LA COSTANERA – “On the Waterfront”

Succulent Yucca Balls

Succulent Yucca Balls

One of the glorious things about living in California, and more specifically, the Bay Area, is one’s ability to spend the day in virtually any climate by driving only a few hours in any direction. Whether one is craving the chill of a snowy hillside, yearning to be sheltered by the protective arms of towering redwoods, or seeking the warming comfort of sun and sandy beaches, California provides it all. My favorite escapes have always been the landscapes where the sand gives quickly away to the height and expanse of rocky cliffs found along our north coast, where the massive waves that can be found there, carry only the bravest and most skilled of surfers across the face of the oceans deeps.

Located on just such a beach, La Costanera is itself an escape worthy of being sought on its own. The first feature to capture one’s attention upon entering, are the huge glass windows that gracefully overlook a flame-heated patio abutting the very edge of the seashore. The interior of the aptly named La Costanera – a title that translates from the Spanish to “the waterfront” – recalls both a subterranean grotto and a sleekly modern house of light and glass. This magical cave, is a light infused, modern expanse of glass, light and ocean, where the sea vista is can be viewed beautifully from each and every table. It’s an otherworldly setting in which to partake of a meal.

And the meals here are unique, as Chef Carlos Altimirano definitely has a gift for exploring the roots of his culture through the food of his native Peru.

Lomo Saltado

Lomo Saltado

If you’ve never experienced Peruvian cuisine done properly, then you’ve missed out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. I discovered the joys of these flavor profiles a number of years ago when a co-worker from Lima insisted we accompany him to a spectacular little place in Oakland. He guided us through the menu, providing insider tips on just what to order. Thus, on the occasion of our visit to La Costanera with two dear old friends, I knew just what dishes they might enjoy, and was able to pass on his advice to a vastly successful conclusion.

My favorite dining option is shared plates, whether the menu is geared to tapas or not. Sharing food with a table of any size, creates a bonded experience like none other. After a quick vote, my party and I opted to share everything we were about to order, so that each of us in turn could experience completely every dish ordered. So the fun began.

Two of our party declined to drink, as driving those beach roads after dark requires a sober head. This presented the Better Half and I suggested they try a Chicha Morada — a Peruvian mainstay — which is a drink comprised of purple corn, sugar cane and spices. A deep, royal, purple in color, it is as pretty as it is delicious. Success.

Calamari Chicharrones

Calamari Chicharrones

After taking a quick survey as to what dishes might appeal to whom, and fighting my natural instincts to simply order the menu, we began with a sampler plate of Causa. Causa is a savory confection of creamy whipped potato that can be augmented with any combination of stuffings. The sampler is a trio of offerings diners can choose according to what suits them. Ours were stuffed with buttery lobster, another comprised of mushrooms and cheeses, and the last was topped off with a beautifully seared scallop. To accompany the pillowy luxury of the Causas, we also ordered some Calamari Chicharonnes. Traditionally, chicharrones are a dish that originated, in true peasant style, as a means to keep any part of the animal from going to waste. It calls for frying up offal, such as pork skin or odd cuts of meat and turning them into delicious, bite-sized bits of heaven. Ours were a combination of calamari rings and whole baby octopus, a lovely golden brown platter of delicious snacks. The last dish we ordered from the appetizer menu was a platter of golden, crispy Yucca Balls. Yucca balls have the shape and crunch of a tater tot, but are so much cleaner in flavor. This version of fried yucca balls were succulent, moist and laden with cheese, chorizo sausage and plump little raisins.

Once we’d finished our smaller plates of appetizers, our mains began to arrive. The first was a platter of seasoned Pork Belly accompanied by a slab of potato covered in traditional spicy yellow sauce, or Papas a la Huancaina. Papas is one of the first things I’d ever sampled from Peruvian cuisine, and it’s spectacular in its simplicity. Something about the bite of the potato against the teeth, and a delicate cream sauce that looks like egg yolk, but is instead a combination of feta cheese and egg, laced with Peruvian spices, resulting in a consistency almost identical to yolk, but a bit more complex in flavor. Chef Altimirano’s Pork Belly was a completely new experience, meatier than most I’ve been served recently, bright red with seasoning and looking more like a rack of baby back ribs than traditional pork belly. Fantastic.

We finished off the meal with a giant platter of my favorite Peruvian delicacy, Lomo Saltado. I’m told by those who know these things, that this dish originated as a Latin take on the Asian dish jumping beef, and has evolved over the years to be a standard on most every Peruvian menu. It’s a beautiful pile of moist, saucy beef, with a Latin-Asian flavor profile, served either atop a pile of crispy french fries, or the reverse. In this version, the fries were on top of the beef. It’s a bit like poutine in presentation, and though the sauce is not quite a gravy, it’s plentiful enough for dipping the fries in to get every last drop. It’s certainly just as addictive.

Sharing a meal with friends is rewarding. Sharing an unusual meal with companions who have not yet tasted dishes you hold dear, watching their faces as you sample old favorites together, allows you to relive your own first bite, and is even more rewarding for having been shared.

Pork Belly Skewer

Pork Belly Skewer

Check it out. Make memories of your own. If Half Moon Bay seems too far to travel of an evening, Chef Altimirano has several other restaurants, including the recently opened Parada in Walnut Creek. He aims to please, and don’t forget to order the Lomo Saltado.

La Costanera
8150 Cabrillo Highway
Montara Beach, CA 94037
(888) 997-4078

NIDO Kitchen & Bar: Nestling in at Abuela’s Table


Aguachile Verde de Pescado

When I set out to dine at a new restaurant, particularly one in Oakland, I’m always looking for that restaurant’s point of view. What is the experience intended for the diner? What’s my takeaway other than a satisfied appetite? In the case of Nido, it’s the easy comfort of dining in your grandmother’s kitchen.

Nido’s interior is what I can only describe as “inviting industrial.” The ceiling and walls are color-blocked with various shades of gray and bear the texture of rough-hewn cement, the starkness of these surfaces thoughtfully broken up with brightly-colored frescoes celebrating the spirit of Mexican culture. Birdcage chandeliers dot the ceiling, casually offset with delicate strings of golden bulbs that break up the space above its guests like sstars in the evening sky. It is an eclectic and inviting interior, one that appears to have been arranged with the random abandon of a bird feathering her nest. Yet the sense of deliberate thought for detail comes through loud and clear. The space is successfully organic, and the vibe it creates enhances beautifully the experience of dining within its walls.

We’ve been to Nido several times now, each meal more rewarding than the last. On this most recent visit, we began with cocktails, the mixologist at Nido being a master craftsman. Nothing is quite as delightful as beginning the weekend with a salute to the accomplishments of the past week, and a perfectly mixed cocktail is a great way to salute anything. The Vuelve a la Vida, with its smoky mescal base, accented with blood orange and absinthe, was subtly complex and rewardingly delicious. My companions had the Isla de Sangre and Tres Rojas. A sip of the Isla de Sangre revealed it to be herbacious, not too sweet, allowing the flavor of the aged rum to be highlighted on the palate. The Tres Rojas by contrast, was deliberately on the sweet side, the pomegranate and hibiscus taking center stage with every sip. Depending on your preference, all three drinks served up a great balance of flavors.

Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo

Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo

We began our meal with a selection of the appetizers. One has to try the guacamole and chips in any Mexican restaurant, and Nido’s take on the classic was spot on. The Aguachile Verde de Pescado arrived right behind the guac & chips, and was as pretty as it was delicious. I’ve developed an obsession with all forms of ceviche, but the bright flavor-forward taste of the Mexican version, if done well, always resounds. Ceviche is a simple dish, but one that must be executed perfectly to succeed, as it fails if it isn’t balanced. At Nido, every bite of citrus-bathed fish was appropriately tender, it’s soft, briny texture countered beautifully with the addition of watermelon radish and shredded carrot to keep each mouthful appropriately toothsome. Finished with a nice kick of the roasted serrano chile at the back of the throat, the lasting impression is one that any seafood lover will enjoy.

These tasty appetite-whetting bites led us nicely into the Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo. If you’ve never experienced a good Pozole then it’s time you did. In my grandfather’s kitchen, the equivalent would have been a peasant minestrone, but in Abuela’s kitchen, it’s a Pozole. In Nido’s offering, each hearty, melt-in-your-mouth spoonful of chicken, steeped in flavorful golden brown broth, is laced with the same level of love in the preparation as the peasant minestrone my grandfather would serve me as a child. “Cooking with love” has become such an over-used term in culinary circles, and is such an obvious “go-to” phrase, but it resounds in a well-done bowl of soup nonetheless. Soup is the food that reminds us of mothers bearing gently warmed bowls of chicken-broth to a sickbed, or piping hot cups of tomato goodness to the kitchen table to greet us when we’re still rosy-cheeked from a day of outdoor chill. It simply is love in a bowl. If that ingredient is missing, it fails. Fortunately for the patrons of Nido, somebody in the kitchen loves you. A lot.

We followed the Pozole with a trio of soft-shelled taco selections: the Barbacoa de Res a mouth-watering little flavor bomb of slow-braised beef and peppers; the Puerco Adobado chock full of tender pork meat with the bright, refreshing balance added by citrus-y fruit salsa; and the Muslito de Pollo Asado a blend of glazed and grilled chicken, topped with a bit of the delectable fruit salsa mentioned above. Each one had that blissful marriage of meat and acid, that takes full advantage of the naturally rich characteristics of the meat protein, successfully offset by either the acid in the peppers or the tang of chopped fresh fruit.

The last dish was the Ollita de Pobre, another standout dish with peasant origins. Have you ever wondered why so many of our best current dishes came from the humble tables of our past? Because when you have simple ingredients, and often very few of them, the cook must be creative to make it palatable. When a cook in that environment stumbles upon a rewarding dish that can be recreated on a meager budget, that cook remembers the recipe. This dish clearly originated in the mind of a clever cook making magic in a pot with rice, beans and meat. A little pico de gallo and the right spices, and you’ve made yourself some magic. Here it’s served in a happy little blue pot. One knows when you pop that lid, you’re in for some good grub.

Puerco Adobado - Muslito de Pollo Asado - Barbacoa de Res

Puerco Adobado – Muslito de Pollo Asado – Barbacoa de Res

Somehow, over centuries the best dishes held, and these have been passed on in various cultures to bring us the flavor combinations we rave about in this age of accessibility. You no longer have to know someone with a Mexican Abuela to taste the dishes of a different culture’s family table. In this case, you can head to Nido and taste them for yourself. So grab a friend, break some bread and make a memory of your own. Mangia!

Nido Kitchen & Bar
444 Oak Street
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 444-6436

FRESCA ~ Peruvian Ceviche (just like Grandma used to make)

Except that my Grandmother was Italian, and never made ceviche in her life.  I don’t think I even knew what ceviche was until maybe a few years ago.  My oldest daughter is a quarter Peruvian, but I digress.

I ended up in this little gem in the West Portal district of San Francisco through the suggestion of a friend.  Thus, while it’s a find I cannot take credit for, it’s one I really enjoyed. We were joined there by said friend (who lives close by) and her lovely daughter, in town on break from studies at Harvard.  This friend is aware that the BH and I have become endlessly fascinated by various food establishments, and in her words, this was the “most interesting restaurant” she could think of to bring us to.  How thoughtful of her to make such an excellent choice.

When I think Party of Four, I think in terms of quantities of appetizers!  I mean, that’s enough people to order at least three apps, right?  We arrived hungry, and a few minutes early for our 6:30 reservations.  The place was pretty full.  There were only two tables, one right in the doorway, and a nice big six top in the back with comfy banquette seating.  Fortunately, they were kind enough to allow us the slightly bigger table away from the door, which after my near refrigeration at Sala Thai, I was prepared to argue for, but thankfully there was no need.  Victorious in my non-battle, seated and with a menu, I began my meal with a glass of wine.  The BH and our companion shared a pitcher of sangria.  I ordered a Malbec, but the waiter said they had just run out and he offered me a blended Malbec.  I found the compromise quite tasty.

Our companion was interested in sharing a platter of ceviche. They have quite a few selections of ceviche at Fresca.  It would seem to be a specialty of the house.  Some of you might remember I am always on the hunt for ceviche that can compare with the amazing taste treat manufactured at Tamarindo in Oakland.  I wasn’t sure this would live up to my expectations, but life is after all an adventure.  I’m always willing to try something new. 

Fresca has maybe eight different ceviches, all prepared on the spot.  Our companion has a soy allergy, so he offered to make them soy free and informed us they can be made to order.  Though they have sampler plates of up to five of the multitude of offerings, we decided three was sufficient to try on this occasion.  We ordered their Trio of Ceviche – which resulted in a platter containing three different ceviches with a nice offering of sides.  The first we tried was the Ceviche 5 Elementos (described as the tradicional peruvian ceviche; halibut, lime juice, rocoto, red onion, sea salt)  The next was the Ceviche Mixto (menu: squid, halibut, prawn, clam, cilantro, red onion, rocoto aji, lime juice, sea salt), and finally we had a Salmon Ceviche  (salmon, passion-fruit, lime, pink peppercorns, cucumber shiso leaf, andean corn, cancha).  I was impressed.  In my mind Ceviche must be prepared carefully or it’s either too fishy or too chewy.  I’ve had ceviche that was only edible, some that is good, but few that are actually great.  This was delicious. The sides were yams and (I believe) some lovely pickled mushrooms.  The blending of the savory salmon with the yam meat was the most stunning.  It was a perfect study in contrasts.  My mouth rang with the gentle savory meat of the fish, the citrus of the ceviche pickling sauce and the soft sweet cream of the yam.  The fish was tart, well-seasoned and extremely moist. An absolute hit.

The next appetizer we tried was a dish called Camarones Chícama, or coconut-crusted jumbo tiger prawns.  They sat atop a black bean salad, with what they described as a lucuma-orange glaze.  No idea what lucama is, but these shrimp were cooked beautifully, and the crunchy-coconut sweet outer shell soaked up the glaze, the meat inside was moist and laced with a hint of the seasonings it had absorbed from its marinade.  Combined with the beans and corn salad beneath, and the tang of the dressing… another impressive offering.  At this point, I’m thinking this place was on a roll.

The last of the appetizers we sampled were called Tequeños, which though dubbed a fried wonton filled with shrimp and crab cream cheese, was more of an eggroll filled with plain soft cream cheese.  The promised flavors of crab and shrimp did not properly materialize, bur rather were a tiny presence, sadly overwhelmed by the cheese.  The crust of the wonton was slightly greasy and was too heavy for the filling.  It might have worked if there was some texture from the crab and shrimp, to cut a bit of that cream chees, but the only thing I tasted was a mouthful of cream cheese.  The dipping sauce, (an lovely light aji amarillo aioli) added some tang, but not enough.  I found this dish not well thought out, and not as flavorful as I’d have liked. At least the side salad that came with it had an lovely chunky tomato salsa in a perfectly seasoned vinaigrette that was quite good.

The BH ordered a Chupe, which is a creamy seafood chowder.  The menu listed its ingredients (other than the seafoods) as andean corn, potatoes, rice, green peas, aji panca, poached egg.  When it arrived the poached egg sat on top ominously (the BH is not normally a fan, though I am) but to my amazement he gave it a try and he loved it.  The soup was full of various fresh fish, mussels, shrimp, everything from the ocean but the kitchen sink. 

I ordered a variation on the seafood stew, I think it was called Picante de Mariscos.  Mine also had a creamy base and much of the same seafood, but it was much spicier.  This dish was the sort of thing I dream about at night.  I’ve often written how much I love heat in my food and this was hot.  Really spicy, but not so much so that it made the dish difficult to eat, or wiped out the other flavors. It was spice perfection. Every bite was creamy, with the flavors dancing on the palate until the heat made it’s appearance, like the finishing kick at the end of a jig.  There was just a tiny bit of sweetness blended into the broth at the base, but the dish was mostly a savory one.  Though it was slightly reminiscent of a curried coconut broth, it was not exactly a curry, nor was it coconut flavored.  It was unique and absolutely delicious. All the seafood was remarkably moist and tender as butter. Not a bit overcooked or tough.  I have never had calamari that tender.  Never.

Both our companion and her lovely daughter had the Pimiento Relleno, a bright red bell pepper stuffed with a rich quinoa vegetable risoto, manchego cheese, and asparagus, and topped off with an aji amarillo cream.  I tasted it and the ricy filling was good. 
We left happy and satiated.  I loved my stew so much, that, even though I was stuffed, I just kept eating until there was a sad, empty bowl before me.  You know that feeling you get when something you really loved eating was completely gone?  Sadness.  But a good kind.

I know it’s a bit off the Oakland trail, but if you’re hungry and in the City, check it out.  They’ve got several locations, and I’m guesing the food is as good at all of them.  The menu is pretty much the same.  However, if you’ve been to one of the others, let me know.  I know if you visit this one, you won’t be sorry.  Bon Appetit!

Fresca (West Portal)
24 West Portal
San Francisco, CA

Noise level: fairly ‘busy’ might be hard to carry on a conversation for those with difficulty hearing
Table size: adequate
Cost: Reasonable (Soups/Stews 18, apps 12 -ish)