San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Grano de Oro Sets New Gold Standard

Opulent. That s the word that best describes the resplendent new incarnation of Grano de Oro Restaurant in the elegant vintage hotel of the same name off Paseo Colón, on the west side of San José.

Long a favorite romantic rendezvous, the intimate old restaurant in its tiny, tree-shaded garden is sadly no more. The new version is gargantuan by comparison, with some bigger tables and banquette seating for larger groups, and an impressively grand bar. But happily, there are still cozy tables à deux tucked in the corners of the restaurant, which is built around a large new courtyard with a splashing fountain supplying a soothing soundtrack for alfresco dining.

Owners Lori and Eldon Cook, from the Canadian city of Calgary, spent two years creating this handsome replica of a 19th century San José mansion, complete with an imposing tower. From the outside, the scale at first seems a little overblown. The new lobby, which connects the demure original hotel hidden behind trees with the new street-front addition, is on an even grander scale, and a bit of a shock ultra-modern.

But once you walk through the etched-glass doors that lead from the lobby to the restaurant, you step back in time to the heyday of nouveau-riche Costa Rican coffee barons, the luxury-loving men who spent lavishly on both private and public city palaces. The color scheme, from fabrics to china, combines burgundy, rust and gold with sage and olive accents. Dark, polished wood gleams throughout the restaurant; stained-glass windows and lamps glow; vintage-tile floors construct intricate patterns underfoot; lavish flower arrangements dazzle; and antique armoires hide the necessities of a modern restaurant behind in-laid-wood doors.

The lighting in the restaurant is truly outstanding, flattering to both decor and diners. In the daylight, sunshine filters through gold-flecked sheers, which shimmer like a golden-orb spider s web. At night, these curtains, framed by coppery silk drapes, glimmer softly and filter out the passing traffic on Avenida 4. An assortment of distinctive floor lamps, along with the courtyard s backlit, bronzy stained-glass panels and flickering gas lamps, suffuse the whole restaurant with a golden glow.

Everywhere you look there is another detail to admire. The owners have thought of everything and spared no expense. But the place doesn t feel like a museum, thanks to some interesting modern touches that lighten up the formality. Splashy, modern-art

glass globes light the way up the grand staircase that leads to private dining rooms. The bathrooms on the lower level, accessible by elevator or another elegant stairway, are swish and modern, awash in marble, nickel plating and stylish vessel sinks. The softly lit hallway to the restrooms, though, retains the hotel s signature theme: beautifully framed sepia photos of old Costa Rica.

This restaurant is a feast for the eyes; but you come here to eat, so how does the food stack up against the decor? Fans of the former restaurant will be happy to see old favorites still on the menu the cream of pejibaye soup (¢2,500/$4.80) is still studded with flavorful chunks of peach palm. My lunch companion declared it the best he had ever tasted. The spinach ravioli with three types of goat cheese (¢5,700/$11) is just as savory and satisfying.

But the new, expanded menu has a lot of interesting and ambitious new dishes, some more successful than others. At lunch, especially, there are many intriguing choices. The Tostada Portobello (¢3,500/$6.70), for example, mixes earthy, sautéed mushrooms with caramelized onions bathed in a balsamic reduction. A goat-cheese emulsion adds a tangy contrast and the whole brownish dish is brightened by sprigs of flavorful, flat Italian parsley. The only thing wrong with it is that the portion is a little meager for the price. In contrast, a dinnertime Tarte Tatin de Tomate (¢3,200/$6.15) was thoroughly disappointing, tasting like stewed tomatoes on soggy pastry, accompanied by a shot glass of frozen tomato purée.

On the other hand, the Tartine de Carpaccio (¢5,700/$11) was a big hit with my lunch partner (and me, after I managed to wangle a taste). The menu description doesn t begin to do it justice: tenderloin carpaccio on a toasted roll with duck liver pâté and quail eggs, drizzled with walnut oil. The base was flavorful olive bread, the thin strips of tenderloin beef were tender, and the combination of flavors was succulent.

The presentation added to the pleasure, with an artistic accordion of thin slices of alternating grilled zucchini, tomato and onion and a spinach garnish topped with tiny quail eggs.

I am looking forward to going back to taste the Ensalada de Calamares (¢4,700/$9), fresh greens topped with tempura calamari and papaya with a spicy sweet dressing, and the Ensalada de Pollo Teriyaki (¢5,400/$10), green salad with teriyaki chicken, apple and mini vegetables. This is the perfect place for ladies who like to lunch lightly. And there are interesting vegetarian options: the heart-of palm (¢4,200/$8) or Niçoise (¢4,500/$8.60) salad, a caprese sandwich with grilled eggplant and roasted peppers (¢4,200/$8) and a salmon blini plate (¢3,000/$5.80).

Many of the main courses appear at both lunch and dinner, and the ones my friends and I sampled varied greatly in quality. The Pollo con Semillas Tropicales (¢5,700/$11) sounded so Costa Rican chic: breast of chicken crusted with macadamias and toasted coffee beans in a sauce of foie gras and blueberry preserves. As advertised, all the flavors were present and worked well together. But the chicken itself had a strange, over-processed consistency, like that of boiled ham; there was no graininess to it at all. The Tilapia con Hierbas (¢6,650/$13) also disappointed a dinner companion with its lackluster, oversalty green sauce.

In contrast, the Chateaubriand con Tres Salsas (¢10,300/$20) was a hit and worth every colón. The adequate portion of tender lomito was cooked perfectly to order, and the three sauces in separate pots béarnaise, cocoa and Madeira were rich and flavorful.

Throughout each meal, waiters bring baskets of fresh, warm breads, which came in handy for soaking up and sharing every drop of the delicious sauces.

Other intriguing main courses worth a return visit include lamb chops with a fig purée and a timbale of couscous (¢14,700/ $28), and rabbit thigh stuffed with mushroom pâté in a creamy Dijon sauce (¢7,300/$14).

On the drinks side, the restaurant offers a large selection of fresh fruit drinks and interesting tropical cocktails, with and without alcohol. The wine list is not very extensive and a little pricey, but you can find a decent wine for about $30 for example, the Gran Feudo Reserva 2001, a pleasant Spanish tempranillo (¢16,300/$31). At the bottom of the wine list is a very affordable Trio Cabernet Sauvignon (¢11,300/$22).

Many of the main courses at lunch and dinner are accompanied by a tiny ramekin of tasty but gluey mashed potatoes. The chateaubriand plate, though, came garnished

with a miserly dollop of puréed starch, a few vegetable sticks and a faint trail of sautéed onions. I often wonder why restaurants ever skimp on sides, which, after all, are the least expensive part of the dish. Is it an aesthetic decision? But with ever-larger dinner plates, the meager vegetable servings only make the main course look sad and lonely.

Those quibbles aside, the food here aspires to be seriously good, and it is close to achieving that goal.

When it comes to desserts, though, there s no question of greatness. The old-fashioned desserts are perfect, and the old favorites have been joined by a few sophisticated newcomers.

The specialty of the house, Pie Grano de Oro (¢2,500/$4.80), crowns the page-long list and deserves its fame: imagine a cappuccino transformed into a cool, fluffy mousse, sitting atop a chocolate-cookie crust. The chocolate cake (¢2,000/$3.80 or ¢2,500/ $4.80 with ice cream) is a classic: rich and chocolaty with a glossy chocolate icing.

The new Trio de Chocolate y Café (¢2,800/$5.40) is a cocoa tour de force: orangey milk-chocolate mousse; a dark chocolate ganache atop a chocolate-cookie crust; and a semifreddo of chocolate with a vanilla sauce; plus a demitasse cup of coffee mousse. The presentation on a huge square plate of bright-orange glass adds a sense of occasion to this chocolate indulgence.

Another sweet success is the Meringue Crema de Amaretto (¢2,800/$5.40), a perfectly crisp meringue with contrasting creamy almond filling, topped with toasted almonds and accented with burnt oranges. Service, as always here, is polished and friendly. The longtime, very professional waiters are all still here, looking very smart in new sage silk shirts and coppery ties.

Grano de Oro Restaurant has set a new gold standard for elegance in San José, in both ambience and menu. Once the kitchen has found its feet with all the new dishes, I think the food here will live up to the magnificent decoration. And though it is a little pricey at dinner, you can soak up the atmosphere any afternoon with a cup of excellent coffee and a piece of Grano de Oro pie.


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