Meryl Streep I am not, but there I was in Sabana Norte, re-enacting her portrayal of a young Julia Child tasting her first sauce meunière in a romantic restaurant in post-World War II France. If you haven’t seen the movie “Julie & Julia,” this is the scene where Julia, destined to become the doyenne of French cookery in the United States, is rendered speechless by her first experience of French cooking.
Fast forward 70 years to Park Café, arguably San José’s most romantic restaurant, especially at night, when Japanese lanterns cast a glow over the courtyard garden and flickering candles highlight the exotic jumble of antique Asian treasures lining the corridors of this restaurant-cum-antique-shop. Lavish flower arrangements, with meter-long trailing heliconias and huge brushes of red ginger, tower over the dining area.
My partner, Peter, has just taken the first bite of his roasted duck breast with cannelloni of duck leg confit and chocolate sauce. “You have to taste this sauce,” he said. One taste and all conversation stops, replaced by alternating moans of pleasure and serial utterances of “Wow” from both of us. Once we have sopped up every possible drop of the sauce with crusty French bread, Peter, not given to heaping praise on anything, is able to speak again, simply saying, “This is one of the best sauces I have ever tasted.”
This is what makes dining out exciting: cooking that surprises your palate and commands your total attention. And that’s what chef Richard Neat excels at. With Michelin stars to his credit and past restaurant triumphs in London, Cannes and Morocco, Neat has been a shining star in San José since he opened Park Café in 2006, sending a shock wave through the restaurant scene with his exotic, innovative, appetizer-sized haute cuisine. Now, Neat has pared the menu down to four hearty appetizers (¢8,856- 10,701/$18-21, including tax and service) and four rich main courses (all ¢15,375/$30), and inaugurated a new wine list.
The hit of a recent dinner was definitely the duck, a tour de force – literally a tower – of slices of duck breast, cooked rare, atop a base of two cannelloni filled with duck leg confit, floating in a dark pool of chocolate sauce and encircled with a border of diced potatoes and carrots and fried parsley. The duck meat alone was divine, the confit dense and delicious. But it was the sauce that raised the dish to exalted heights.
“It tastes like it’s going to be chocolate, and then the sweetness suddenly stops,” said Peter, who likes to analyze things.
Intrigued by the chef’s time in Marrakech and surrounded by so much exotic decor, I decided to go for the most exotic dish on the menu: tagine of rabbit wrapped in prosciutto with dates and almonds. The traditional Moroccan tagine vessel of glazed clay arrived and the waiter ceremoniously lifted the cone-shaped cover, releasing a wave of warmth and aromas. The boneless rabbit was rolled in ham and roasted with sweet caramelized onions and toasted almonds, a perfect combination of savory and sweet flavors and contrasting textures. Strips of zucchini accompanying the rabbit were dense and moist with a roasted sweetness. As well as cooking the food perfectly, on this unseasonably cool night the tagine also kept the food stove-top hot to the end.
The artistry of food presentation here is another delight. Our appetizers looked as good as they tasted. I started with the roasted scallops wrapped in smoked salmon, atop a white cloud of fennel coleslaw on a contrasting round of red beet. The scallops were seared top and bottom, interestingly imbued with a subtle smokiness from the salmon rather than the usual bacon wrapping. In the center of the scallop circle was a bird’s nest of the thinnest slivers of tempura-fried zucchini, loaded with flavor and just the right saltiness. The fried flat-leaf parsley is one garnish you would never leave on the plate: One bite and a burst of parsley essence fills your mouth.
Peter’s pumpkin ravioli with deep-fried squid and coconut curry sauce were dramatically arranged on a glass plate etched with tiny fish scales and set atop a cobalt-blue plate. A hint of sweetness in the pumpkin filling was echoed by paper-thin rings of sweet potato encircling the plate. Underneath the ravioli, the fried calamari sank into the tangy sauce.
A bottle of Italian rosé – a 2008 blend of cabernet, syrah and merlot by Antinori – as dry and flavorful with “a good finish,” according to my oenophile partner.
It perfectly complemented the meal, from appetizers to mains to dessert. The wine list ranges from old world to new, with a careful selection of wines that are not cheap (¢21,156-53,505/$42-106) but are worth the price for a chance to try something different from the usual Chilean and Argentine selections. You can also order red, white or rosé by the 125-millileter glass (¢4,500-5,000/$9-10).
For dessert lovers, Park Café is heaven. You never have to choose because all five of the evening’s desserts appear on a long wooden tray to share (¢9,000/$18). Part of the fun is choosing in which order to eat them. We opted to start with a sliced meringue layered with frozen strawberry and vanilla fillings, a great palate cleanser.
Then it was on to a warm tarte tatin with tender flakes of buttery pastry enveloping al dente apples. Next up was a canoe of roasted pineapple, spiced up with black pepper, holding sugar-topped apple beignets. Still going strong – we were sharing, after all – we carefully divided a multilayer tower of crisp shortbread and strawberries in pastry cream. We saved our favorite for last: a round of chocolate fondant, smooth and creamy with a slight cakey texture on the bottom, and a hint of mint from tiny mint leaves.
The night we dined, the restaurant was full – a très intime total of 15 diners – and there was a convivial, pleasant buzz of chatter and laughter against a soft background of music and the trickling of the garden fountain. Diners ranged from tourists in T-shirts and jeans to an elegantly dressed party of seven.
Although not recommended, jeans and T-shirts are not entirely out of place; the chef, who serves many of the dishes, dresses in T-shirt and jeans himself – unusual, but indicative of the lack of pretentiousness here. The servers are eager and friendly, but perhaps a little too quick to clear and pour. If you want to linger and savor your evening, say so from the start. The only other quibble: Even though I asked for tap water, bottled water appeared, for a charge.
At these prices, Park Café is definitely for lovers of fine food or for those who want to learn the difference between good cooking and truly great cuisine. To go easier on your wallet, you can always choose just one course or skip dessert.
I can hardly wait to go back and try the other two main courses currently on offer: fillet of red snapper en papillotte with fresh vanilla and roasted artichoke, asparagus and white wine sauce; and the lamb cutlets with Provençal vegetables, ravioli of wild mushrooms and pesto sauce. They both sound wonderful. As Julia Child would say:
Location: West-side San José’s Sabana Norte, 100 m north of Rosti Pollos, left-hand side.
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 2:15 p.m. and 7 to 9:15 p.m.
Contact: 2290-6324, www.parkcafecostarica.blogspot.com.