San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

How Sweet It is: A San José Dessert Tour

ON my fridge door a magnet declares myfood philosophy in large letters: “Life IsUncertain; Eat Dessert First.” The only restaurateurI ever met who completely shared this credois a woman who owns a seafood/steak restaurantin Marathon Key, Florida.Her menu begins with the desserts.For diners with a sweet tooth – dulzuras theycall us in Spanish or, more rudely, zompopillas, or¨big fat ants that love sugar” – the choice ofdessert often dictates our starter and main course.After all, we don’t want to risk getting too full fordessert.Until recently, Costa Rica was a dessertdesert. There were flan, queque de tres leches andrice pudding – often delicious but more oftenbland. Judging by the number of bakeries andreposterías springing up all over town, though,Ticos seem to be on a new sugar high.To satisfy these newly awakened sugar cravings,more restaurants are now offering excitingnew desserts that make the end of the meal anevent.Here are, the fruits of five years of searchingout the sweet life in restaurants and cafés in andaround San José, starting with the city center. Ina Weekend issue to follow, sweets in the suburbs.BAKEA: This stylish restaurant in BarrioAmón has taken desserts to a whole new level intown. Just a year after its debut, chef CamilleRatton has expanded her menu of excellentfusion cuisine that melds French, Caribbean,Mediterranean and Oriental flavors. There arenew desserts, too, including a Tentación deFreud, a “sinful cocoa trilogy” of chocolate icecream, pot de chocolat and crisp, chocolatemeringues smothered in chocolate sauce (¢2,800,$6.20). But the standout is still the originalCahuita y Caramelo, a meltingly delicious,chocolate and banana tart served warm, withcaramelized macadamias and butterscotch icecream (¢2,800, $6.20).The pièce de la résistance for dessert lovers isLa Paleta Bakea, a dégustation (tasting) of all therestaurant’s desserts, served in tiny portions(¢3,100, $6.85). Save this for a very special occasionor share it with someone to prove you trulylove them.Bakea is located 300 meters north of ParqueMorazán, corner of Ca. 7 and Av. 11. OpenMonday for lunch only, noon-3 p.m., Tuesday-Friday from noon-midnight and Saturday from 5p.m.-1 a.m. A late-night, casual menu offersfocaccia sandwiches, salads and specialty coffeesor come just for dessert after a movie or concert.Call 248-0303 for more info.EL GRANO DE ORO RESTAURANTE:Sweet-toothed residents arriving in town from themost remote regions of the country have beenknown to make a beeline for this elegant, boutique-hotel restaurant with one thing on theirmind: Grano de Oro Pie. It tastes like crunchycappuccino, with a crisp and salty chocolate cookiecrust contrasting with a dense layer ofchocolate mousse topped by fluffy coffee-flavoredmousse, in turn topped by dark-chocolateshavings (¢1,690, $3.75).The pie has been a favorite for 12 years, butdesserts at Grano de Oro don’t stop there – there’sa separate, leather-bound menu devoted to them.Other longstanding favorites are the three-layerchocolate cake, dark and moist (¢1,430, $3.15);and the rum-flavored piña colada cheesecake(¢1,430, $3.15) with a coconut cookie crust and apineapple topping. Even if you don’t orderdessert, this wonderful restaurant sweetens yourbill with a plate of complementary, homemadechocolate truffles.The restaurant is located at Ca. 30, betweenAv. 2 and 4 and open daily from 6 a.m.-10 p.m.If you’re coming for dessert only, try the placeduring the late morning, mid-afternoon or latenight. Call 255-3322 for more info.OTHER notable San José restaurants withdessert specialties: The profiteroles are classicallyFrench, as is the rest of the menu at Ile deFrance (Hotel Bergerac, Los Yoses, 283-5812).Light choux-pastry balls are filled with ice creamand smothered in a rich, chocolate sauce (¢1,650,$3.65).The nutty baklava (¢800, $1.75) at MiddleEastern restaurant Aya Sofía (Barrio California,221-7185) are honey-sweet, as are the flakybaklava (¢1200, $2.65) at Lebanese restaurantLubnan (Paseo Colón, 257-6071).Desserts take up a whole page of the menu ateclectic Café Mundo; the simply elegant lemonpound cake (¢1,100, $2.43) is buttery and moist, dusted with icing sugar, and there’s alwaysa dessert of the day (¢1,300, $2.88) alongwith the regular macadamia and pecantarts, chocolate cake and tiramisú (¢1,300-1,650, $2.88-3.65). (Av. 9 at Ca. 15, BarrioAmón, 222-6190).CAFÉ SOCIETY: People who aren’tfamiliar with downtown San José oftendisparage its lack of sophistication. Butthere’s a whole culture of café chic here,where ladies lunch, lovers rendezvous andloners arrive with a book or newspaper forcompany. Here’s a rundown of cafés thatare treasure troves of desserts for the discerning,including two brand-new onesworth a trip into town.TEA FOR TWO CAFÉ RESTAURANT:The name doesn’t quite say it all.This brand-new establishment is also apastry shop/gallery/bookstore, set in residentialBarrio Escalante, just around thecorner from the Costa Rican-NorthAmerican Cultural Center. The lunch anddinner menus are extensive, with light andsubstantial choices; but it was the promiseof a proper tea – with a tea-pot fountain inthe garden, a tea-cup collection in showcasesand a verandah for alfresco tea parties– that drew me here. The glass displaycase of teacakes does not disappoint.Dessert portions are so generous that Ihad to limit myself to one choice: the lattice-topped, warm pineapple pie, with adollop of cream and a sprig of refreshingmint (¢950, $2.10). I will have to go backto try the mango pie (¢950, $2.10), thetowering german chocolate cake (¢950,$2.10), the pecan pie (¢1,050, $2.32) andthe intriguing, fluffy-white Bailey’s Irishcream cake (¢950, $2.10). My advice:Take a friend to afternoon tea (¢2,200 perperson, $4.86) and indulge in three savorybocadillos and three different sweets each.Better yet, take two friends!It is located on the corner of Av. 7, Ca.35, Barrio Escalante and open 11 a.m.-7p.m. Mon.-Sat. Call 253-8897 for moreinfo.CAFÉ HANNA: For a slice of old fashionedlemon meringue pie, visit thisnew, cozy café on the ground floor of arestored Art Deco apartment house inBarrio Amón. The view from the small,wooden tables is the garden of the statelyCasa Amarilla (home of the ForeignRelations Ministry), shaded by a giantceiba tree. Pastry cook Andrea AdelinaOrtega learned to bake from a formeremployer and now she is turning out cakesand pies the way North American momsused to. The lemon filling is tart, the pastryflaky and the meringue sky-high (¢700,$1.55). Her brownies are fudgy (¢300,$0.66), her apple pie is spiced with cinnamonand nutmeg and double crusted(¢700, $1.55 and with ice cream ¢850,$1.88), and her chocolate cake with icing(¢600, $1.33) really tastes like chocolateinstead of dulce de leche. If you must eatreal food, there are also flaky, savoryempanadas and daily lasagnas.The café is located on the east side ofthe Casa Amarilla, just north of Av. 7across from Parque España and is open 11a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.- Fri.; and Saturdays from11 a.m.-5 p.m.TEATRO NACIONAL CAFÉ: Afteryet another renovation, the most elegantcafé in the most beautiful building in thecountry is once again open. Here you canfeed body and soul at an antique marbletable, surrounded by the current art exhibiton the walls and gazing up at the discretelydraped classical nudes floating onthe ceiling fresco.As you dive into a piece of moist,dense carrot cake, covered with creamcheese frosting (¢1,225, $2.70), you canponder the vagaries of fashion and why theplump, well-endowed ladies overheadwere considered the ideal of beauty in the19th century. Back in the 21st century,there’s no better place for watching thepassing scene than through the open windowsof this café. There’s a changing rosterof homemade cakes, including banana,rum with raisin, chocolate marble and anewcomer: a coffee-liqueur cake with coffeeicing (¢700-900, $1.55-2).Located at the National Theater andopen 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; also open onperformance nights until curtain time. Call221-3262 for more info.GIACOMÍN PASTELERÍA CONFITERÍA:There’s no doubt you are hereto eat cake. The front window displays afull array of this long-established, Italianbakery’s creamy cakes. On the groundfloor, you can stand up, Italian-style, at theespresso bar and get a quick hit of caffeine,accompanied by petit-four-size sweets displayedin glass cases: chocolate-log cakes,rum balls, marzipan-cherry cakes, buttercookies, palmiers and Italian fruit cake(¢300-500 each, $0.66-1.10).If you are at leisure, order your cakesand coffee downstairs then await themupstairs, in the spacious 1950s-style, tiledcafé with sleek, leather-upholstered chairsand a terrace. With all the buses and trafficoutside, the view isn’t exactly the ViaVeneto but the atmosphere inside is pure“Roman Holiday.” Just don’t come atlunchtime, when they close – for lunch!It is located next door to the AutoMercado in Los Yoses and is open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-noon, 2-7 p.m. and Saturday 8a.m.–noon; 2-6 p.m. Call 234-2551 formore info.CAFÉ TERRAZA RUISEÑOR: Justa block from Giacomín, down the busyroad leading to Mall San Pedro, this bakery/pastry shop/café is another slice ofretro, Italian-style café chic, serving upbreakfast, lunch and dinner, as well asoffering a wine bar with a selection ofsavory bocas. Famous for its hearty, densebreads sold in supermarkets, Ruiseñor alsobakes up a sweet storm. An apple a dayseems to be their motto, with four, featured,apple-based desserts, includingApple Crunch, a fruity confection of bakedapples and raisins (¢1,300, $2.87) andTarte aux Pommes, a hot French apple tartwith an apricot glaze (¢1,300, $2.87).If you are feeling less virtuouslyhealthy, there’s a selection of chocolatedesserts – brownies (¢500, $1.10), mousse(¢1,300, $2.87) and Chocolate Supreme, adark chocolate cake with ground nuts andchocolate icing (¢1,300, $2.87). Back inthe fruit aisle, there are fruit-filled strudels,strawberry-topped cheesecake, Linzertortes, and lemon or orange cake, alongwith ice cream fantasies (¢1,150-1,300,$2.55-2.87). Happily, it’s one of the fewsweet sources open on Sundays.It is located 150 meters west of MallSan Pedro and is open Mon.-Fri. from 7a.m.-8:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sundayfrom 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

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