Itinerant Gastronome Alights in Sabana Norte
Love and talent go hand in hand to create a dining experience you won’t forget at Park Café, in the western San José neighborhood of Sabana Norte. Two-Michelin-star-rated chef Richard Neat of England recently opened the restaurant to complement his partner Louise France’s antique shop.
The Colonial-style house built by France nine years ago looks totally authentic with its mossy, tiled roof, stone floors and old Guatemalan wooden pillars. The open-air dining area surrounds a courtyard filled with lush tropical foliage, stone statues and a tinkling fountain. At night, intimate lighting creates the ambience for an unforgettable romantic experience. The elegant decor, a stunning collection of antiques and restored fabrics, is all for sale – if you want to buy a Buddha, this is the place to find one. France makes frequent sojourns to India, Indonesia and China to buy these amazing treasures.
Neat has been a lifelong fan of French culture and cuisine. To learn his trade, he apprenticed himself first to celebrity chef Raymond Blanc in Oxford, and then to the acclaimed Joel Robuchon at Jamin restaurant in Paris, where he became the great man’s saucier.
Neat opened his first restaurant, Pied à Terre, in London when he was 25 years old. By 29, he was the youngest chef ever to achieve the prestigious two-star status from Michelin, Europe’s best-known hotel and restaurant guide. Among only a handful of British chefs to be granted this honor, he didn’t stay to bask in his hard-won glory, but rather sold his restaurant, took off for India and opened Longchamps in Delhi’s renowned Taj Hotel. After three years, the itinerant gastronome moved to the south of France and opened a neat little restaurant called “Neat” in the trendy Mediterranean resort of Cannes. His next destination was Marrakech, Morocco, and a restaurant called Casa Lalla. He then met fellow Brit France at a London rock concert, and followed her to Costa Rica.
Word of mouth travels fast, and Neat has established a dedicated following. People drop by for a light lunch, afternoon tea with a dessert plate or a candlelit repast accompanied by a bottle of wine from Neat’s personally selected wine list. Rave reviews I’ve recently heard include accolades such as “Park Café is divine,” “the food is exquisite,”“stunningly created and presented” and “a dining experience you can’t find anywhere else in San José.”
Neat is experimenting with a new idea: “I’m getting away from gastronomy,” he says. His menu consists of only tapas, big appetizers, though not giant platters where everybody can dig in.
“Boredom is the greatest enemy in the kitchen, and I’m working through the motions of another form of haute cuisine,” Neat says. “I use only fresh products and never regurgitate another chef ’s recipe; everything I serve is my own creation.”
Though the tapas concept may not appeal to everyone – a recent visit for lunch with five gourmands didn’t quite live up to everyone’s expectations, as some were disappointed there were no main courses – it delighted me, being a small eater and lover of tapas.
The menu was somewhat confusing for our group, as we were not sure whether the choices offered were for one person or to be shared. The waiter who brought us baskets of cigar-shaped, individual loaves of hot bread served with a red pepper tapenade seemed as confused as we were about the size of the portions, so in the end we each ordered a different item.
We chose the roasted quail – a rarity in this country – three birds served with apricot stuffing and onion puree, each decorated with a small quail egg; wild-mushroom-stuffed ravioli with tender young asparagus in a basil sauce; bite-size fillet of pork served with sweet corn soup; Japanese tuna rolls accompanied by tempura shrimp; and small, grilled fillets of beef topped with fondant potatoes. When the beef was requested rare, the waiter assured us it was too thin to be cooked this way, but we ordered it anyway and it turned out to be a delicate pink. Some of the dishes we were able to share, such as the three quails, two fillets of beef and the sushi.
The menu includes about 20 choices, including brochette of shrimp with deep-fried squid and mango salad – highly recommended – cannelloni and carpaccio of red snapper with leek salad, and a choice of daily specials. Everything was delicious and artistically presented ($9-10 per tapa, including 13% taxes). We ordered four more tapas, making a total of nine for the five of us, and two dessert trays ($9 each) of delectable goodies, such as small servings of chocolate mousse, strawberry tartlets and flambéed bananas, as well as coffee.
Our total bill, including two glasses of Chilean Trio house wine ($5) and domestic beers ($3), came to ¢89,000 ($170). The general consensus among the group was that this was pricey, despite the excellent food and delightful ambience. However, I found it to be a unique and extremely enjoyable experience, and would be happy to indulge myself again for a special treat.
Location: Sabana Norte, 100 meters north of RostiPollos.
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Neat’s menu can be viewed online at www.richardneat.blogspot.com.