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French Dressing

A homesick chef gives Nicaraguan cuisine a Continental twist

Author John Thompson

PHOTO BY RICHARD LEONARDI

"LET’S BE CLEAR: I am French French," says chef David Dafonte. Sitting in the lounge of his swank Restaurante Azul, inside Managua’s Hotel Contempo, he is keen to emphasize that he was born in France and grew up cooking French food—which, naturally, he believes to be superior—but after visiting his uncle here, he decided to stay.

Though it was far easier to run a restaurant in Managua than it was back home, Dafonte found the local diners harder to please. "I just cooked traditional French food, but it was not easy for Nicaraguans to appreciate," he says. "They are very attached to rice, beans, plantains." So Dafonte went multicultural, and the result is some of the most exciting food in Managua today.

Dafonte frequently combines Nicaraguan flavors with French techniques—adding sauces, say, or cooking with alcohol. A simple dish of shrimp and avocado is reimagined as a salad with tomato coulis, while his version of moules au Roquefort features mussels flambéed in rum. The most extravagant touches, though, are reserved for dessert: Witness dulce de leche crème brûlée.

"There was nothing I liked about Nicaraguan food when I came here," Dafonte says. But his local sea bass, pan-seared and topped with citrus salad, suggests he’s coming around.

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