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/

CAFÉ GIBRALTAR – a Window to Italy

Wood-Burning Oven
Loaded with Focaccia Bread!

If I haven’t mentioned it before. I’m Italian. Genovese. Might explain my love of food. Certainly explains my passion for, and obsession with, the rituals that surround dining.  Food is to be shared with those we love.

I have been twice to my homeland. One of my most vivid memories is the moment I pushed open the heavy green shutters that locked out the sunlight in my hotel room at the Splendido in Portofino. I unlatched them with some difficulty, and as I pulled aside the sheer draperies and stuck my head out into the sunlight, I looked out over that water directly into my past. That was the first time I laid eyes on the Italian Riviera. The Coast of Italy is a stunning place, tropical and alluring. It was a golden October afternoon, the water was awash with sunlight, and as the light bounced off the surface of the Mediterranean and into the sky, it went from a glowing yellow-tangerine color into this incredible shade of deep cornflower. The water was gold and the sky was blue.  I took a deep breath. I was connected to this place. The air spoke to me in welcoming murmurs, the water sang of fishermen and boats, and the landscape beckoned. I was home.
Croquettes of Crab
Early last April, the Better Half and I went over the bridge to Half Moon Bay. We had a date to meet a friend for dinner. One of my daughter’s favorite teachers, she has become family over the years since she first cast the Makeup Artist in the lead in the school play. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll call her The Drama Teacher. When she first moved to El Granada after retiring, she’d found a lovely restaurant she’d offered to share with us and we were at last making our way for a visit. Our date was for dinner at the Café Gibraltar.
Entering the restaurant itself is a bit like walking into a small family restaurant somewhere on the Italian Riviera. The colors on the walls recall the vibrant tangerines, salmons and corals held within the hues of a glowing Mediterranean sunset. The booths contain purples and blues, all of the booths within reflecting the blue of the sky over Cypress, or Malta. The decor really echos the spirit of the coastal islands and towns.  The owner calls the restaurant the Gateway to the Mediterranean. Given how clearly it evoked for me that first sun-drenched afternoon on the Italian Riviera, I would say it is a success. Upon entering Café Gibraltar, one could believe themselves anywhere in that sunny corridor of the world, the smell of the Pacific Ocean only enhances the sensations of other-where-ness. Blissful.
Hawaiian Walu

Now to the experiences of the evening and the food. We arrived first at The Drama Teacher’s home, joined there by a good friend of hers who was celebrating a birthday. We’ll title her the Birthday Girl. The lovely and charming Birthday Girl brought us to a party of four. We gathered in the kitchen for champagne and a Happy Birthday toast. Is it even possible for an evening to go wrong when it begins with strawberries and Perrier Jouet? I don’t think so.

By the time we got to the restaurant, we were feeling festive, so with the effects of the champagne still ablush on our cheeks, we proceeded to order a spectacular bottle of red wine. It was a special occasion, after all. The Drama Teacher knows her grapes. Once we had poured our glasses full, we toasted again and began to sample the cuisine of the Mediterranean as interpreted by the Chef at Café Gibraltar.

First up, a Croquette de Crabe. Our little group had decided to share everything, which is my favorite way to consume food. So when it arrived, there was a flurry of forks. I love sampling. If I could, I would decree the universe to be all tapas all the time. But I digress.

Mezza Platter

What the Chef has titled a Crab Croquette at Gibraltar is a splendid puff-pastry concoction filled with Dungeness crab and fried in rice oil which made the airy crust even airier. As fried dishes go, this one was in competition with say, cotton candy and clouds. The moist pink crabmeat inside the croquette still held a bit of chill against the heat of the hot outer shell, making for this lovely little surprise taste sensation as the cold and heat hit each other in the mouth and the flavors mingled. It was flavored magnificently with a subtle touch of green onions and just enough garlic to pop on the tastebuds without being overbearing. The puffs lay atop a savory basil pesto, flecked with tomato and lemon saffron. There were three of the lovely puffs, each with a temptingly golden outer crust and an interior literally bursting with juicy flavor. So, so, so, good. Of the three appetizers we shared, this was pretty much the overall favorite.

The second dish we tried was a Hawaiian Walu which was chilled ceviche-style preparation of the soft fluffy walu, a nice white fish that lends itself to intense flavors, as its own are very subdued. The Chef used jalapeno, red onion, and diced avocado chunks to blend with the fish, which was nicely cured in lime juice. Then he added a lovely lake of coconut milk beneath the seafood slab and its sweetness set played against the heat of the jalapenos beautifully. Because of the brilliant combination of heat and milky sweetness this dish was perhaps my personal favorite. Nothing is quite so compelling to me as that combination well done. Some foods speak in a whisper, others like a lover whispering in my ear. Thrilling.
Gnocchi ~ Delectable… look at those mushrooms!

While feasting on the above dishes, we also shared a Mezza Platter, which is essentially a sampler of five varieties of spreads and dips from all over the Mediterranean. It includes something called Tzatziki – a delightfully tasty combination of yogurt, cucumber, garlic and lime that was great on their bread.

And here I should take a moment to digress and wax prolific about their bread. As you can see from the photo, they have a lovely brick oven, in which these round and robust loaves of manna are roasted until they are sheer perfection. It emerges from the ovens a lovely focaccia, dimpled and oiled as only this Italian native bread can be. They slice it up and serve it hot. With absolutely everything.

So, back to the Mezza Platter. Tyrosalat is a creamy mash of Feta cheese, sprinkled with chillies, and scrambled with milk and mayonnaise; Hummis will be familiar to most as the soft, flavorful crush of chickpeas and sesame, which is lovely spread over bread; Tomato Jam was a lovely compote, the consistency of heavy blackberry jam, and made from fresh tomatoes, garlic and olives. The Tomato Jam was among my favorites of this platter. It was savory and well seasoned and quite memorable. There was a mixture called Nezukton that I do not think I tasked, and a along with the dips a delicious ensaladilla de piquillos (salad of chopped peppers), roasted garlic cloves and house marinated olives. All of this went very well with the steamy focaccia as it arrived — loaf by glorious loaf — fresh from the wood-burning ovens.

Pot-au-Feu de Poisson

Our mains arrived promptly upon our demolishing our appis. I had the Gnocchi de Patata al Tartufo which was a bowl of delicious house made potato and truffle dumplings baked with artichoke hearts, wild mushrooms and baby roma tomatoes. It arrived in a ceramic hat of a serving dish, piping hot, the liquid surrounding the potato dumplings almost boiling. The dumplings themselves were a perfect consistency, a bit of a bite, but soft enough to mingle and absorb the broth and all its flavors.

The BH enjoyed the Pot-au-Feu de Poisson. It was a nice dish of fresh local dungeness crab meat, scallops and shrimp, with a beautiful slab of perfectly cooked seasonal white fish atop it. The whole dish was covered in a creamy sauce of tomato, saffron, white wine and herbs, which was swimming with calamari and mussels. The broth was delicious, and even the rouille topped crouton was perfect.

Petrale Sole

The Drama Teacher had the fish special, her fish was fried, the breading light and fluffy containing within an amazingly tender poached whitefish. The Birthday Girl had the Petrale Sole Meunier which was a gorgeous piece of fresh local sole, pan roasted with sage butter, and served atop a pearl pasta vegetable melange and drizzled with lemon & olive oil. The creamy sauce on top, and the garbanzos and artichoke hearts beneath it were the perfect marriage of classic Mediterranean flavors. It was spot on. So much white fish and not one dish was repetitive. Not one fell flat.

The desserts all looked so good we tried several. The Better Half thought the Flourless Chocolate Torte looked good, so he’d ordered that, and I can’t resist anything with coconut or cream these days, so I ordered a Banana Coconut Creme Pie. Serendipitously, the Birthday Girl ordered a Lavender Creme Brulee, which was the other dessert that had captured my attention. It arrived with a lovely thoughtful candle blazing on top of it.

Banana Coconut Creme Pastry
in Caramel

The Chocolate Torte was a thick, rich flourless chocolate torte, decadently served on a bed of raspberry coulis. The Coconut confection was a housemade flaky pastry shell filled with caramelized bananas, coconut pastry cream, fresh whipping cream and shaved chocolate. My idea of heaven. BG loved her Brulee, and even let me have a bite or two. I love the milky sweet treasure that one reaches by breaking that hard crust of the outer shell. There is something viscerally satisfying about smashing one’s way into the delicate belly of a good Brulee, and this one was a smooth, creamy custard infused with essence of lavender.

It was indeed the local treasure that was promised, the food as varied and pleasant as any natural delight served up by the Mediterranée itself. I wholeheartedly suggest that any and all who are fond of Italy, or of the rich hearty flavors of that part of the world, make time to find your way to the Café Gibraltar. As always, Bon Appetit!

CAFÉ GIBRALTAR
425 Ave. ALHAMBRA
EL GRANADA, CA
(650) 560-9039
http://www.cafegibraltar.com/
Service: Excellent
Noise: fairly boisterous, maybe two (and up to three) bells, but mostly we could hear each other speak okay.