Costa Rican hospitality, a pleasant, relaxed family atmosphere and good, reasonably priced food are Kianti’s keys to success. Charismatic owner Luis Chávez’s presence is the dominant feature of this restaurant in La Ribera de Belén, a small town northwest of San José.
Chávez built the circular, rancho-style restaurant with a lofty bamboo roof and wraparound windows 30 years ago. He then rented it out until he decided to start his own restaurant, which has been open for 10 years.
Large tables in the center of the spacious dining area cater to a loyal following of Tico families, and high chairs are provided for toddlers. The pleasant, smaller tables by the open windows are cooler and quieter.
“My clientele are a mixed bunch of nationalities,” Chávez said. “At lunchtime it’s a favorite haunt for businesspeople from the surrounding area. Guests from the Marriott and other nearby ritzy hotels also enjoy the atmosphere and typical fare.”
Chávez never forgets a face, and recognized me as soon as I arrived for Sunday lunch with five friends. Two of us were making a return visit, but, not knowing if we all spoke Spanish, he immediately sent us a charming, English-speaking waitress. She looked after us admirably and we never felt hurried, though our leisurely lunch lasted until 4:30 p.m.
Costa Rican cuisine dominates the menu, but some international dishes are also available.
For starters, if you don’t fancy the very tempting complimentary salad bar, there’s a heart-of-palm salad. The chef ’s salad and the Caesar salad with chicken and bacon are meals in themselves. The tortilla and seafood soups are good choices, and my creamy onion soup proved to be a homey, delicious version of comfort food loaded with onions.
Two kinds of ceviche, either shrimp or corvina, plus Kianti’s cocktail, a mixture of fish, shrimp and mollusks, will appease any seafood lover. If you have an appetite for clams, the chucheca cocktail, small clams served in their own black juice, are not to be missed. Chuchecas are seldom seen on any menu in San José, and, much as I love them, I haven’t figured out exactly what type of clam they are. My guess is a Pacific Ocean variety of cherrystone or littleneck clams.
For main dishes, rice, the Tico staple, comes with chicken or seafood, and from the grill, a choice of various cuts of steak, chicken and fish are accompanied by French fries or real, homemade, slightly lumpy mashed potatoes and a selection of vegetables. Three pasta choices and chicken or steak in a variety of sauces complement the international selection.
On both my visits, the steaks were more than acceptable, but don’t expect top-quality imported beef. Chef German Ramírez tends to be heavy-handed with the sauces, so if you don’t want your filet mignon swamped with mushroom or pepper cream sauce, ask for less, and if you like your steak medium-rare or rare, order it rare or very rare.
The only fish offered is corvina cooked in a variety of ways, with or without a sauce.
On both occasions it has been excellent, particularly the grilled fillet smothered with garlic. The Surf and Turf, a brochette of steak, shrimp and chicken, is tasty and satisfying, and the Fettuccini Alfredo received no complaints. For enormous appetites only, or, better still, to share, the Surtido Típico, a huge assorted platter of every imaginable Tico treat, includes chicken, steak, sausage, fish fingers, chicharrón (fried pork rinds), refried beans, tortillas and more. My brave, hungry friend was completely defeated by this gigantic fry-up, but admitted it was the largest collection of delicious fried food she’d eaten in years.
From the small selection of desserts, we sampled the coconut flan and the tres leches, a traditional Costa Rican standby made with sponge cake soaked in condensed, evaporated and regular milk, then topped with either meringue or whipped cream. The texture of the flan was very good, but it could have had more coconut flavor. The tres leches was fine; I’ve tasted better and worse.
Kianti’s doesn’t offer gourmet dining; however, you can expect friendly service and good grub at very reasonable prices that include taxes. Seafood cocktails, soups, salads, rice and pasta dishes are all about $5. Steaks and other main courses are $6.50-9, and desserts are $2 and under. Domestic and imported beers, plus a Chilean house wine by the glass, range from $1.50-3. A variety of liquors and wines is also available.
Would I return for a third visit? Most certainly! With Chávez at the helm of this unpretentious restaurant, one knows what to expect and is seldom disappointed.
Kianti’s is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant is in La Ribera de Belén, 800 meters west and 100 meters north of the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel. Coming from San Antonio de Belén, it’s 100 meters east and 100 meters north of the MormonTemple. For information, call 239-1640.