EL Balcón de Europa’s claim to fame dates back to 1909, when San José was bereft of restaurants serving international cuisine in traditional, elegant, European surroundings.Today, despite immense competition, it continues to be a culinary landmark in the heart of the city, only a few minutes’ walk from Plaza de la Cultura. Late chef Franco Piatti took over the restaurant in 1984, and until his death in 1996 his revered Italian restaurant was a household name among Ticos and foreign residents alike, as well as being popular with tourists. After Piatti died, his wife ran the restaurant and his trained staff continued cooking his sought-after recipes and homemade pasta dishes.Now, the grand old restaurant has a new proprietor. Chef Jean-Pierre Popis, formerly of La Brasserie Parisienne on Paseo Colón, took over El Balcón de Europa seven months ago, and has made significant changes in the menu. A French restaurateur from Bordeaux, he studied the culinary arts in Paris and has been cooking for more than 40 years. Naturally, French cuisine now dominates the menu.“I do all the French cooking and the previous chefs do the Italian,” Popis said. I’M ashamed to admit that although I’ve lived here for many years, I had never been to El Balcón de Europa before the day of this review. Two members of our party of four were familiar with the restaurant, however, and verified that the decor remained the same, including the red-and-white checked tablecloths. The all-wood interior, including floor, paneled walls, bar and even the ceiling, is made from nazareno (purpleheart), a tropical hardwood. I was fascinated by the sepia photographs of San José that covered the walls. They dated back decades, some to 1915, including one of a tram trundling down Paseo Colón. A collection of portraits of past presidents and photos of coffee harvests, cultural events and today’s well-known beach resorts – totally deserted and undeveloped – offer a wonderful glimpse into the country’s history, not to be missed when you visit the restaurant.WHILE I prowled around looking at photographs, the rest of the party sipped on the pleasant French house wine, a Labouré-Roi Albert Lucas, and nibbled on the fresh bread served with pats of butter and small pieces of cheese – an old tradition carried over from Chef Franco’s era.Appetizers included escargot, carpaccio, Serrano ham with melon, oysters and other seafood, in addition to a variety of soups and salads, at prices ranging from ¢1,650-5,900 ($3.40- 12.15), including 13% sales tax and 10% service. The Caesar salad (enough for two), made with romaine lettuce, contained all the traditional ingredients and was delicious. One of the parties misread the menu and ordered what she thought was an arugula salad. To her astonishment, it arrived piping hot in a small dish. We all gaped at it, and then tasted the strange looking salad. It was delectable! Potatoes drenched in olive oil and garlic were covered with what looked like vermicelli noodles. Our attentive waiter solved the mystery; our companion had ordered angula (eel), not arugula, but certainly had no regrets about her blunder.THE main courses offer a good selection of fish, seafood, steaks and pasta dishes. Apart from the duck and dishes containing shrimp or lobster, prices range from ¢2,650-5,900 ($5.50-12.15). The chef’s specials that day were couscous and merluza, a succulent fish steamed with salmon in a butter sauce laced with tequila.The English translation of the contents in the couscous made us chuckle: sheep and prickly sausage. However, one of our party, a former resident of North Africa and a good judge of couscous, pronounced it “very good indeed.”Another member of the group was thoroughly enjoying her merluza until she decided to eat the decoration, a tempting-looking crawfish.It was green inside and smelled terrible. When we pointed this out, the response was far too casual, we thought, when profuse apologies were in order.The blanquette of veal was tender and cooked to perfection, as was the rabbit, served on a bed of tagliatelle with a fresh tomato and mushroom sauce. The presentation of the main courses was attractive and colorful, and the portions extremely generous.The desserts we sampled proved to be the real McCoy. The crème brûlée was exceptionally good, and the homemade cassata ice cream – an Italian favorite – was laden with candied fruit.We all agreed it had been an excellent lunch in friendly, comfortable surroundings, with good service apart from the crawfish episode. El Balcón de Europa is an ideal spot to meet a friend downtown, or enjoy a meal before catching a performance at the National Theater.Location and hours: 50 meters south of the Hotel Del Rey on Calle 9. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Monday to Friday, and 2-11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Phone 221-4841.
Today in Costa Rica