San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Essentia Offers Gourmet Cuisine, Romantic Vibe

The theme of eye-catching decor at Corteza Amarilla Art Lodge and Spa (see related story) continues in Essentia, the hotel’s extremely popular, trendy restaurant. With elegantly set, mosaic-topped tables, stained-glass hanging lamps and an array of flickering candles at night, both indoors and in the patio dining room overlooking the lush tropical garden, this must be one of the most romantic places to dine in the Central Valley.

For me, a Sunday luncheon at Essentia proved to be an interesting experience. Normally, I review a restaurant with four or five members of my eager team, unsung heroes who abide by my rules: nobody orders the same items on the menu and I’m allowed to have a taste of everything, just to ascertain their critical faculties. On this occasion, I was in my element; I spied two more tables of friends and was able to wander over and get their opinions as well. (I did refrain from sampling their food, however.)

Back at my table, my group was enjoying a selection of fresh fruit drinks and tucking into delicious oven-fresh bread accompanied with butter flavored with fresh thyme, straight from the garden. The herbs used at Essentia are organically grown outside the kitchen door.

Costa Rican chef José López studied in the United States and at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. His claim to fame is gourmet cuisine combining distinctive flavors from Latin America, the Mediterranean and the Pacific Rim.Among his original fusion inspirations, he has thrown in a couple of unadulterated U.S. cuts of steak for good measure.

The menu is not extensive but offers a variety of choices made with high-quality ingredients, presented with an artistic flair, such as the very good cream of potato soup served in a coconut shell. Other appetizers sampled were the succulent, smoky-flavored, marinated grilled squid with undetectable Vietnamese tamarind pesto. This was served on a somewhat sad bed of wilted arugula.

The uninspiring Israeli couscous consisted of fresh tuna and salmon cubes marinated in miso and Japanese mirin, served with tomato and cucumber pieces. Reports from the other diners were more positive: an excellent chicken-liver pâté and a Peruvian ceviche – marinated corvina served with sweet-potato gnocchi and huancayna sauce, which proved to be an original combination.

The top-quality fish and seafood were exemplary, but we found the accompanying sauces under-spiced. Attractively served in an earthenware bowl, the large, juicy shrimp sautéed in coconut milk with a touch of cayenne pepper was somewhat bland, as was the róbalo (snook) in a Thai curry sauce. The yellowfin tuna was lightly seared to perfection, and not a morsel was left. However, it was served with a tasteless noodle salad that remained virtually untouched.

Three diners at separate tables ordered the pork tenderloin, again of excellent quality, but the humdrum mole poblano sauce lacked the usual distinctive flavors. To be fair, Chef López is obviously catering to Costa Rican palates, not foreign ones, so his inventive recipes have been toned down to suit local tastes.

I alone ordered dessert, hoping to eliminate my pet peeve once and for all. I waited in anticipation for my crème brûlée, but was foiled again; that tiresome cousin, crema catalana, appeared as it has in so many other eateries. So, like the quest for the Holy Grail, my search continues.

The service did not always match up to the fancy surroundings, as every table was occupied and the waiters, though polite, were obviously somewhat frazzled. If you plan to dine at Essentia, it’s advisable to make reservations ahead of time, and be prepared to pay similar prices for both wine and food to those found in other upscale restaurants.

Appetizers and main courses range from $5.50-12; desserts are around $5. However, as stated on the menu, prices do not include 13% tax and 10% service.

The restaurant is open every day from noon to 3 p.m., and from 6 to 10 p.m. For reservations, call 203-7503.


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