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Taste of the Middle East in Heredia

Baalbek, a town in eastern Lebanon, has been in the news recently because of the crisis in the Middle East. A striking photograph of the town’s famous ancient ruins is depicted on the front cover of Baalbek Bar and Grill’s glossy menu.

Nevertheless, the choices offered are not limited to Lebanese fare, but include Costa Rican,Mediterranean and international cuisine, with a separate section devoted to Middle Eastern dishes.

As Baalbek was recently awarded a Five Forks distinction by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), a visit for Sunday lunch seemed a good idea.With its location up in Los Angeles, San Rafael de Heredia, north of San José, the restaurant offers stunning views of the Central Valley from its glass-walled dining rooms, and especially from the second-floor balcony.

The scent of cypress, whispering pines and eucalyptus trees wafts through the fresh mountain air here, and the building made of wood, stone and brick stands in harmony with the country setting. These materials are also used throughout the spacious interior, giving it a rustic yet refined ambience. A friendly bar, cozy corners with sofas and fireplaces add to the warm, comfortable atmosphere.

At the end of the large dining room, Costa Rican chef Andrés Sánchez, assisted by two sous-chefs, can be seen grilling a variety of meats and adding the finishing touches to the appetizing-looking and -smelling orders.

Sánchez worked at the InterContinental hotel in SouthBeach, in the U.S. city of Miami, and has 22 years of experience in the culinary arts, including French and Arabic cuisine.

In total contrast to the spaciousness of the restaurant, a visit to the ladies’ washroom gave one the impression that it had been added as an afterthought. Beware! The miniscule cubbyholes gave even my fivefoot, 95-pound frame a problem.

The day of my visit was a sunny Sunday, so my party of five opted to sit on the terrace under the inviting, canopy-draped pavilion, furnished with a sofa, easy chairs, a coffee table and a Persian carpet.

We ordered drinks and a “Taste for All” appetizer plate ($17) that gave us the opportunity to sample a variety of Middle Eastern specialties: tabbouleh, hummus, falafel, grape leaves stuffed with chicken and rice, kibbe, deep-fried ground beef patties filled with raisins, pine nuts and olives, and baba ghanoush, grilled eggplant dip, all served with warm pita bread for dipping.

Attractively presented on a large platter, it wasn’t as tasty as it looked, mainly because of the lack of salt, herbs, spices and garlic. Admittedly, we were critical. Having made most of these dishes, or enjoyed our friends’ renditions, we decided we could do better ourselves. The only other starter ordered from the selection of international hot and cold appetizers was the excellent, creamy, fresh asparagus soup.

Partway through our meal, the clouds rolled in and it got chilly.Our obliging Cuban waiter had no problem when we decided to move upstairs.Main courses proved to be fair to excellent, and most of us decided to stick to the Middle Eastern menu, our main purpose for being there. One adventurous member of our party ordered the kibbe nayee, a Middle Eastern version of steak tartare.

Our waiter politely pointed out that it was made with raw meat – had he had problems before? Our carnivore steak tartare aficionado knew exactly what was in store, but the huge portion defeated her; she enjoyed about half of the 400-gram serving.

The shish kebab, a lamb brochette with onions and green peppers, was drenched in too much sweet and sour tamarind sauce, which resulted in a deliberation between two diners regarding the authenticity of the meat; one thought it might be beef instead of the advertised lamb. In the end, the diners concluded it must be lamb, but lacked the flavor normally associated with lamb.

From the ocean, the Yaknet Samak, a fish fillet smothered in a fresh tomato sauce and served with a baked potato and house salad, was obviously appreciated, as not a morsel was left. From the international menu, which included different cuts of grilled steak, chicken and even a couple of pasta dishes, my salmon was grilled to perfection, moist, pink and delicious, but far too much for me. I requested a “kitty bag” and thoroughly enjoyed it cold for supper the next day.

For dessert, the rice in the rice pudding was undercooked. The baklava, served with ice cream and chocolate sauce, was loaded with pistachio nuts but was not dripping with honey as usual for this dish.

We all enjoyed the ambience and the service was fine, but the food, we thought, did not rate five forks.

Prices for appetizers range from $5 all the way to $24.50 for the jumbo shrimp cocktail – somewhat excessive, I thought. Apart from pasta dishes, main courses start at about $12 and go up to $28 for a surf-and-turf dish. Desserts range from $3 for rice pudding to $7 for baklava, and the extensive liquor and wine list features average prices. Prices don’t include the 13% sales tax and 10% service charge.

Baalbek Bar and Grill is open noon to midnight, 365 days a year, according to manager Ronny Rodríguez. Dancing to live Latin music is offered Thursday and Saturday nights, with belly dancing performances every Friday. For information or directions, call 267-6683.



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