San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Escazú’s Buena Tierra Café Gets Down to Earth

Rising from a formerly abandoned corner in old-town Escazú, the western San José suburb, Buena Tierra Café is part of a nucleus of small businesses reviving this neighborhood with fresh organic food, local art and eco-inspired design. The charming eatery is part of the Buena Tierra building, which opened in March and houses a handful of small shops and galleries with an eye for creativity and a heart for the planet.

The Buena Tierra building overlooks a quiet street one block from Escazú’s church, and provides a view of the whitewashed walls, blue wooden trim and Spanish tile of a typical colonial-style home. The café shares the building with artist Rebeca Fernández’s Arte-Mosaico gallery, Atelier Organic Design furniture and art gallery, and Diseños Freka seamstress shop, and incorporates elements of each.

Buena Tierra Café’s columns are covered in Fernández’s colorful and intricate handcrafted ceramic mosaics. Inside the café, fallen-tree furniture by Arte Cassia’s Alberto Barrantes appears to sprout from the earth-toned floor. The café staff will soon wear aprons embroidered by Cecilia Araos of Diseños Freka, who also sews gifts, handbags and uniforms.

Buena Tierra building proprietor Fiona Lamond, 45, was born in Nantwich, England, and moved to Costa Rica in 1989. Lamond says she knew several entrepreneurs with good ideas and wanted to create an affordable space for them to rent in Escazú. She hopes the building will eventually host community events such as art exhibitions and yoga workshops on the second floor. Lamond co-owns Buena Tierra Café with Italian-born cooks and entrepreneurs Laura Barra, 46, of Turin, and Simonetta Salton, 47, of Rome.

The café’s menu is a mix of simple natural dishes inspired by organic produce from Escazú’s Wednesday organic market (TT, May 30, 2008). The food is hearty, healthy, earthy and somewhat unpredictable. While you can count on a great gallo pinto, that quintessential Tico rice and bean dish, with two free-range eggs (¢2,200/$3.90), cheese or veggie omelet with toast (¢2,700/$4.70) and organic café chorreado (traditional Tico coffee, ¢800/$1.40) for breakfast, cooks Salton, Barra and Damaris Chávez, 44, of San José, make spur-of-the moment menus based on the available selection of seasonal produce.

“I can’t tell you what I am going to cook tomorrow,” Salton says. “From the beauty of the fruits and vegetables, I decide how to transform them.”

Buena Tierra Café’s food philosophy prioritizes local and organic concepts, but also incorporates some basic ideas of macrobiotics.

“What you eat should come from the region you live in,” Salton says. “This decreases pollution and increases quality.”

Selecting foods by these criteria reduces the restaurant’s carbon footprint, decreases  pollution by agrochemicals and minimizes the use of fossil fuels for transport. Aside from the extra-virgin olive oil imported from Italy and the conventional whole wheat, pretty much everything on my plate was natural and grown in Costa Rica. The menu is 90 percent vegetarian, with an exception made for the occasional fish dish, such as cured trout. Dishes are served on adobe-toned flatware on bamboo place mats, acquired locally from a traditional Salitral workshop in Santa Ana, to the southwest.

I started my lunch with a creamy, tangy carrot and orange soup garnished with cilantro (¢1,000/$1.70). The soup was followed by a mixed plate of herbed grilled zucchini and eggplant, a round of soft goat cheese topped with fresh, homemade pesto and served on a radicchio leaf, lightly seasoned brown rice, warm red beans and fresh ricotta topped with a tongue-pricking tapenade of parsley, capers and garlic (¢3,000/$5.30).

For dessert, I enjoyed a slice of the dairy-free manioc cheesecake and gluten-free chocolate cake made with garbanzo beans and rice flour. I washed it all down with a papaya goat’s-milk yogurt smoothie (¢2,000/$3.50). Buena Tierra’s specialty drinks also include iced mochaccinos, imported organic teas and cappuccinos.

The café also serves as a small deli selling items such as feta cheese, cream cheese, smoked provolone, palmito cheese and goat’s-milk yogurt (¢8,800-12,800/$15-22 per kilo). In addition to a limited offering of produce and legumes from the organic market, Buena Tierra also sells homemade sauces, polenta, garbanzo powder, peanut butter and bound bundles of lemongrass.

The shelves around the counter are lined with Costa Rican-made natural products, such as sea salt, coconut oil, goat’s-milk soap, vanilla- and coconut-infused chocolate bars, natural ginger lip balm and fruit preserves. Attention is paid to details such as free wireless Internet access, biodegradable to-go boxes and nontoxic cleaning products.

Salton and Barra see the café playing a role in making organic food accessible and affordable in the long run.

“We support local producers,” Salton says. “They aren’t going to keep producing organic if there isn’t a market for it.”

She hopes that as the market for organic products grows, prices will fall. Nonetheless, Buena Tierra’s meals offer good value for the quality and health benefits of the food. For just a few hundred colones more than a breakfast or lunch of similar proportions elsewhere, diners can enjoy a much healthier and environmentally conscious meal.

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