The colors don’t change in Costa Rica like they do in the United States, but fall was definitely in the air on a cool rainy Sunday afternoon when I went to Búlali Café and Artisanal Bakery in Avenida Escazú, southwest of San José.
Tucked away in a corner of the development’s sleek exterior, Búlali emulates the casual dining bakery-café that has popped up in the U.S. in recent years, combining artisanal breads and sweets with soup and sandwich fare.
Búlali puts a petit French twist on the concept, incorporating tartines and French open-face sandwiches, alongside almond croissants (my personal favorite), while emphasizing organic and local ingredients.
The restaurant’s French influence comes from chef and owner Alexa Quirós’ love of classic European pastries. After studying at the Culinary Institute of America and then hotel management at Cornell University, Quirós worked at Café Boulud in New York City for a year before returning to Costa Rica.
“I loved the sweets, but after a while all the processed flours and colorings and sugar started to make me feel sick. That’s when I started exploring healthier, organic foods,” she said in a telephone interview.
Her dining philosophy led to the name, Búlali, which means honey in the indigenous Bribrí language: something natural and Costa Rican that reflects her background in classic pastry.
A nook of couches and upholstered chairs greets visitors as they enter through large glass doors. The bakery case shows off a collection of croissants, tarts and cookies, with a wall of baguettes in the background. Distressed planks of brightly painted, reclaimed wood adorn the bakery bar.
Opposite the bar, a large pick-up-sticks wooden lattice curves over diners like a cresting wave, offering some drama and scale to the café’s interior design. A long, high table in the back sports several swings, where fidgety guests can work off some anxious energy or just rediscover their inner-child.
I passed on my inner-child and took the stool opposite my friend.
With Halloween and Thanksgiving around the corner, autumn flavors were on my mind and Búlali’s menu delivered.
The squash butter (I know how it sounds, bear with me) sandwich that came with slices of green apple, Camembert cheese, arugula, pear jam, and “biodynamic” vanilla on wheat bread made me want to curl up in front of a fireplace. Unfortunately, this great vegetarian sandwich missed out on being excellent when it wasn’t served hot (or at least not by the time it reached my table).
No fireplace available, I turned to the next best thing: soup. The onion soup, a dark brown blend of caramelized onions, came out in a large bowl, served with Gouda toast. The soup was satisfying but lacked the richness of a French onion soup made with beef stock.
This, of course, is a plus for diners looking for vegetarian or even vegan fare. Quirós said that whenever possible she tailors her menu to diners with dietary needs, often forgoing meat, processed sugar and gluten.
The quinoa salad was served with a generous helping of the super food on top of a bed of lemon-dressed arugula, topped with sweet, dried cranberries and almonds. It’s hard not to fixate on how well dressed the greens were. The lemon vinaigrette seemed to know when to stand out and when to step back and let the other flavors come to the front. The only low note in the quinoa salad was, well, the quinoa. The “mother grain” has a lot of potential but ended up a bit plain and could have been left off entirely of an otherwise satisfying salad.
After our server cleared the plates the real star of the meal arrived, a chocolate praline tart. Albeit small, the tart, with chocolate ganache layered on top of a sweet praline poured into a graham cracker crust, showed the patisserie’s potential.
Unlike a praline from the southern United States, which is often made with corn syrup, Búlali uses honey instead, a wink to Búlali’s namesake. Quirós said that their kitchen uses locally sourced honey as their principle sweetener, from iced tea to pastries.
Paired with two Americanos, the tart was a perfect end to a meal that managed to tap into my nostalgia for fall in the U.S.
Prices reflect the bakery café’s high rent Avenida Escazú’s location, but most patrons that afternoon came to indulge their sweet tooth and catch up with family and friends over coffee or hot chocolate. And despite the colorful setting, lighting and whimsical décor, I couldn’t help remember that I was in a concrete box, which leaves the back of the shop feeling cavernous. Although it means forgoing the swings, I think the front of the bakery is much more inviting and takes advantage of the natural sunlight that reaches under the upper floor’s awning.
That being said, Búlali is a nice upscale alternative to the Starbucks at the Avenida’s entrance, where friends can catch up and enjoy a locally sourced lunch or just skip straight to the chocolate praline tart.