When The Tico Times relocated to Barrio Amón after 28 years at our old office in San José’s court district, many changes were afoot. A day on the job requires meals, afternoon pick-me-ups and the occasional after work drink. Where would we find these things?
As it happens, a place for all three, Kalú, sits right outside my window at the new office. Between the restaurant and its coffee shop, Caféoteca, all my food and drink basics are covered. And when I heard the restaurant recently revamped its menu, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore the new neighborhood’s dining options.
Kalú, of course, has been in the neighborhood, 300 meters north of the kiosco in Parque Morazán, a lot longer than we have. Since 2007, Kalú chef and owner Camille Ratton has been preparing an eclectic, sophisticated menu that reflects her family’s diverse roots.
Ratton’s grandfather grew up in Calcutta, India, and married a French nurse during World War II. Her maternal grandparents were Tico and Scottish. Besides her years in France, she also lived in England.
Trained in France at Le Cordon Bleu, Ratton has 20 years experience working in kitchens. Not surprisingly, she says that French cooking is the biggest influence on her menu.
Ratton says that the French are more adventurous in their cuisine, more willing to try new things. But she added that Costa Rica has its own unique food heritage, a melting pot of South American, European and Asian flavors.
“Ten years ago, when I said I wanted to put a quiche on the menu, people didn’t know what to think. Costa Rica’s culinary education has come a long way,” she said.
French cooking might be Ratton’s greatest influence, but after speaking with her I swore it was Asian. The chef admits that her tastes come and go in phases, but she says her favorite dish shifts between the Vietnamese bun and the “caldito,” an Asian-inspired beef soup with miso, soy, peanuts and vegetables.
The Kanjang tuna has been a classic Asian-inspired dish on Kalú’s menu since it first opened. Browned on the outside, the tuna was still pink on the inside without being raw.
The real star of the dish, however, was the vanilla soy sauce. Subtly sweet, it reminded me of an aged balsamic vinegar with Asian flavors, and elevated anything it touched. Thank God there were some al dente sesame sautéed vegetables on the side — what else would I have used to get more of that sauce? I even started dipping my dinner roll in it by the end.
Another classic is the Thai chicken, served with a lightly sweetened coconut curry sauce, and with almonds over rice on the side.
“They would kill me if we ever took it off the menu,” Ratton said laughing.
The oriental salad combines a base of fresh greens with cold rice vermicelli noodles, shredded carrots and mushrooms with soy sauce on the side. It reminded me of a vegetarian spring roll turned inside out.
Sitting on the patio speaking with Ratton in the afternoon sun, I remembered how different the space felt at night. Twilight pulls the curtains on the views of the green hills and the pitched roofs of Amón’s classic homes, making the deck seem smaller and more intimate. Soft orange-hued patio lights added to the mood. A perfect time to share a glass of wine or a craft beer from Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co. and an appetizer with friends or a date.
On another visit for lunch, we opted for dressed down fare and ordered the prosciutto sandwich on herbed focaccia and the beef lomito sandwich on oatmeal bread. I could go on about the medium-rare lomito pared with roasted red peppers and thick slices of manchego cheese, or the generous portion of salty prosciutto, cut with a sweet fig jam and a slightly pungent Parmesan, but the best part of these sandwiches is the bread.
Often the most overlooked and yet the most essential part of a sandwich, bread can be a standout ingredient or merely filler. Made in house, Kalú’s bread sets its sandwiches and baked goods in general apart.
The oatmeal bread was surprisingly light and moist, avoiding the dry mouth that sometimes accompanies hearty bread. The focaccia had the rich taste of olive oil, fragrant herbs and a spongy texture. Diners can choose their own bread-sandwich combinations, so feel free to mix and match.
Despite being a restaurant favorite, the falafel underwhelmed my lunch date. The garbanzo fritters were mealy and left her wishing for some kind of sauce, like tahini or hummus.
Erstwhile New York Times coffee writer Oliver Strand wrote that he often forgoes an after-dinner coffee because most restaurants, despite the otherwise excellent quality of their food, don’t take their coffee seriously.
It would be a stretch to say that Kalú ignores their coffee, but considering that Caféoteca, a café that locally sources export-quality coffee and specializes in a number of brewing techniques, is literally 10 meters away, I hoped for something more.
While Caféoteca blends Kalú’s house coffee, the restaurant menu makes no mention of its sister coffee shop located inside the same building. I understand the desire to establish separate brands, but collaboration here could elevate the coffee to the same level as the rest of our meal.
Ratton takes a lot of pride in the quality of her food and service, but be prepared to pay for it. Kalú is certainly not in the price range of the ₡2,000 lunch special at the taco stand down the way. An appetizer, shared salad, two lunch entrees, dessert and coffee set us back ₡40,000, roughly $80 without alcohol.
Guests leaving the restaurant might notice a small phrase painted in blue on a stout white tower rising next to the patio: te extraño, I miss you. Despite what they say about distance making the heart grow fonder, I’m glad Kalú is right next door.