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
http://www.lacostanerarestaurant.com/

DOUKKALA – the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Morocco is a land of mystery. It has been the setting of a multitude of films, perhaps the most famous of which is the unforgettably iconic Casablanca. Casablanca was story of adventure,

Lovely Ahi Tartare & Quail Egg

Ahi Tartare & Quail Egg

lost love and heroism, set against the perfect backdrop, a mysterious and intriguing city on the North African coast, Casablanca, Morocco. The city remains a curiosity in the American imagination, as evidenced by the many film makers and song writers that have made it the subject of their artistry. It’s no wonder. Colonized by the French at the turn of the 20th century, the two cultures mingled and cuisines blended to produce a unique result, a compelling marriage of African and French flavors and techniques. The first time I experienced Moroccan food was back in the seventies, in a restaurant whose name I have long forgotten. I remember only that we sat on pillows and ate with our hands, quite literally, immersed in a bit of Moroccan culture. My first little trip on the “Marrakech Express.”

I haven’t really been afforded an opportunity to fully experience the flavors since then, but as our global community grows ever smaller, the cuisines of other lands seem to be more and more readily available to the consumer. Such opportunities are a gift, and we should take advantage of such gifts when they present themselves. So when I was recently invited to sample the menu at the newly renovated and rebranded Doukkala located in Oakland’s Temescal District, I decided to take my own advice and check it out.

Oysters in the Shell

Oysters in the Shell

THE BEGINNING

The restaurant has chosen the terms “California Moroccan” to describe the cuisine provided within. With all the variations on descriptive terminology used to entice us, one can have some difficulty translating the terms into our expectations of the food offerings within. Doukkala is aptly named. It is a blending of the style of California and the flavors of Morocco.

Chef Eric Lanvert presented us a masterful Tasting Menu. The opening salvo was a delightful chilled Gazpacho, ripe with the blush of summer tomatoes and Mediterranean spices. Richly seasoned, the soup carried the mysteries of the locale along the tastebuds, a thrilling little adventure in flavors that was just the right temperature to awaken the palate.

The next course, a special “off-menu” preparation from Chef Lanvert, was a beautiful little mountain of Albacore Tartare. The delicate combination of the buttery fish on the tongue as it blended with the subtle kick of spice, made the dish irresistible to this seafood fanatic. No sooner had we devoured our Tartare than we were presented with a glorious Pacific Dayboat Scallop, nestled beautifully in a pillowy bed of jerusalem artichoke velouté. The velouté itself was a lovely consistency, akin to that of perfectly creamy grits, and a stellar companion to each delicate bite of the perfectly seared morsel of seafood atop it. Sublime.

THE MAINS

The next dish, a Grilled Spanish Mackerel was a bit heartier than those that had preceded it. Mackerel is an oily fish, its flesh is rich and tangy, rather like an overgrown sardine. It is the sort of fish that really holds up to the hearty tomato and olive-based preparations Chef had chosen to accompany this dish. The fish was crisped beautifully, and the blissful Morroccan

Day Boat Scallop on Jerusalem Artichoke Veloute

Day Boat Scallop on Jerusalem Artichoke Veloute

tapenade alongside it was tempered perfectly by the delicate sauce of mint and green peas drizzled along the plate, allowing a hint of the sauce with every bite. By the addition of the olives, the dish was pushed right up to edges of salty, but the oils and hint of mint pulled it right back to an execution of excellence that all but transported the diner to the streets of Marrakesh. With each bite I could imagine myself shoulder to shoulder with other travelers, making my way along a crowded street in the heart of the bustling city, the smells of the street food wafting along in the air, as eager vendors shouted the superiority of their wares in a foreign tongue.

The Mendocino Quail Pastilla was the final offering of the savory courses, and it was an imaginative bridge to the sweet side of the meal, arriving at the table in the form of a puff pastry of filo dough filled to the brim with savory, succulent quail meat. The top of the pastry was sprinkled with a dusting of powdered sugar, lending a hint of sweet to an otherwise savory filling. The filo dough wrapped each tender bite of dark, spicy quail, with a toothsome crunch, the filling of anjou pears, honey and spices, keeping the bird meat itself from any hint of gaminess. The dish bridged the road to sweet from savory from a uniquely new and appealing perspective. It was decadent, rich and incredibly satisfying.

THE DESSERTS

The final course was a lovely tasting trio of dessert offerings: a succulent Panna Cotta, a delicate Spiced Chocolate Cake topped with crème fraîche and the classic Middle Eastern dessert, the Baklava. The Panna Cotta was creamy and light; the chocolate cake rich and moist and the Baklava was laden with honey, but not overly sweet, which I found refreshing. All three were delightful. The perfect end to a really splendid meal.

Dessert Trio

Dessert Trio

THE WRAPUP

When I arrived at Doukkala, I was expecting a family-style meal of plentiful bowls, containing casually ladled out couscous and kefta. I was both surprised and impressed to taste the bounty of dishes that were actually presented to us there, each having both a delightfully artistic classic French appearance in the plating, while containing a variety of vibrant flavors and textures expertly representing the best of Moroccan cuisine. If you are a fan of adventure, or even if you are not, I believe a visit to Doukkala is in order. I found it sublime. As always, check it out, break some bread, and make a memory of your own.

DOUKKALA
4905 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609
(510) 653-8691
info@doukkalarestaurant.com

LA FOLIE – Countdown to Foie-hibition…



It begins…

 
When it became increasingly apparent that the forces determined to outlaw the sale of the fantastically decadent “fatted liver of the goose,” otherwise known as foie gras, were going to be successful, we made a series of reservations for as many meals as we could afford (and digest) in the months leading up to the fateful date: July 1, 2012.

The Upside:

The impending legislation did have some unanticipated benefits. Chefs were up in arms and madly preparing their best versions of this delicacy in countless special menus. There were dishes of seared foie, chilled torchons and country patés. The precious lobes had been grilled, seared, baked, frozen, flaked and liquified. These months we spent eating before the spectre of the long arm of the law and it’s restrictions on commerce, were a whirlwind of foie, in a cornucopia of flavors, textures and presentations.

The Downside:

Foie, truffles, and some other delicacy
(who notices after the foie?)



Months later, I find myself reminiscing about these meals, missing the spectacular and inventive preparations of this fatty delicacy, and wishing foie were more readily available. It’s hard to say how long the eagerly misinformed will continue to prevail. I know that while they have succeeded in shutting down one major California foie producer, (a small tragedy in this economy), they have not succeeded in turning anyone away from it who is so inclined. Foie will continue to be raised and to be eaten. While it may have to be purchased by the consumer before the Chef can prepare it, or given away by some establishments, it will not disappear. Prohibitions don’t work, they simply force people around the rules. That which comes from imposing one’s will on another without real purpose, always falls away in the end.

The Meals:

Of our many excursions (or as one waiter called them Sa-FOIE-ris), the one at which we almost cried uncle was one of the early outings. When one is looking to experience a true French delicacy, one has to head to the French,, and Chef Roland Passot was accommodating. He was more than accommodating, he just about buried us in foie.



The piece de resistance

 We thought we were badasses. We were “ready” for what he had to offer up. The man who was flitting about his kitchen like a whirling dervish in the kitchen had nothing on us. We had appetites for foie that could never be sated. The waitress warned us. We laughed. “Ha ha, we thought, we can eat all the foie you can throw at us.” And we began. Appetizers of foie gras. Mains of foie gras. Foie gras specialities. There were only three of us, and the fact was I have never seen such large servings of foie. It was like this man had decided to feed the world, not just our little table of three. We powered through the appetizers, sailed through the first and second courses of foie laden delights, but by the time we hit the giant lobes of seared foie in a sea of tart summer cherries, the best among us were beginning to slow down. 

Foie Sliders



The plates kept coming, and we kept eating, but it was slow-going toward the end of our meal. We’d been beaten into sleepy comas of bliss, having been served mounds of the most delectable dishes I’ve ever eaten. Forced to admit to our waitress that we’d maybe, just maybe, had eyes a tiny bit bigger than our stomachs. But only a bit.

 The portions were massive compared to other fine dining establishments, but I can’t say we were sorry. Looking back, I’m delighted Chef Passot indulged our cravings so thoroughly. With no immediate foie on my horizon, I can at least, remember that night of bliss.

Chef Passot skills are legendary for a reason. Check it out for yourself, make a lasting memory of your own.

La Folie
2316 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
1-415-776-5577
http://www.lafolie.com