The Kansas City Star A Feast in Mexico Puerto Vallarta offers a delicious array of international gourmet restaurants JENNIFER MANN PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico - A warm breeze drifts along the wide, spacious sidewalk, where diners sit at wrought-iron tables covered with linens and laden with Austrian specialties. My sister Melanie and I start a gastronomically delightful evening with fennel-filled ravioli in an herbed cream sauce, followed by a knife-and-fork Caesar salad. After resting a bit, we share an order of Rahmschnitzel, sauteed pork loin medallions in a mushroom cream sauce over handmade noodles. We finish off the evening with a decadent ice cream-and-nuts des- sert and brandy. All the while we are entertained by the clusters of people strolling along the sidewalk. Life is good at Kaiser Maximilian. But it's not summer, and although at the moment it feels like it, we aren't in Austria or anywhere in Europe. Instead, it's late January and we're taking our time, lingering over a four-course meal at one of the best-known restaurants in Puerto Vallarta, halfway down the Pacific coast of Mexico. Indeed, except for the ubiquitous strolling mariachi bands, depending on where you're dining in this coastal resort town you might think you're in Europe, South America or even Thailand. Puerto Vallarta offers a smorgasbord of around-the-world dining. More so than many of the Mexican destinations so popular with Americans, including Cancun, Cozumel and Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta has developed an internationally recognized dining scene that's a delectable treat for food lovers the world over who find their way to the once sleepy fishing village in a region that now boasts a population of 350,000. Puerto Vallarta proper has 250 restaurants to feed and delight the 2 million annual visitors. Although fine and eclectic dining can be found along all 25 miles stretching along the Bay of Banderas, the restaurants primarily dot three main areas of Puerto Vallarta: the Hotel Zone, El Centro and Zona Romantica, still called Old Town by longtime visitors. Old Town is home to the so-called Restaurant Row, on and around Calle Basilio Badillo. Gary Beck, a San Francisco resident who travels frequently to Puerto Vallarta, maintains an extensive database on dining in Puerto Vallarta. But when he first visited the city in 1979, Beck said, there was little to choose from when it came to going out. "There wasn't much of a dining scene except local Mexican restaurants, some a little ritzier than others," he said. "There might have been a little bit of pizza, a little bit of pasta - until Le Bistro came along - that really started the big change in Puerto Vallarta." Le Bistro redefined what fine dining could be in the burgeoning tourist destination. The restaurant opened in late 1979 on an island in the middle of Rio Cuale, the river that divides Puerto Vallarta into south and north sides. People were coming in with money to spend, Beck said, and they wanted fine food, fine wine and charming surroundings. "Le Bistro struggled for a while, but then it became renowned. Others came and saw it could be done." The Hollywood story According to local lore, the movie director John Huston put Puerto Vallarta on the map in 1963 when he chose it as the filming location of "Night of the Iguana," starring the charming Richard Burton and the glamorous Ava Gardner. Scandal erupted when the much-married Elizabeth Taylor followed her equally married lover Burton to Puerto Vallarta. In turn, they were followed by the paparazzi. Although those stars are long gone from Puerto Vallarta, a remnant remains in the form of Archie's Wok, opened in 1986 by Huston's former personal chef, Archie Alpenia. Alpenia was a Filipino who had spent time in nearby Guadalajara, where he met and married an American. Alpenia combined elements of Philippine, Thai and Chinese cuisines for Huston, a tradition he continued when he opened Archie's Wok. Among noted dishes at the restaurant are a Thai shrimp dish that fuses garlic, ginger, cilantro and black pepper, and a fish dish that features an airy light batter with a take on a sweet and sour sauce. A vegetarian dish combines tofu, cashews, broccoli, black beans and mushrooms in a sauce with a kiss of sherry. After Alpenia was killed in a car collision in the early 1990s, his wife, Cynthia, took over the restaurant. More recently, Beck said, she has stepped back; their son Sergio runs the kitchen while daughter Kiyoki runs the front of the house. Although Huston is credited with bringing fame to Puerto Vallarta, other Hollywoodites had already found their way to the coastal mecca. Among them were Phil Ober and his wife, Jane, who lived in a Puerto Vallarta home they called Casa Juanita. Ober, by this time the American counsel in Puerto Vallarta, was perhaps best remembered by movie buffs as the Army captain husband of Deborah Kerr's character in "From Here to Eternity," but he was known also for his many television guest appearances in the 1960s, from "I Love Lucy" and "Perry Mason" to "Bonanza" and "McHale's Navy." "The Obers were at the center of the social scene pre-`Night of the Iguana,' " Beck said. "When their friends came and wanted to build homes, they'd build in the same area, which eventually became known as Gringo Gulch," a moniker that hangs on. One of the favorite gathering spots for that social crowd was La Palapa, then a little shack of a place that opened in 1959 on the beach south of the Rio Cuale and became known for serving good, strong margaritas. La Palapa - palapas being the thatched huts so important in shielding locals and visitors from the blazing tropical sun - has undergone several metamorphoses. Today, it's charming, sophisticated and yet still a fun and casual place to dine on everything from appetizers such as watercress cream, garlic flan and mushrooms to entrees such as wasabi pan-seared scallops, macadamia yam cakes with ginger beurre blanc and to finish off a meal with a dessert of tropical mango cheesecake. Wicker chandeliers adorned with wild-looking wicker monkeys hang from the soaring ceiling. At night the tables, whether inside the restaurant or on straw mats on the beach, are covered with linens and illuminated with candles and Tiki torches. In a hallway that leads to the restrooms, a series of photographs shows the evolution of the now perennially popular place, offering a testament to La Palapa's history. Just down the beach a bit is Daiquiri Dick's, today a misnomer for a sophisticated, yet charming dining scene. Opening about 20 years ago, like many old-time spots in Puerto Vallarta, Daiquiri Dick's has evolved from a little shack offering simple fare, to serving such specialties as eggplant Napoleon - layers of grilled eggplant, tomato, panela cheese and fresh basil - to lobster tacos. On the night my sister, our friend Ann and I dined there, a handsome young strolling guitar player was joined in song by one of the patrons, a former opera singer. The tall, striking and regal woman with a mane of silver hair and her accompanist indulged the crowd with two charming Mexican love songs. It wasn't the first time in Puerto Vallarta that I'd been treated to beautiful singing by a fellow dining patron. I hope it won't be the last. Old favorites Probably the most famous restaurant in Puerto Vallarta is Cafe des Artistes, housed in a castlelike building on a hill above the area called El Centro. At Cafe des Artistes, chef Thierry Blouet, who is a member of the French Academie Culinaire and holds the title Maitre Cuisinier de France, tempts diners with everything from his now famous starter, pumpkin and prawn soup, to roasted duck with agave honey, soy, ginger and lime sauce served with pumpkin risotto to his tempting desserts (he began his career as a pastry chef). As the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote of Cafe des Artistes: "There is no dish that is not a work of art, nor a work of art that does not feed the spirit." The restaurant has undergone a drastic transformation in the last year and is by itself a work of art, divided into three separate areas: Thierry Blouet Cocina de Autor, Cafe des Artistes Bistro Gourmet and Bar Costantini. A meal at Cafe des Artistes Bistro might start with stuffed mussels with scallop mousse and mushrooms. Next, you might try the French roasted lobster with herbs, or perhaps the grilled tenderloin petals with Camembert cheese and chili chipotle sauce and crusty paper potato. The newly redone main dining room is a magical tapestry of artistry, including a curtain of glass teardrops raining down on diners. Equally wedded to the arts, but in a different way is El Repollo Rojo, or the Red Cabbage, an homage to the artist Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, a space plastered with paintings, photographs and posters. Not only does El Repollo Rojo have a special atmosphere, Beck said, but it's also one of the few if not the only restaurant in town to feature pre-Hispanic cuisine indigenous to Mexico - that of the Mayans and Aztecs - with a sometimes contemporary twist. For instance, diners might indulge in the chiles en nogada - poblanos chilies stuffed with beef, pine nuts and raisins, topped with a sweet cream sauce. "I absolutely adore it - that's a place with a history where Lola runs the place and the recipes are really unique," Beck said. A new place in town that has Beck excited is Boca Bento - bento referring to the small boxes of Japanese cuisine. It brings yet another twist to Puerto Vallarta's reputation. Indeed, Puerto Vallarta's reputation has become one of international recognition, boosted in part by its annual International Gourmet Festival, which last November was attended by 30,000 gourmands. Beck thinks one reason Puerto Vallarta has such standing is that people are drawn to the charm of Zona Romantica, or Old Town, with its cobblestone streets and whitewashed stucco buildings. Beck, a regular in Puerto Vallarta for more than 25 years, says he always wants to try the new places, but there are always his beloved favorites he returns to year after year. For my sister and me, now on my fifth visit and she on her second, that's certainly true, too. We ended our most recent - but certainly not last - trip to Puerto Vallarta just hours before our flight took off, sitting in beach chairs at La Palapa. The Pacific lapped at our toes as we dined on the restaurant's take on eggs Benedict and sipped wonderfully spicy Bloody Marys. With the morning sun rising over our shoulders, we contentedly looked out onto the Bay of Banderas, the third-largest bay in the world. We've learned what many of those who fall in love with Puerto Vallarta know - you never say goodbye, only see you later, or as those in Mexico say, " hasta luego!" To reach Jennifer Mann, call (816) 234-4453, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. GOING TO PUERTO VALLARTA Getting there Many major airlines serving Kansas City have connecting flights to Puerto Vallarta, including American, America West, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Northwest and United. Round-trip airfare between Kansas City and Puerto Vallarta recently started about $415. Staying there Puerto Vallarta has a wide range in choice of lodging, from deluxe resorts such as the Four Seasons to small family-owned and -operated haciendas. For a comprehensive guide to Puerto Vallarta, including listings for hotels and resorts, see www.virtualvallarta.com. Another helpful Web site is www.puertovallarta.net. Where to eat Restaurants listed in the accompanying story: Archie's Wok, Francisco Rodriguez 130, 011-52-322-222-0411. Open 2-11 p.m. Monday- Saturday. Asian, seafood dishes; main courses, $6-$21. Closed September-October. Cafe des Artistes, Guadalupe Sanchez 740, 011-52-322-222-3228 or www.cafedesartistes.com. Open 6-11:30 p.m. daily. Classical French cuisine with Mexican flavors; main courses, $17-$31. Daiquiri Dick's, Olas Altas 314, 011-52-322-222-0566 or www.ddpv.com. Open 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily. Mexican, European and American dishes with Asian, Indian and northern African influences; main courses, $6-$17. Closed in September. La Palapa, Pulpito 103, 011-52-322-222-5225. or www.lapalapapv.com. Open 9 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily. International cuisine; main courses, $10-$25. Le Bistro, Isla Rio Cuale 16-A, 011-52-322-222-0283 or www.lebistro.com.mx. Open 9 a.m.- midnight Monday-Saturday. International cuisine; main courses, $19-$25. El Repollo Rojo, Calle Rivera del Rio 204-A, 011-52-322-223-0411. Open 5-10:30 p.m. daily. Mexican; main courses, $8-$20. Credit cards not accepted. Kaiser Maximilian, Olas Altas 380-B, 011-52-322-223-0760 or www.kaisermaximilian.com. Open 6-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday. International cuisine; main courses, $16-$26. To learn more Contact the Puerto Vallarta Convention & Visitors Bureau at 011-52-322-224-1175 or see www.visitpuertovallarta.com. Contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office at (800) 44 MEXICO or www.mexico- travel.com. For Puerto Vallarta, try www.mexico-travel.com/puertovallarta.htm. Illustration ALLAN CHOW/The Kansas City Star Graphic (map) The Kansas City Star Photo (color) Kaiser Maximilian is one of the many great places to eat in town.n town.