You find the oddest treasures in the most unlikely places in Costa Rica. Just off the pista between San Pedro and Cartago, east of San José, sits Restaurant et Club Pascal, a seriously fun French restaurant. It’s the food that is totally serious here: classic Gallic fare, authentically flavored and carefully prepared.
The fun parts are the pleasantly affordable prices and an atmosphere that is delightfully informal and friendly, without a hint of the hauteur that scares some people away from French restaurants.
You can’t get more unpretentious than an upstairs dining room in a corner building, across from a supermarket parking lot in a subdivision. There isn’t much in the way of decor here, just simple French-blue and white table linens, and white walls with blue accents.
You know you’re in for a good time, though, when you unfold the cloth napkin and see the cheery, red, embroidered design: a capital “P” for Pascal, formed by an EiffelTower and a chef ’s toque. A close inspection of the amusing, vintage French photographs hung on the walls also tells you the owner has a quirky sense of humor.
Along with the menus and wine lists, the polite young waiter (not your stereotypically supercilious French waiter) brings a basket of French bread to the table. The bread is good, not great, but it’s an excellent vehicle for the accompanying slab of real butter, not the portion-pack, oleaginous, orangey stuff that passes for “butter” in many restaurants.
Another good culinary omen is the wooden pepper mill on every table.
The four-page menu at Pascal reads like that of a family-run, Left Bank bistro circa 1975, with traditional French dishes divided into hot and cold entrées; meat, poultry and fish main courses; and a page of elaborate French desserts. Happily, the prices are reminiscent of the ‘70s, too.
For my Francophile dinner companion, there was no hesitation in choosing one of the two dégustation (tasting) menus offered.
We had to ask twice if the price was correct because we were so incredulous – ¢7,800 ($15) for a three-course tour de force of traditional French fare, with three choices for each course. The other tasting menu, with two choices per course, was an even cheaper ¢5,800 ($11). Quel bargain!
Once we had ordered, we spent some time perusing the small but interesting wine list, which includes seven red wines representing six French wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Côtes du Rhone, Beaujolais, Pays d’Oc and, most unusually, Minervois. We were especially intrigued by the Minervois, a Château de Rivière en Minervois 2003, because we had never seen it on a wine list here.We had just visited the wine region last summer and discovered that we liked the wine – and the relatively low price – of the Minervois area, which is just north of Carcassonne.
On a warmer night, I might have opted for a glass of Kir, the house aperitif made with white wine slightly sweetened with crème de cassis (¢1,800/$3.50). For light drinkers, the house red or white wine is a basic but very drinkable Pays d’Oc: Cuvée de Maîtres Viticulteurs, a bargain at only ¢1,500 ($2.90) a glass.
Our first courses were meals in themselves. Mine was a large bowl of traditional French onion soup (¢2,500/$4.80 on the menu), thick with properly caramelized onions and three rounds of toasted French bread laden with melted cheese, perfectly browned and sizzling. My dinner companion’s nine plump escargots de Bourgogne (¢4,400/$8.50) arrived swimming in a sizzling, garlicky butter sauce, and properly served with metal tongs and a snail fork for digging them out of their shells. We needed another basket of bread to sop up every drop of the sauce.
Next up was boeuf bourguignon (¢6,900/ $13), another French classic. I could smell and taste the requisite smoky bacon in the rich, earthy wine sauce, which was perfect.
Unfortunately the stewed beef was a little tougher and stringier than the sauce deserved. But the excellent side dishes –roasted root vegetables, lightly breaded broccoli and a huge square of cheesy potatoes au gratin – kept me happy and full.
Among the main courses on the tasting menu, which included fillet of beef with Roquefort sauce (¢8,500/$16) or fish fillet with a white wine, tomato and onion sauce (¢6,200/$12),my companion chose the lapin farci aux crevettes et calamar (¢8,500/$16), tender rabbit stuffed with a flavorful forcemeat of shrimp and calamari and bathed in a savory wine sauce. It was such a generous portion that he couldn’t eat it all.
Choosing a dessert was made easy by an enthusiastic recommendation from owner/ chef Pascal Lebleu himself. The profiteroles au chocolat (¢1,800/$3.50) satisfied even my sweet tooth: balls of creamy vanilla ice cream encased in contrasting choux (think chocolate éclairs) pastry, smothered in a dark, delicious, velvety chocolate sauce. Lebleu assured me the sauce was made with the best high cocoa-content couverture chocolate, made locally in the southeastern Zapote district.
My companion opted for another classic: crêpes suzette (¢2,300/$4.40), buttery crepes in a not-too-sweet orange sauce flavored with orange liqueur and garnished with fresh strawberries.
Throughout the meal, we were entertained by Lebleu, a passionate food lover, who twinkles with genuine bonhomie and really enjoys talking to his guests. On a slow, rainy weeknight, we were the only diners and we had his full attention. We learned about his days working in Paris at a restaurant on the Left Bank, and heard his stories of arriving in Costa Rica more than 20 years ago and the difficulty then of finding even the basic ingredients – such as real cream – that are de rigueur in French cooking.
With all the wealth of ingredients now available, either locally or imported, Lebleu is determined to make Costa Ricans as familiar with French food as they are with rice and beans.
“Our aim is to demystify the idea that French cuisine is complicated and costly,” he says.
His plans include a terrace café at street level, where executive lunches will be served; a menu that changes seasonally and special dinners focusing on culinary regions of France; and a club for regulars with memberships that cover discounts on meals, special events and a contribution to a children’s foundation.
If you like food that’s trés français but never trendy, a genuinely genial host and affordable prices – especially the bargain-priced tasting menus – this restaurant is definitely worth the drive to the east side of town.