San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Crêpes et plus: Le Bistrot de Paris Serves French Classics

Eating out is much more than satisfying hunger pangs. We look for tempting new culinary offerings, ambience and character. As you know, restaurants in the Central Valley come and go with confusing regularity and vastly differing levels of competence. Many don’t make it a year, while others are Costa Rican institutions. And some survive quite well once they’ve reinvented themselves and their menus a few times.

Le Bistrot de Paris is a tiny French restaurant and creperie, rustically simple and unpretentious in appearance. It lies in “restaurant alley,” a cluster of multicuisine eateries surrounded by upmarket retail outlets in the Momentum commercial center on Santa Ana’s Lindora road, southwest of San José. And a year after initially opening as a creperie, it seems to have settled into the scenery.

Entrance to Le Bistrot de Paris in Santa Ana’s Momentum commercial center.
Vicky Longland | Tico Times

Beyond the blackboard of specials facing the street, you enter a quintessential Parisian arrangement of crowded tables with red-checkered tablecloths and the barest of place settings, an open kitchen in the back and a clutter of fridges, plates and wine racks in between. More unusual is the electric organ taking up space near the kitchen, but more of that later. Forget sophisticated decor-by-the-meter; this little place ignores chic and exudes hominess.

My first foray to Le Bistrot was a spur-of-the-moment visit a few months ago, and I came away impressed. That day, my double ration of escargots came dripping with garlic-laden butter and parsley, and the papillote of corvina in white-wine sauce with miniature vegetables was perfectly cooked, the fish firm and juicy and the veggies pleasantly al dente. The crème brûlée was the closest thing I’d found to the real thing outside France.

Escargots with Breton cider.
Vicky Longland | Tico Times

Perhaps hyping things up a little too much, I gleefully invited my “munch bunch” to whet their palates and share their thoughts for this review. After fighting horrendous traffic that day, we finally got ourselves seated, hungry and expectant, not too concerned my reservation had not been delivered to the waitstaff.

However, as is the way of the world, other factors transpired to make this the runner-up to my first visit: the owner-chef was called away on an emergency, leaving just two in the kitchen; a largish group upstairs competed with our group of five and other tables; and the single waiter was stretched. The dining experience became a test of patience that saw our wine and drinks finished before our orders arrived at table, although after some nudging, we were given complimentary glasses of wine in recompense.

But to the food. Paris-born Suzanne Haim, the owner and chef, brought a legal background and penchant for music, art and cooking to Costa Rica in 1995. She set up a restaurant in the Pacific beach town of Sámara before moving to San José a couple of years ago. Her vision is to offer a small menu of French regional dishes with a healthier touch than their calorie-laden haute cuisine origins suggest.

Classics fill the lunch and dinner menu. Appetizers include French onion soup, escargots, chicken-liver terrine and coquilles Saint-Jacques. While the soup was a tasty, light version laden with caramelized onions, cheese and the requisite crouton on top, the escargots disappointed with barely a hint of the overflowing garlic butter and parsley I had wolfed down previously. However, the terrine got a thumbs-up for texture and flavor.

Sautéed fillet of salmon with hollandaise sauce.
Vicky Longland | Tico Times

We challenged the kitchen by choosing five of the seven main dishes on the menu. The confit de canard (potted duck breast) uses imported duck and was well received, as were the green-pepper tenderloin steak and burgundy-rich coq au vin, although an overall “wow” factor was lacking. My sautéed fresh salmon in hollandaise sauce had excellent flavor and texture, while my companion acknowledged her Thai salad was not a good choice in a French restaurant. As Le Bistrot started life as a creperie, we chose traditional crêpes suzettes, which were a heady, orange-liqueur delight. The crème brûlée was the right consistency but lacked its crusty topping, and the Belgian among us was not too impressed with his Belgian waffle.

That said, I can’t knock the intentions or the sincerity of Le Bistrot de Paris, and it is worth a visit. We were unlucky in that the irrepressible Haim didn’t arrive until we were ready to leave. Once in the kitchen, chef’s hat firmly on her head, things got back under control. Talking afterward about our experience, she apologized profusely for not being there and even had the staff come and listen to our findings.

Crêpes suzettes, an orange-liqueur delight.
Vicky Longland | Tico Times

Haim certainly brings not only her beloved French cuisine to the tables but also art and music. The abstracts on the walls are hers, and that electric organ accompanies her in the evenings when she plays and sings for her clientele. Not bad for someone the “other” side of 70! Besides the bistro menu from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m., Haim offers savory crepes made with imported dark buckwheat, sweet crepes, snacks and salads during the afternoon and until midnight to entice the after-movie or theater crowd. The bar sells cocktails, a limited but respectable selection of wines and an award-winning Breton cider, traditionally drunk from an earthenware cup with the crepes.

“Cooking is not far from art. I offer my food with humility for people to judge,” Haim said. So go and judge for yourself.

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