the wine pairing and a glass of the champagne which was used in the sauce is served alongside it.

A wonderful sourdough bread with tangy cultured butter is served as a separate course after the salad and before the two fish dishes. DonQui remarks to the chef that he is not a fan of bread being served before the meal. Inevitably he is hungry then and eats far too much of it. The chef replies that the bread is so good that it deserves to be served as a course in its own right. He is correct and it helps that the previous dishes have knocked the edge off DonQui’s hunger. 

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Duck breast

The meat courses are based on duck with a flavourful consommé preceding a beautifully cooked piece of breast with a crisp, spicy-herb skin and a rich sauce.

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The red wine is breathing

DonQui is very glad that he chose the ‘wine flight’ as Cassamia calls it. In doing so each of his dishes is accompanied by a different wine, few of which are familiar to DonQui. Amongst the most notable are the Equinocio Branco from Southern Portugal which goes very well with the opening courses and the French Uroulat Jurançon desert wine.

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Passion fruit desert with Jurançon wine

The deserts are as sublime as the savoury courses. There are several of them including a passion fruit concoction served in an elegant ceramic pot as well as a mix of strawberry based sweets. Perhaps the most unusually interesting is the tiny porcini mushroom fudge served at the end of the meal — the earthiness of mushroom unexpectedly and beautifully combining with the sweetness of the fudge.

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Strawberry second desert

This is probably the best meal DonQui has had in a long time. Given the restaurant’s reputation and its small size, bookings need to be made well in advance. 

Good food in Belgium

DonQui is off to Brussels for a few days in search of good food and beer. This shouldn’t be too hard as the Belgians take their food and beer very seriously indeed.

The problem is that there are so many options it can be difficult to decide where to go. Most of the top rated restaurants seem to serve up what has come to be known as Modern European — often small dishes topped off with some foam, a squirt or two of sauce, and a scattering of edible flowers or pea shoots. This is not what DonQui wants. He is looking for traditional Belgian fare washed down by a strong abby-brewed beer. 

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Brasserie de la Ville

After a bit of research DonQui stumbles on a little gem offering exactly what he is looking for. Although just off the Grand Place, the small Brasserie de la Ville (Rue de chapeliers 14) remains resolutely traditional in an area swarming with places mostly catering to tourists in a party mood.

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A calm, relaxed, atmosphere 

The atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious with the quirky decorations adding character.

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A bit of a Tintin theme

There is a strong Tintin theme going on — even the menus are inserted into Tintin comics. 

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Les boulettes à la Liègeoise with pommes frites

After a delightful starter of scampis à l’ail (prawns in garlic sauce), DonQui goes for Les boulettes à la Liègeoise (meatballs in Liège syrup).  Liège syrup is made from highly concentrated apple and pear juice. DonQui has a bit of a penchant for sweet-savoury combinations. He thinks the combination of the slightly sweet, rich, brown sauce with the beutifully lean meatballs is utterly delicious.

Then there are the frites. The Belgians lay claim to having invented chips (French fries) and have perfected the way of making them. Soft on the inside, crispy on the outside and salted immediately on coming out of the fryer, Belgian pommes frites are, in DonQui’s opinion,  the best in the world. The frites at the Brasserie de la Ville are just about perfect.

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DonQui’s Westmalle Dubbel

Don’t look for an extensive wine list — this is a brasserie after all. In Belgium, beer is the drink of choice with several wonderful brews on-tap and many more in the bottle. DonQui enjoys a Dubbel, brewed in the Trappist abbey at Westmalle.  With 7% alcohol this rich brown ale is for sipping and savouring rather than for quenching a thirst. It goes perfectly with his meatballs — far better than any wine would do. 

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Duchess’ moules-frites

As DonQui is tucking into his wonderful meatballs, Duchess throughly enjoys a classic moules-frites (mussels and fries). She was less impressed with her onion soup starter which she thought was a bit lacklustre. 

Everything else is fabulous, including the helpful, enthusiastic and multi-lingual staff.

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More touristy restaurants in the area

DonQui is rather sad to see the obvious tourist traps full to overflowing while this more or less traditional brasserie is only half full. He hopes that the Brasserie de la Ville will be able to hold its own against the swarm of identikit restaurants serving up variations of more or less the same thing.

Best Restaurant in the World?

DonQui is rather excited to be going for dinner at the Black Swan in Oldstead, Yorkshire.

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The Black Swan at Oldstead

This restaurant, in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, was crowned the Best Restaurant in the World in TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Restaurants awards in October 2017. It has one Michelin star which Michelin defines as ‘worth a visit’. As a Christmas present from Duchess, DonQui was giving it the three star treatment — ‘worth a trip’.

The Black Swan is a family run business with Tommy Banks running the kitchen and his brother James overseeing the front of house. The Banks family have transformed a country pub into a world renowned dining experience, knocking Martin Berasategui in Lasarte, Spain from the top spot it had held since 2015. 

 

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The menu

The isolated country setting looks idyllic although the single track road leading to it is less so. A warm, welcoming fire greats DonQui and Duchess as they settle into a comfortable seat to peruse the menu and sip on aperitifs. Despite the Black Swan’s global reputation the atmosphere is cosy and relaxed. The staff are young, friendly and very knowledgeable. 

 

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Celery and walnut tart

DonQui opts for an excellent Alsatian Pinot Blanc as his aperitif while Duchess is more adventurous with her Jerusalem artichoke cocktail which she thoroughly enjoys. To accompany their drinks they nibble on a delightful celery and walnut tart. DonQui is not a great fan of celery but he tastes none of the bitterness he normally associates with the vegetable. Instead, the combination of walnut, cream and celery blend together beautifully. 

Ushered upstairs to their table, DonQui and Duchess settle down to the remaining 11 courses of the tasting menu. DonQui also opts for the suggested wine pairings.

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Langoustine with salted strawberry

The langoustine with salted strawberry is exquisite — quite possibly the best single dish on the menu. As the other courses come DonQui increasingly feels that some are over-fussy with too much attention paid to artistic presentation and the chef’s technical skill which hides the taste of the fine local ingredients. 

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Scallops cured in rhubarb juice

Duchess is put off by the visceral rawness of some of the dishes from the venison tartare to the raw scallops in rhubarb juice. Why is it that so many chefs seem to think that raw food is the epitome of modern cooking? DonQui cannot order scrambled eggs in a posh restaurant anymore for fear of receiving a puddle of yellow liquid instead of something nice, light and fluffy.

The main lamb dish actually turns out to be three — sweetbreads, loin and rib. They are excellent. The loin is perfectly tender and pink, just as DonQui likes it and the rib is succulent and slightly salty. DonQui is too busy enjoying it to take a photo.

The matching wines are a mixed batch. The Sussex sparkling wine was touted as being as good as any champagne but DonQui does not agree. The Greek and South African whites are fine but not extraordinary.

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Baden Spätburgunder

On the other hand, the Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Baden, Southwest Germany, is exquisite. It is as good or better than many Burgundies he has sampled. With a slight peppery hint it goes superbly with the lamb. DonQui asks for a second glass. German wines are underrated in the Anglo-Saxon world, mainly because the good stuff is rarely exported. The best of them come from Baden.

The Black Swan certainly deserves its Michelin star but DonQui would not rate it as the best restaurant in the world. DonQui enjoys the meal and the atmosphere it but he can think of many others he has enjoyed more. These include the Great House in Lavenham, Suffolk;  Restaurant des Epicuriens near Laon, France and Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles, France.

DonQui’s verdict is that the Black Swan is definitely worth a visit if you are planning to go to north Yorkshire but probably not worth a trip in its own right. Be advised that due to its popularity you will need to make reservations months in advance.

Breakfast at the Wolseley

This is something DonQui has wanted to try out for some time.

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The Wolseley on Piccadilly in London, is a self-proclaimed ‘café-restaurant in the grand European tradition’. It is famous for its breakfasts.  Although the magnificent art-deco building dates back to 1921 it has not been a restaurant all that long. In previous lives it has been both a car showroom and a bank.

Elegant and with formally dressed waiters the Wolseley not cheap. Nor is it easy to get a table without a reservation. Finding himself at a loose end in London on a cold February Sunday morning, DonQui decides to take his chances. He is slightly disconcerted to find the place absolutely buzzing at 10am. Fortunately the friendly lady at the door is able to find him a spot. He is very glad she did.

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The breakfast menu is extensive offering almost anything one might want from the piles of delicious looking croissants strategically placed around the rooms, to classic egg dishes, müslis, and yoghurt.

DonQui orders french toast with bacon. This is one of his favourite breakfast dishes and it is surprisingly hard to find on European menus.

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It is just about perfect. Nice thick slices of bread, properly soaked in egg mixture with no dry bread bits in the middle. It is smothered with proper crispy bacon and served with a generous jug of real maple syrup on the side. DonQui thinks he would be hard pressed to cook better himself.

The elegant setting, filled with a mix of tourists and Londoners, makes breakfast here feel like a real treat. The coffee is great too.

 

The bill at the end did not break the bank as DonQui suspects a dinner bill might.