El Gaitero (The Piper) is a strange name for this Spanish restaurant in San Antonio de Escazú, west of San José. A party of 10 of us discovered the reason when we visited the restaurant recently for Sunday lunch.
Owners Antonio Rodríguez and Olga Mera come from Asturias, on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, where the Celtic heritage is still preserved; hence the name of the restaurant. Not to be confused with a Scottish piper, the one on the restaurant’s logo plays the bagpipes but doesn’t wear a kilt, sporran or tam; his garb resembles that of a Tyrolean.
“Spain has changed so much that we decided to try out Costa Rica,” said Rodríguez, who opened El Gaitero six months ago.
A beautifully renovated, old adobe house is now home to this unpretentious, familystyle Spanish restaurant.Whitewashed walls, sackcloth ceilings, original tile floors, dark wood benches and tables with white tablecloths and maroon overlays enhance the warm, friendly atmosphere. The lack of linen napkins – just paper serviettes – does not seem incongruous in the casual surroundings.
Strings of red peppers, garlic and vases of dried grasses complement the simple decor. A cozy bar and tables around the original, outside veranda offer alternative seating to the small dining room.
The charming Rodríguez, previously a restaurant owner in Spain, waits at table clad in jeans, while his vivacious wife Mera does all the cooking. A bundle of energy, she didn’t seem to have a problem keeping up with 10 diners’ various orders – a noteworthy feat for one chef cooking to order.
El Gaitero offers traditional, authentic Spanish home cooking that will seduce you with the flavors of many different regions.
“We use only imported products such as serrano ham and Manchego cheese for our cold-cut plates, and I make my own sausages,” Rodríguez said. An aged Segovia ham sits in state on the bar; thinly sliced to order, it’s a must-sample.
Lunch got off to a good start with a pitcher of sangria (¢3,500/$6.80) and two delicious, complimentary pâtés – shrimp with leek and a tuna one – served with melba toast rounds and fresh Spanish-style bread, which also proved great for dunking later.
I became somewhat confused trying to keep up with what everybody was ordering and later had a busy time tasting the delicious tidbits I was offered. The gazpacho served in a margarita glass and accompanied by homemade croutons was light and flavorful, and deemed typically Spanish.
The hot and cold tapas menu offers 15 choices. The potatoes, cooked to perfection and dressed in either a Roquefort sauce or with an addition of a hot tomato and delicious garlic sauce, were a great hit, as was the large portion of classic tortilla española, chock full of potato and chopped onion. With a salad or gazpacho, this is a meal in itself, as are the other tapas.
Lovers of eel should definitely try the gula del norte al ajillo, thin strips of young, tender eel dressed with olive oil and garlic. It was so good that the diner who ordered it seemed somewhat hesitant to share. Other tapas include squid, shrimp and croquettes of bacalao (salt cod), garlicky chicken nuggets, pork ribs and marinated mushrooms. All are priced between ¢1,400-3,400 ($2.70-6.60). (The menu states that prices do not include 13% sales tax and 10% service.)
The main courses range from ¢2,700-4,800 ($5.20-9.30). The paella at ¢4,990 ($9.60) a portion (minimum two) must be ordered in advance. For dedicated carnivores the mixed meat grill is a good choice. The breaded veal scaloppini with a touch of Roquefort sauce served on fried potatoes was tender and tasty, though the veal wasn’t the young, milk-fed variety one continues hoping to find in this country.
A fish lover among us was delighted with the perfectly cooked salmon trout served with thinly sliced potatoes and decorated with sprigs of fresh rosemary. A house specialty, the Asturian tuna fish and potato stew swimming in a fresh tomato sauce was the perfect answer to Spanish comfort food. However, I’ve become so accustomed to raw or lightly seared tuna that I probably would give it a miss in the future.
I certainly plan to return, and other members of the party unanimously agreed. One added, “This place can’t stay hidden forever.”
The owners confirmed that their clientele is still small and consists mostly of Spaniards, other Europeans and North Americans who savor the flavors of Spain.
A delightful finish to our meal was the light, creamy crema catalana and Mera’s specialty, torrijos, a Spanish version of French toast.
“I soak the bread in milk, honey and white wine and brown it until it’s crispy on the outside,”Mera said.
After her cooking odyssey, she sallied forth from the kitchen to join us in a glass of complimentary white sparkling Catalonia Cava Brut.
“It’s a tradition; we like to offer our customers a glass after a meal,” Rodríguez said with a grin as he popped open the bottle and filled our flutes.
With such charming hosts, walking out of their restaurant we truly felt we had enjoyed a delightful family dining experience.
Location: 100 meters east and 50 meters south of the San Antonio de Escazú and Barrio El Carmen intersection (turn left at the main entrance to San Antonio de Escazú at Barrio El Carmen and take the first road on your right; the restaurant is half a block up the hill on the left side). Guarded parking is available.
Hours: Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.