O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ he chortled in his joy.”
With the first taste of the Fish Taco Trio at Kalú Café+ Cocina+Terraza in Barrio Amón, I was chortling as joyously as Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock-slayer.
The trio (¢5,700/$9.80) is sensational, presenting a medley of barely cooked macadamia-encrusted tuna with a coconut-andcilantro salsa, curried, firm-textured shrimp and mango-glazed grilled salmon, sweet and tender. All three are wrapped in the thinnest of tortillas and accompanied by a salad of baby lettuces in a light balsamic dressing, sprinkled with black sesame seeds.
There hasn’t been as innovative an entrée in this historic San José neighborhood since chef Camille Ratton ruled the restaurant scene at Bakea, her high-end, eclectic restaurant that lamentably closed two years ago.
Chef Ratton is back at the helm of the kitchen here, kitty-corner from her old Bakea digs. This time around, she’s taking it a little easier, with a more casual approach but with the same creativity in her fusion cuisine.
The word kalú means “meeting place” in the Kuna culture of Panama, and this Kalú certainly fits that bill, with an extra artistic edge.
Located in a former art gallery, the restaurant’s interior is made up of cubes of all-white spaces, echoed by sleek silver-and-white square tables and chairs. The art and dining room are totally integrated, with changing exhibits hung on the walls. There’s also the Kiosco SJO Boutique here, selling avantgarde jewelry, handbags, shoes and one-of-akind clothes, so you can amuse yourself while you wait for your meal. It all feels very Soho and arty but not in the least pretentious, given that the focal point of the café is a glass showcase of Ratton’s decadent desserts.
The best surprise here lies up a wide staircase at the back: a dining terrace edged by greenery and covered with a white Lucite-like roof. The view is not to be believed, facing west over the red rooftops and treetops of Barrio Amón toward the castle walls of the Children’s Museum and the stately glass domes of the Barrio México church. It almost feels like Montmartre instead of San José. If you dine early, you may catch these landmarks silhouetted against a spectacular sunset. At any time of day, it is also blessedly, miraculously quiet – this may be the only outdoor dining space in San José entirely free of fumes and traffic noise.
Though Kalú doesn’t open until 11:30 a.m., the first section of the menu is devoted to breakfast and brunch (for all those laterising arty types). Omelets, with choices of such elegant ingredients as smoked salmon, goat cheese, pesto and sun-dried tomatoes (¢3,100/$5.30), could double as lunches. There are also hearty French, Mexican and Tico breakfasts (¢3,250/$5.60) and homemade waffles with maple syrup (¢2,500/$4.30) or berries and whipped cream (¢2,750/$4.70).
Former Bakea fans will be happy to know that the popular roasted-tomato and basil soup is on the menu, along with Ratton’s cream of ayote (pumpkin-like squash) with rosemary (¢3,250/$5.60). Salads here are a whole meal (¢4,750/$8.20), accompanied by yeasty, just-baked bread. Many of the old Bakea favorites are back, including the Mediterranean salad of roasted peppers, eggplant and zucchini, and the Special Blues, mixed baby lettuces with Gorgonzola, apples and caramelized pecans. I opted for the tuna salad with generous chunks of barely seared tuna dressed with a pungent wasabi-andginger dressing.
Main courses include grilled salmon with a yogurt-and-herb sauce (¢7,520/$13) and Thai chicken in a curry sauce, served with jasmine rice flavored with mint and almonds (¢6,275/$11). My dinner companion opted for what he calls “adult pizza,” a white pizza with no tomato sauce, just a crispy thin crust topped with a winning combination of savory-sweet caramelized onions, smoky bacon and mozzarella (¢3,100/$5.30).
If you want a quick bite before a performance at the nearby National Theater or after an art gallery opening, there’s a baker’s dozen of sandwich choices, all served on freshly baked bread and accompanied by salad (¢3,990/$6.90). Tempting choices include roast beef with caramelized onions, roasted peppers and a Gorgonzola sauce, or chicken with cheddar, bacon, Dijon mustard sauce and sun-dried tomatoes. Innovative crostini and bruschetta (¢3,400/$5.90) include toasted ciabatta bread with a wildmushroom sauce.
On the drinks side, beer and wine are offered by the glass and half-liter. Fruit smoothies (¢1,800/$3.10) also come in halfliter carafes, as do the deliciously unusual smoothies made with green tea and chai. Tea actually comes in a teapot, and all the coffee variations are made with Italian Illy beans.
Bakea was renowned for its desserts, and the cakes, tarts and cookies here are up to the same high standard. New on Ratton’s dessert menu is light, Italian-style cheesecake (¢2,500/$4.30) on a thin, crunchy cookie crust. You can order it plain or smothered with a topping of black cherries, nutty caramel, pineapple and coconut or strawberries in balsamic vinegar – I can attest to how delicious this last topping is. For brownie fans, you can have your cake and eat your brownie too by ordering the cheesecake with a pecan-brownie bottom layer.
Drop in for a late breakfast or early brunch, a mid-morning espresso, a light lunch, afternoon tea and cake, dinner or tapas. Relax with a glass of wine in a leather chair on the terrace and soak up the view, while sharing a party-size antipasto platter. Browse in the boutique and admire the art. This café+cocina+terraza has it all, as the new “in” place to meet, greet and eat in the heart of the burgeoning Barrio Amón art scene.
Location: 300 m north of Parque Morazán, Calle 7, Avenida 11
Hours: Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Street parking with boleta is available; first hour is on the house. Visit www.kalu.co.cr to check each day’s daily special, including fruit drink, appetizer, main course and dessert or coffee (¢3,800/$6.60). You can also buy Kalú’s breads and desserts to take home.