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/

JACK’S OYSTER BAR & FISH HOUSE – A Seafooder’s Dream

Grilled Octopus Salad

Grilled Octopus Salad

THE KLONDYKER’S DREAM
(Jack London October 1898)

“…He came in good season, the table was laid;
The rich, fragrant coffee was steaming and hot;
The pastries and puddings were all there arrayed;
The beefsteak was done, aye was done to a dot.

His fingers, were trembling, so rich was the fare,
And when Grace was ended he murmured Amen!
And took, of all dishes, the beefsteak so rare;
Ah! He was the happiest man of all men.

The jaws of the sleeper are moving with joy;
Food quickens his palate, his hardships seem o’er;
A feeling of plenty steals over the boy—
“O God! Thou has fed me, I ask for no more. …”

In The Klondyker’s Dream, the narrator is starving; he dreams of a glorious feast, only to awaken to find a wolf stealing the last bit of dried meat from his tent. Too late to catch the animal, he resigns himself to an immediate future of lackluster meals. Meals that will serve only to sustain his life, as the animal has absconded with the last, treasured, morsel of the precious meat that is the only foodstuff in his possession he actually looks forward to eating. Lackluster meals are the stuff of his nightmares.

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Po’ Bau: Fried Oyster & Pork Belly on a steamed “Bau” bun

Lucky for Oakland, Jack’s Oyster Bar & Fish House offers no lackluster fare. It’s location immediately calls to mind my own youthful sojourns, dining along Oakland’s magnificent waterfront with family and friends. When I walk along the Estuary, I cannot help but be reminded of a young Jack London, Oakland’s Favorite Son. This famed seafarer and writer, a man who understood the powerful relationship between a man and his meals, remains a welcome ghost whose spirit will forever define the City in one way or another, particularly its waterfront. His close relationship with Oakland has inspired a great many restaurants to take his name, or the name of one of his literary works, yet it never gets old.

Those establishments that make this choice, often have a great deal to live up to. If they are not spectacular, then they fall prey to the rote of the tourist trap: another storefront sporting yet another hollow iteration of the Jack London meme. Fortunately for the diners of Oakland, Jack’s Oyster Bar lives up to its name, and then some. This stellar new addition to the Oakland dining scene is one which Jack London himself would certainly have frequented. Though it is possible that he would have found himself overwhelmed with the inventive cuisine moderne being served there, which while honoring tradition, in no way resembles the seafood fare that one might have found in 1890’s Oakland.

Delectably Briny Oysters

Delectably Briny Oysters

As an example, we began our meal with blissfully executed cocktails, one of which is my new favorite: a dizzyingly refreshing brew the mixologist has entitled simply, a Lavender Collins. This lush glass of barely bruised gin drizzled in housemade lavender syrup and garnished with a spring of fresh lavender is vaguely sweet and delightfully herbacious. It comes in a highball glass and is served over ice. Magic in a glass.The other cocktails enjoyed at our table were similarly inventive. Another of our party enjoyed The Greek Martini – a robust and garlicy combination of vodka, americano, olive juice and garlic, which was a savory delight. While the olive flavor was universally present, but overall this cocktail was much more complicated on the palate than say, a Dirty Martini. Superb mixology going on here.

Having recently visited Jack’s on multiple occasions, I have learned that this is a focused kitchen, and that the executive chef has honed the menu with meticulous precision. That dishes we’ve ordered on more than one occasion arrive as expected, clearly this kitchen can turn them out flawlessly time and time again. A new restaurant with little to suggest that it is new, rather the dining experience here is one of polished precision. The menu is an array of seafood specialities, some familiar classics with a twist, some a complete re-invention of the expected. All are rewarding.

Peel & Eat Shrimp

Peel & Eat Shrimp

I won’t run through every morsel I’ve had on my three visits (soon to be more) but I will run through a few of the highlights. On my first trip my party and I sampled the Lobster Rolls a threesome of buttery plump lobster on pretzel rolls along with a platter of fresh, succulent oysters. We also sampled the Grilled Octopus, brilliantly charred and tender as a ripe peach. If you’ve never yet tasted octopus, this dish should be your first experience with this rather difficult to prepare seafood. When octopus isn’t done right, it can be tough and leathery, but this version is sublime. It bears no resemblance to the chewy calamari “are these onion rings” disasters of my youth.

On the second visit we again found everything we tried delicious, but there are always standouts. The Po’ Bau, a delightful concoction of fried oyster and pork belly tucked into a soft and delicate house made steamed bun was a perfect bite. I particularly enjoyed the Escargot Butter Mussels complete with escargot in the broth. The mussels and snail went together beautifully, and in my opinion one can never go wrong with garlic and butter on anything. Another spectacular treat is the Lobster Poutine which presents itself as a bowl of fresh lobster meat floating in creamy cheeses, beneath which hide a treasure trove of lovely steak fries. The bonito flakes atop the steaming dish flicker and beckon like a living thing. Fascinatingly delicious.

Jack’s Oyster Bar is a delightful reinvention of the classic seafood “joint” that once populated Jack London Square. The food is sublime, it’s flavors inventive and contemporary, while the components themselves remain a familiar reflection of the staples that seafood lovers invariably crave.

If you haven’t been you should definitely check it out and make a few lovely dining memories of your own. I know I will, again.

Jack’s Oyster Bar & Fish House
336 Water St
Oakland, CA 94607
(Jack London Square)
Phone: (510) 271-7952
Web: http://www.jacksoakland.com