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/

COMMIS Restaurant – Starry, Starry Night~

Hibiscus Jasmine Soda
Before she left to study for the Bar in Los Angeles, the Grad Student managed to talk her father and I into several nice “going away” meals. Since I’m a sucker for a nice meal with either or both of my children, this was not a difficult task on her part. As we were discussing the various choices on our short list of places to select for one of our lovely little “food-a-tetes,” Commis in Oakland made its way into the dialogue. Commis is the French nickname for the bottom assistant in the kitchen of the Chef. The guy who cleans up after everyone else in exchange for kitchen experience. That little guy (or gal) at the bottom of the kitchen’s pecking order.

The GS and I chatted a bit, weighing the pros (it’s got a Michelin star, a great reputation and it’s local) against the cons (there weren’t any, except that the restaurant is small and reservations might be hard to come by). It took very little to push Commis to the top of our list. That conversation was just the necessary catalyst to get us to check it out before The Grad Student’s move to So Cal. It was just a matter of making the time to get there. So a little over a month in advance, I called in a reservation for three and we settled in to wait for our little trip together to bliss out on food. Again. We managed to obtain a reservation in an early evening slot, right as the restaurant opened, on a date we could all manage to make it. We picked a Wednesday so she would be done with class for the week and able to relax for the evening. I called. They answered. We were on the books and would soon be dining at Commis. Success!
Amusing Eggs!
The date rolled around and we headed to the address on Piedmont Avenue. We arrived a bit early, found a parking space and headed to see if we could get in early for a drink. We found a parking space directly across the street from where we believed the restaurant to be, but we were unable to see for sure, so we walked over to it. We got as far as Bay Wolf and realized we must have missed it. Turning around we walked back down the block and stopped where we thought Jojo’s used to be. All we saw was an awning. No street number was visible, but the door way led to a partially obscured window, with an interior visible that appeared to contain a kitchen. Maybe. The door was still locked (did I say we were early?) so we couldn’t peek in to see if it was indeed the right place, but it had to be. We know Piedmont Avenue pretty well, but even for those familiar with the area this place is pretty well hidden. It is the very small unmarked doorway next door to Bay Wolf, just across the driveway, on the same side of the street, and is the sort of tiny “hole-in-the-wall” that just isn’t going to be a place you accidentally stumble across. It’s more like many of the hideaways we found in Italy — but only with the help of locals and several maps. So trust your gut and be persistent. If you get there and lose your bearings, keep trying to find your way. It is well worth it.
Now on to the meal!
the Bowl of Spring (Asparagus Soup)!
We were quickly escorted from the doorway past the kitchen to the tiny dining room. The entire area consists of approximately six or seven tables set out in a dining room slightly bigger than my own. It is, however, a long, airy, very chic space with slick appointments and a very welcoming layout. It is also nicely lighted. A good place to show off, experience and consume food. The meal is always a single prix fixe of approximately sixty dollars for three courses. One may add another thirty for wine pairings with each course. We chose to go with the full deal, and experience their pairings in addition to the food. It was a wise decision, and actually pretty reasonable considering what one can sometimes pay in a fine dining establishment. I must remark here on something I have noticed in several restaurants recently that really irks me. Two people came into the restaurant, were seated at their table and handed menus. They looked briefly at the menus, called the waitress over, and left. Now given that this is not an establishment where one can simply walk in and sit down, the only conclusion I can draw is that these women did not do their homework. Or that perhaps they didn’t like what was on the menu? But that seems odd since there were three choices in each category and the food was not all that adventurous. In my mind, this sort of behavior demonstrates a lack of respect for the chef and the restaurant as a place of business. It’s not like the food was ill prepared, these women hadn’t yet tasted a bite. They clearly just changed their minds. Tacky. Those are decisions that should be made before one actually arrives at a restaurant for dinner. Just my opinion, but check the menu, check the prices, and check the restaurant’s methods of service before you get there to save everyone time and embarrassment. Why cost them a seating, especially in a place this small, smack in a middle of a recession? Again. Tacky, tacky, tacky!
But I digress. In spite of this momentary hiccup, our dining experience was truly wonderful.  It began, as it so often does, with a creative chef serving us a clever little amuse bouche. Shortly after we put in our orders, we were each presented with a tiny glass shooter of Hibiscus Jasmine Soda, which was actually a “pre-amuse” bouche — an extra treat to whet our appetite for the next piece of what I hoped would be a masterful painting. The soda was full of promise for just that: light, fresh and frothy, it made a lovely tasting palate cleanser with which to begin our meal.
Abalone – heavenly perfection
The amuse bouche came next. This dish is one so good that I sincerely hope the Chef keeps it on the menu for some time to come, as I’d love to experience it a second time. Before going to Commis, I had read many on-line comments about this dish. It seems to be one of those special concoctions that makes an impression, that has a personality all its own, a dish with layers.
It looks like a fried egg in a ceramic bowl, but it is actually a perfectly poached egg yolk atop a cloud of onion cream disguised as egg white, with a sprinkle of smoked dates and chive meant to be eaten along with the foam and egg. The yolk was as full-bodied as a pudding, rolling over the tongue, it’s thick golden syrup mingling with the onion, dates and making the most amazing flavors together. It’s a magical concoction. My BH hates fried eggs. He doesn’t like egg whites. The look on his face just after he took his first tentative bite of this egg cream magic pudding was priceless. The uncertainty in his face turned to surprise. Our neighbors at the next table received theirs and the looks on their faces were likewise skeptical. Then we heard “Oh my goodness you have to taste this. It is the best thing I have ever eaten.” I certainly can’t disagree.
Oh Cod, that was good!
We were next treated to our appetizer courses. Since she has an allergy to seafood, the Grad Student thought the abalone might be risky and so began her meal with an absolutely delightful Chilled Asparagus Soup that might best be described as Spring in a bowl. The flavors of yogurt, pistachio mousse and a hint of meyer lemon mingled with the fresh asparagus to create a taste that mimicked well the tastes and sensations of that vernal season.
The BH and I do not have allergies, and abalone has long been one of my favorite foodstuffs on the planet. We each had the chef’s splendid Baby Abalone with Brown Butter, served over avocado with raw peas and kelp. The whole affair swimming in a pea shell bouillon. The abalone meat itself was soft and malleable, easier to cut with a fork than sponge cake. The bouillon and butter washed over the meat for the perfect blend of flavors. There is just nothing quite like butter and abalone for making a mouth full of tastebuds happy.
Once we got to the main, we were impressed and really looking forward to our dishes. There were three choices, and we decided to order one of each, so we could taste them all. Though the Grad Student was able to taste the Abalone (she is reasonably sure her allergy is not to shellfish), we knew she would not be able to try any form of whitefish, which was one of the main dish selections. Nevertheless she was kind enough to let us try a bite of hers.
Poached Guinea Hen
The fish choice on this evening’s menu was a delectable Confit of Atlantic Cod.  It arrived in the form of a lovely soft mound of Cod Filet sitting pertly in a broth of almond milk, carefully laid atop brown rice and a scattering of artichoke. The primary spice used was anise and the combination was this soft, delicate flaky, delectable fish with the most amazing subtle, luscious flavor. Oh my.
My my my.
The BH had their Poached Guinea Hen with seared potato, spiced with some crushed fresh thyme and served over spinach and chanterelle mushrooms. The meat of the bird was moist, fresh and savory, enhanced by the crispy outer skin which was seared to perfection. There is nothing quite like a well done bird in his book.
Slow Roast of Beef
Our little fish-deprived Grad Student had the Slow Roast Sirloin of Beef with caramelized cauliflower and something the callled Spring Garlic Pudding. The whole affair was lathered in a sauce of bone marrow jus, just bloody enough to make it deliciously moist, the meat itself a spectacular cut of beef. Yes, I said bloody. I am a proud and unabashed carnivore.
When we had devoured our mains, and after lots of fork sharing, we were ready for dessert. We ordered the cheesboard, which was a lovely selection of cheeses: blue cheese roquefort (Vermont); soft goat’s milk, Sonoma; Sheeps’ milk, med hard, wisconsin – honeycomb, meyer lemon marmalade, walnut levain. All of them good, all of them vastly different from one another, which is nice at the end of a meal. The Europeans had a great idea. There is something satisfying about ending a meal with both cheese and a hint of sweetness. I think it may allow the sugar to somehow better complete the sensations on the palate. I don’t know exactly, but I know it fulfills an almost carnal need on some really primitive level.
Along with our cheese we had to try the Chocolate Brioche Pudding. It was a dark rich and chocolate-y mound of goodness that succeeded in being rich without being too heavy. It was accompanied by a nice dollop of green tea ice cream; and a smashing Popcorn Custard. This turned out to be a serving of moist and puffy popcorn laden custard, sweet, chewy and enhanced by the addition of some caramelized puffed rice. I liked all the textures and flavors together.
Post Meal
Cheese Board
All in all, this was an amazing meal, well worth it’s star. But if you’re walking by, don’t blink or you’ll miss it’s twinkle!
Commis
3859 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611
510.653.3902
Dining time: leisurely, only serves dinner
Service: excellent
Noise level: moderate, maybe two bells. Quiet inside because it is small, but a good deal of wood. Doubt they could accommodate a large party, but if they could, it might be loud.
Chocolate Brioche Pudding