As I approach the end of my eighth decade, I am ever so thankful that my life has been such a joy. Given the opportunity for a fine liberal arts and traditional medical education, I loved my practice of medicine for thirty-two years. In the twenty years since, my adoring and adored wife and I have gallivanted all over the world and I have written nine books and hundreds of articles on and reviews of food and travel. In truth, I am still an eager explorer of new sites and fine tastes. Even here in Costa Rica I loved the discovery of Camille Ratton’s wonderful cuisine at Bakea a dozen years ago and the mastery of Richard Neat that won him a handful of Michelin stars before he came to the Park Café here. Even simple fare, when done very well, is a thrill, e.g. local ceviche with perfectly balanced acid and sweetness, al dente fresh pasta, or chicken roasted over coffee roots, mangos, passion fruit, tree ripened bananas and watermelon all year long. Pura Vida. In this update, there are some new experiences and some grand renditions of old favorites in new venues such as Chez Loic, which brings world class crepes to Escazú. All are off the beaten path of standard guide books, at least for now.
Escazú As a location, Escazú is so richly endowed with eateries of every ilk that it would be impossible to review them in a comprehensive way in less than an entire book. So I have decided to offer mini-reviews of a smattering of places with at least a single appealing aspect. Either they were resurrected locations that improved, sites that I have never reviewed before or eateries with unique features. Many are well hidden under from the mainstream. None are Michelin star candidates nor among the most expensive venues in pricy Escazú. Tastes vary. My hope is that one or more of these relative unknowns will become a favorite for many of you. My choices are necessarily subjective.
Chez Loic ***** Brava y bravo for amazing chef/owner Julie and her partner/ husband Louis (Loic). In 2014, Joan and I spent a Paris week in Montparnasse and discovered to our mutual delight a street populated by a swarm of creperies walking distance from our hotel. Le Breton was our favorite. Chef Julie is from Normandy originally but studied her culinary craft in Bretagne and then became chef in Paris at the very same Le Breton. Small world. Great for us. She is a master of classic Brittany crepe creation. Every February that street in Paris held a competition among crepe makers and Julie won much more than her fair share of championships. At Chez Loic, she uses only the best ingredients including buckwheat flour from France, imported cheeses and other additions that you can’t find in any other creperies in Costa Rica. When last we spoke, she was arranging to get imported salt butter from France as well. As you would expect to pay more for Chateaubriand than hamburger, so, too, are her offerings costly when compared to the less than genuine crepes served everywhere else. For such excellence, however, they are truly a bargain. Fabulous and absolutely authentic! The buckwheat crepes are not only delicious, they are rich in protein, vitamins and fiber and gluten free. To be perfect they must have edges that are crispy but not burnt. Seconds matter. Hers are perfect. She also offers a weekday lunch executive menu that includes a smaller but substantial crepe, a salad and a glass of French wine. Voila! Location: La Paco Centro Commercial Hours: Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Phone: 4702-7511
Mrs. Cotoletta *** Homestyle Italian is its logo. Owner and host Fabio had a restaurant in Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet, for more than two decades. He used to vacation here and then he became a resident. His chef is also from Verona. The menu is unique. Two of the three parts appear fairly standard - pizzas and pastas. The pastas are all freshly handmade with imaginative toppings and sauces and the third part of the menu is new to me. About a dozen flattened cutlets of pork or chicken Milaneses are deep-fried then finished in the oven with a host of different toppings that I have not seen even in Italy before. They range from simple unadorned schnitzel-like classic size ₡6000 to giant size for ₡9000 to many with creative toppings for an additional ₡1000, ₡1500 and ₡2000 more. They come with a small fresh salad and a side of your choosing. The artichoke side is my favorite. Other side options include fries, baked potato, onion rings and white beans.
The Castillo is a nice combo of mushrooms, bacon and cheese, the Reina includes mixed mushrooms, cheese and truffle sauce. Unusual indeed. Pizzettas range from simple margheritas to fancy combos including mixed mushrooms or prosciutto for ₡3000 to ₡5000. Homestyle dishes include carpaccio, focaccia, minestrone and lasagna. Location: Plaza Florencia in the back next to Banzai. Hours: Open every day from noon to midnight. Phone: 2288-9880
History Gastro Lounge ***** Fifty years ago I first visited England and was aghast at how bland, overcooked, mushy and malodorous with essence of hours-long boiled cabbage British cuisine seemed. I relished only bar food like steak and kidney pie or Cornish pasties, fish and chips and family run Indian restaurants. In the past few decades London has morphed into a sophisticated internationally diverse culinary star on the world stage with chefs that rival French, Basque and Swiss for supremacy. The few pubs that came and went here in Costa Rica disappointed diners, yours truly among them. But now we have a first class British chef and kitchen staff completely hidden beneath a Mediterranean disguise. No bangers & mash, bubble & squeak, black pudding, spotted dick or trifle to be found on the menu. The restaurant is History Gastro Lounge and it offers superb food with accents from Romania, Greece, Hungary and Turkey, as well as the more commonly represented Italy, Spain and France in Mediterranean restaurants. Ingredients include New Zealand Lamb, cheese from Holland and Greece, wild salmon, wild boar, black angus beef, kalamata olive oil, Modena balsamic vinegar and an array of European wines. So many components are made in house from wild boar pate to yeasty bread, to lamb sausage, etc. Beautifully presented sophisticated dishes share popularity with rib eye burgers that are the favorites of cognoscenti Susan, Joan and Lisa. Among my favorites are the pate, saganaki fried cheese from Thessaloniki, lamb sausage with either hummus or in goulash. To expound and expand as examples, the pate is coarsely pureed wild boar seasoned with basil, Hungarian paprika, Greek uzo and made a bit crunchy with walnuts. Wow! It comes in a mason jar with fresh bread. Together with a glass of good wine, it could become a favorite mid-afternoon snack. The pate and saganaki are appetizer options with all the executive lunches along with cream soup of the day, a choice of entrees, a drink and dessert for less than $10. An example, I had pate followed by lamb sausage goulash. In Hungary, goulash is a soup, not a stew and the starch is most often noodles. Here it is wonderful lamb sausages with enough paprika to add a bit of heat, but not enough to put off Tico diners. The thick rick sauce is made from cherry tomatoes and potato cubes are the starch. My bowl shone without a trace left after the bread mop gathered every last drop. I drank icy lemonade and had a chocolate crepe for dessert. Presentations rocked. Service excelled. The comfortable, yet elegant, surroundings were perfection. Friends love the rack of lamb atop pasta and key lime pie for dessert. Dannyel, the owner by way of Romania and Turkey, greeted the majority of newly devoted regulars by name and many exchanged hugs. His previous restaurant on this site, El Mediterraneo, was good, but this resurrection with new Brit chef and staff has reached loftier heights in cuisine and popularity. Especially for Friday or Saturday dinners, reserve in advance or risk missing out. The prices are less than most of the upscale competition. A star is born! Location: 800 meters west of del Cruce de San Rafael, across the street from Plaza del Rio. Phone: 2289-8153
MadFish Café **** Young chef Teresa is a very talented Tica culinary school grad who apprenticed in Bogota. Her fabulous flavors, perfect marriages of ingredients and beautiful presentations are most praise-worthy, but too much praise causes her to blush. Her restaurant for the past year has occupied the once hallowed gringo hangout, Café de Las Artistas, down the block off the main street from Plaza Rose toward the Little Theater. It is a cozy small location with only half a dozen tables and not much parking out front. Tasteful artwork and brick add to the warm surroundings. Twice a week, she goes to Puntarenas and chooses the very best available fresh fish. If she has congrio as an option served in a Caribbean coconut milk and Panama chili sauce, prepare to be wowed! You can order it as mild or spicy as you wish. It comes with large, crisp, tasty patacones. Joan’s favorite Peruvian dish is shrimp causa limeña. Teresa’s is the best she has ever had. Add full-bodied chicha morada or even Inca Cola, complimentary starter of toasted bread slices with tomato, onion, salt and pepper coulis and you are likely to hum with delight. I hear that all of her various ceviches are memorable. After several more visits I shall be able to attest personally. Ah, such an onerous task! Her prices are quite reasonable considering the neighborhood and quality. She doesn’t have a liquor license, but you are welcome to bring your own wine or beer, with no corking charge. Hours: Sunday 12:30 pm - 4:00 pm, closed Mondays, Tuesday – Saturday noon to 8 p.m. Phone: 2288-2760
Passion Pasta Fresca **** Perfectly cooked, fresh, on-site, homemade pastas are the attraction here. The menu is on a chalkboard and weekday options are ₡6500 all inclusive for drink, appetizer e.g. of bruschetta, cream soup of carrot, leek and potato, gazpacho or Greek salad, and a generous main pasta course. We last had tender tasty ravioli with juicy small shrimp, shaved zucchini, bits of tomato in wine sauce and a Sicilian screw pasta (colochos Siciliano) dish with similar sauce redolent with capers, olives and anchovies. Both were excellent and the max that an ordinary person could finish. Other choices may include pasta in white sauce with wild mushrooms or a plate of squid ink chitarra with clams and mussels. Check out their Facebook site for the ever-changing daily offerings. In the attached retail store you can stock up on freshly made pastas and raviolis of all kinds at reasonable prices. How about raviolis stuffed with osso buco or amaretto and ayote or gorgonzola and nuts? Round, flat and curled pasta comes plain or tinted with squid ink or pink salmon. Pleasant busy place with good service and reasonable prices for perfectly prepared pasta simplicity and reliable perfection. Good desserts, too, I have heard, but never enough innard sanctum room to try one. Location: Calle 118 on the corner of Avenida Jacaranda just a block down from KFC on the main street. That block is one way in the wrong direction so turn off the main street at the large nursery Exotica, take your first left and it will appear on the left. Hours: Open 9am to 10 pm daily. Phone: 2588 2908
For foodies who enjoy arcane culinary knowledge and raucous names of dishes, brands or ingredients, my popular book is now available as an eBook on Amazon for $3.99.
Foods That Confuse and Amuse
1200 Eclectic Names Demystified
by Lenny Karpman
Did you know that mapo tofu is named after the Sichuan woman with the pock-marked face, that “Cats Pee on a Gooseberry Bush” is the name of a popular New Zealand wine, or that “Bombay Duck” is a fish dish?
Repeatedly, bizarre names for menu items, ingredients, beverages and ethnic iterations of dishes or products intrigued or humored Lenny Karpman enough for him to explore the culture, history and substance behind them. The compilation of many hundreds of confusing and/or amusing names prompted the author to inform and entertain others with the demystifying details that fill these pages.