The ladies were out to lunch and found a gem in the heart of the city.
Arte y Gusto Café, with its blue and white facade, is in the historic downtown San José neighborhood of Barrio Amón, in a delightful, renovated, turn-of-the-century house.
A peek at the menu posted outside will tempt your taste buds and encourage you to try this reasonably priced restaurant with its striking variety of culinary offerings. Stepping inside, you are immediately struck by the spacious interior. Wooden tables for two and shiny, chrome chairs are placed well apart, allowing for intimate conversation, or can be joined together to accommodate larger groups without feeling crowded. The restaurant also has a private room that accommodates business groups or parties.
The decor is a combination of off-white and chocolate-brown walls, while the table runners, scatter cushions and fabrics draped from the ceiling are in muted tones of beige, brown, mustard yellow and dusky pink. The floor lamps made from plastic corrugated roofing and lampshades made from chicken wire add to the sense of fun the owners have put into their project, which opened in February.
The gusto part of the café’s name no doubt refers to both dining pleasure and taste, but we remarked that the arte was missing, as the walls sported little artwork. Don’t speak too soon; the surprise was yet to come.
The delightful, charming owners, husband- and-wife team Gerald and Patricia Richer from southern France, have years of experience in the restaurant business. Before coming to Costa Rica a year and a half ago, they owned a restaurant in Saint-Tropez on the Mediterranean coast. Their associate, Bertrand Ducos de Lahitte, hails from the French Pyrenees and gave us personal, friendly service throughout our leisurely lunch. He explained in English some of the French terms on the menu, while Gerald acted as barman and concocted a mojito and caipirinha, both with a substantial kick. We munched on little homemade rolls served with the most delicious olive butter, while chef Patricia was busy in the kitchen preparing our orders from fresh ingredients purchased daily at San José’s Central Market.
The appetizers are almost meals in themselves (¢2,000-¢3,800/$3.80-$7.20). Choices include a savory mille-feuille layered with sweet peppers, beets and Mozzarella cheese, plus a small quiche served with salad. We ordered the excellent house pâté, shrimp salad and duo de verrines, a wonderful combination of thinly sliced vegetables, olives, apple, raisins, green tomato gazpacho and avocado mousse.
When our orders appeared, the stunning presentation of the salads in verrines, long-stemmed wine glasses, filled to overflowing, took our breath away, and proved quite a challenge to negotiate. Now we knew where the arte part of the restaurant’s name came from. The myriad colors and flavors and wonderful, mouthwatering combination of fresh veggies and fruits were all we could wish for.
“I have no formal training as a chef, but I adore cooking – with a French flair, of course,” Patricia told us, smiling. “I love to create my own recipes. I try to make them as visually appealing and original as possible.”
In this she certainly succeeds.
For main courses, you’ll find a choice of steaks, chicken and fish, plus duck, which is the most expensive (¢5,200-13,000/$9.80-$25). None of these dishes are accompanied with the usual vegetables but rather with original additions such as veggie flan and pumpkin crème brûlée. The latter was served with the classic octopus cooked in its own ink. The diner felt it was too rich, particularly as the octopus, which was on the chewy side, was served in its own rich, black, dense sauce, with moist rice and aioli. A lighter accompaniment might have been a better choice to cut the richness.
I ordered the tagine, slowly simmered chicken with all the typical ingredients found in this Moroccan specialty served with couscous. It was a delicious combination of flavors, and the generous portion defeated my small appetite. However, unwilling to leave even a morsel, I asked for a doggie bag.
The prix-fixe executive lunch (¢3,500/ $6.60), which changes daily, must be one of the best bargains in San José. The day we went, the choice was carrot soup or a tasty onion tart and small salad, followed by fish cooked in coconut milk and served with savory rice, and, for dessert, a moist chocolate brownie topped with whipped cream. It proved to be a very good, satisfying choice for the price.
The only dessert we ordered from the selection, which included fruit crumble and peach au gratin with a shot of rum, was the tiramisu mousse. Light and fruity, it bore no resemblance to its Italian cousin, though it was an excellent ending to a delightful lunch.
I will not hesitate to return again to sample more of Arte y Gusto Café’s innovative menu.
Arte y Gusto Café
Location: Barrio Amón, Av. 9, Ca. 3b, on the west side of INVU.
Hours: Monday to Friday, noon to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m.