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/

TAMBO Peruvian – Latin American Authenticity comes to Oakland

Ceviche Peruvian Style

Ceviche Peruvian Style

We’ve all been exposed to regional foods over the course of our lives, but let’s face it, the food available to us in the past wasn’t anything to write home about. Growing up, Chinese food was bright red sweet and sour chicken, greasy noodles overloaded with soy sauce, and fortune cookies. Italian was Bertolli’s “all you could eat” spaghetti, a mushy, tomato-laden expression of food from my Grandfather’s homeland. Mexican food was most often represented by pre-fab taco shells stuffed to the brim with packaged spices and inexpensive ground chuck. The fifties and sixties brought us a variety of cultures, but our simplistic palates and fast food expectations kept restaurants from preparing dishes that accurately illustrated the food of their native cultures. Instead we got an almost cartoon-like iteration of these foods from across the globe. We were a people who wanted what we knew, and we wanted it fast.  If one wanted to experience any real form of global cuisine, one had to travel.

Yuccca Balls - cruncy, delicious bites o' Heaven

Yuccca Balls – cruncy, delicious bites o’ Heaven

The past several decades have seen these sub-par ethnic foods all but vanish. Though they can be found, they are now the rarity, rather than the norm. I am thrilled that Oakland boasts some really bad ass representations of authentic, uncluttered, and uncompromised, ethnic delights. Personally, I’m always on the hunt for a new one. It’s my new thing. My entire staff helps me hunt down and identify these new dining experiences. Several months ago, my paralegal suggested we try a new Peruvian Restaurant that had just opened a few blocks from my office. I’ve had measured success finding good Peruvian, and my expectations were, quite honestly, very low.

We hit them early on, when they’d just opened. There were a few bumps, a component here or there, but wow. Just wow. The flavors were unique and everything was just, well startlingly delicious. The Chef, Patricia Rios, had really hit on something good. We let the Peruvian Paralegal (did I mention he’s from Peru?) order his favorites, and he took us through the menu masterfully. Since that first visit, we have returned often, as there is just only so long a person can do without this food.

Shrimp & Potato

Shrimp & Potato

Let me start at the beginning, with the ceviche. Peruvian Ceviche is a bit different from the standard Mexican fare you might be used to. It’s bathed in acidic “milk” rather than just the citrus cure that is more common to Latin fare from North America. Both are effective, but the Peruvian version is definitely different. The pictured version is a whitefish, but Chef Rios does a beautiful olive & calamari ceviche that’s absolute bliss as well.

Next up, the tasty “amuse” of yucca balls. We’ve had these every time we’ve been, and they really set the palate up nicely for a Latin meal. Bursting with flavor, these tiny, cruncy mouthfuls are a huge hit with our little group of diners.

Peruvian food feautures a lot of beautiful seafood. We happen to love seafood– it is a big favorite in our little band of adventurous diners. She does a particularly luscious giant shrimp atop a beautiful potato mixture (I’m not remembering the Spanish for the dish, I apologize, will try to add later) and the end result is a tangy, delicious blend of creamy starch and toothsome crustacean. Patricia really knows how to cook seafood: her shrimp are always perfectly cooked and bursting with the moist briny flavor of the sea. The sauce is a creamy drizzle of local spices which I personally find absolutely delightful. There is something familiar, yet unknown about her combinations of flavor that keep me returning over and over.

Generally we have two or three appetizers, and one or two of the bigger dishes, all shared between four people. We like to try something new that she’s come up with, in addition to our stand by favorites. Among those favorites are the large seafood combo (as you can see, chock full of mussels, shrimp, and all manner of delectable seafood) served atop rice, somewhat reminiscent of paella, and the Llomo Saltado.

Llomo Saltado

Llomo Saltado

We are absolutely mad for the Llomo. This is a Peruvian take on “Shaken Beef” though its name translates more accurately to “Jumping Beef,” the origins of the dish are traceable when eating these beautifully seasoned, moist and flavorful chunks of beef with a vaguely Asian twist. The meat is nestled on a platter of piping hot fries, and all of the components have been blanketed with a light beef gravy. The salty fries meld perfectly with the lovely tang of the meat sauce. I can’t accurately describe how mind-blowingly tasty this dish is, but it is something we have gone back for again and again.

Patricia Rios is a passionate and imaginative Chef, who is continually reinventing her food in order to give her patrons a new dining experience on each visit. The combination of new treats and old favorites keeps Tambo from ever getting too static, though she’s smart enough to maintain enough of her customer’s favorites on the regular menu, to keep us all coming back to re-experience this stunning new cuisine in its many incarnations.

Tambo Peruvian is an outstanding addition to the East Bay Food Scene, and my suggestion is that you check it out for yourself. Break some bread and make a few memories of your own!
Bon Appetito!
Tambo Peruvian