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/

BOWL’D KOREAN: OAKLAND: Perfection at the Peasant’s Table

 

Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies)

Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies)

Just before I left for Italy in 1978, my grandfather told me I must check in on our family. He said that he wanted me to give them some money, and handed me $200.00. Grandpa Gianni had been sending them cash since he left Italy in the early teens, but to my modern sensibilities, shoving wads of cash at family seemed rather crass, not to mention awkward, but I decided to size up the situation before making any final decisions.

When we finally arrived in the tiny village of Scurtabo, nestled in the rolling hills of Genoa, it took us a full day to find my family home. Ultimately, after a lengthy conversation with the local parish priest, we were directed to a small stone farmhouse on a hill, and deposited at the residence of my great-aunt Annunziata and her son, Nunzio. It was beautiful. I asked her, in broken Italian, where my grandfather had been born. Her answer was stunningly simple, as she pointed to a second small building holding only a straw bed. “proprio qui” she responded, pointing to the bed. “Right here.” It took a few minutes for me to absorb that. The continuity of history that lay within this these walls, so far from my home in California, where my grandfather had immigrated so many years ago. I could see my grandfather running about these hills as a child, playing next to the home his father had built for the family at the turn of a different century. It was, to put it mildly, trans-formative.

Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew)

Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew)

After a brief tour of the property, we gathered in the kitchen for a meal. Seated around a small wooden table, perched atop a floor of pounded dirt, where live chickens scurried about like house pets. The sweet, country breeze came into the room through the glass-less square holes in the walls that served as windows, unimpeded by any semblance of curtains. My great-aunt bustled in her kitchen, her black head scarf and dress creating the illusion that she had stepped out of another time, as she loaded the table with homemade salumi and a variety of cheeses, accompanied by fresh baked bread and, of course, red wine. It was, in its simplicity, one of the best meals I have ever tasted. There were five in my party, and she fed us all to the point where we could eat no more. At the conclusion of the meal, Nunzio brought out a keg of what I believed to be grappa, and began to pour. But when I asked him if it were grappa, he shook his head and replied, “No, è il brandy.” So we drank his “brandy” and raised our glasses to new-found family. When we finally got up to leave, it was almost dark. I kissed my great-aunt good-bye and pressed all my remaining cash into her hand, finding ultimately, it was among the most natural acts of my life. This woman had entertained me by emptying her larder, and had done so without hesitation. She and her son would willingly go hungry, in order that visiting family had a memorable meal in her home. And that, dear readers, is the definition of what it means to eat at a peasant’s table.

You never leave hungry and you always feel welcome. No matter the unspoken cost to your host.

***

Bibimbap (with spicy pork, and the requisite egg)

Bibimbap (with spicy pork, and the requisite egg)

When I eat any form of peasant food in a restaurant, I am reminded of this ethos. Of the staples provided at a peasant’s table. The flavors, the abundance and most importantly, the vibrant hospitality that is provided the diner with every bountiful bite. If it’s done right, a simple meal is as satisfying and rewarding as any to be found at a 3-star Michelin establishment. The peasant’s table offers no distractions, no sleight of hand, only the food and its flavors. The history of its people comes through, as their story is recounted through every mouthful, the flavors recalling all the meals that have been laid out before, in just the same way, for all the generations of guests that have come before you. Bowl’d Korean in Oakland provides just such a meal, and does so with an effortless grace. The simple rituals of Korean tradition replayed, in lilting melody, for the guest dining with them in that moment. The staff at Bowl’d captures the song of the peasant to perfection. They are welcoming and informative, cheerily letting you know what they have laid before you and delightfully invested in their guests enjoyment of each savory bite. I was reminded of my great-aunt’s table (and my cousin Nunzio’s “brandy”) as I read the instructions on how to serve one another the Soju, an ancient rice, grain and sweet potato alcohol that reminds one very much of that peasant brandy consumed in the hills of Italy so many years ago.

We began our meal by sampling the little bowl of Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies), a traditional finger food to whet the appetite for the meal about to be served. They were fascinating, the little silver tidbits in a tiny silver bowl beckoned and glittered, as though each one had a story to be told. It felt as though I was actually eating in Korea.

Never having yet formally had a Bibimbap, except perhaps a “reinvented” sampling at a Food Truck festival, I felt obligated to begin there, selecting a spicy pork as my protein for the dish. The flavors were astounding, each bit of crispy rice at the bottom of my bowl felt like finding tiny, hidden bits of treasure. Another ritual. Perhaps the best thing about eating at a traditional Korean BBQ place aside from the abundance of flavor, is the infinite combination of same in each bite. That ritual, the blending of banchan with each mouthful of Bibimbap, creating a choose-your-own-adventure of flavors, was a form of interacting with the food that provides a second level of enjoyment. Bowl’d maintains that tradition by setting the table with limitless banchan side dishes, each a marvel to be experienced in its own right, or blended in combination with a mouthful of another dish. The banchan is served initially in small portions, so that the diners may select their favorites and call for refills. The servers were attentive, bringing generous portions of our table’s particular banchan favorites immediately upon obtaining our selections. Our server was thrilled to see our enthusiasm for the meal, and her attitude kept us engaged in the experience without ever feeling hovered over. She had the natural ability to host, and it all felt very personal, and it was good.

Banchan (plethora of sides)

We also sampled the Fried Chicken, which arrived as a large portion of steaming hot chicken fresh from the fryer. It was so fresh we could hardly handle the pieces with our fingers, inside the beautiful golden crust, the meat was moist and delicate. One among us tried the Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew) , adding pork and a “yes” to the egg. The raw egg is cracked at the table and added to the hot bowl of soup, to be left to cook for the duration of eating the dish. I’ve never seen anything like it, and the interaction added to the experience immensely.

So the bottom line is that eating at Bowl’d provided us exactly that which I seek in the perfect dining experience. A bit of ritual, a sense of hospitality, and flavor, flavor, flavor. It’s no wonder that folks like Anthony Bourdain call this food the perfect eating experience. It just is.

I cannot wait to return and sample some of the other dishes from the extensive menu. Bowl’d BBQ Korean Stone Grill is a restaurant whose music will definitely be added to my “replay” list.

As always, I say check it out for yourself, and make some memories of your own!

Bowl’d BBQ Korean Stone Grill

4869 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609
b/t 48th St & 49th St in Temescal, North Oakland
Phone: (510) 654-2000
Web: http://www.bowldbbq.com

 

NIDO Kitchen & Bar: Nestling in at Abuela’s Table

Ceviche

Aguachile Verde de Pescado

When I set out to dine at a new restaurant, particularly one in Oakland, I’m always looking for that restaurant’s point of view. What is the experience intended for the diner? What’s my takeaway other than a satisfied appetite? In the case of Nido, it’s the easy comfort of dining in your grandmother’s kitchen.

Nido’s interior is what I can only describe as “inviting industrial.” The ceiling and walls are color-blocked with various shades of gray and bear the texture of rough-hewn cement, the starkness of these surfaces thoughtfully broken up with brightly-colored frescoes celebrating the spirit of Mexican culture. Birdcage chandeliers dot the ceiling, casually offset with delicate strings of golden bulbs that break up the space above its guests like sstars in the evening sky. It is an eclectic and inviting interior, one that appears to have been arranged with the random abandon of a bird feathering her nest. Yet the sense of deliberate thought for detail comes through loud and clear. The space is successfully organic, and the vibe it creates enhances beautifully the experience of dining within its walls.

We’ve been to Nido several times now, each meal more rewarding than the last. On this most recent visit, we began with cocktails, the mixologist at Nido being a master craftsman. Nothing is quite as delightful as beginning the weekend with a salute to the accomplishments of the past week, and a perfectly mixed cocktail is a great way to salute anything. The Vuelve a la Vida, with its smoky mescal base, accented with blood orange and absinthe, was subtly complex and rewardingly delicious. My companions had the Isla de Sangre and Tres Rojas. A sip of the Isla de Sangre revealed it to be herbacious, not too sweet, allowing the flavor of the aged rum to be highlighted on the palate. The Tres Rojas by contrast, was deliberately on the sweet side, the pomegranate and hibiscus taking center stage with every sip. Depending on your preference, all three drinks served up a great balance of flavors.

Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo

Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo

We began our meal with a selection of the appetizers. One has to try the guacamole and chips in any Mexican restaurant, and Nido’s take on the classic was spot on. The Aguachile Verde de Pescado arrived right behind the guac & chips, and was as pretty as it was delicious. I’ve developed an obsession with all forms of ceviche, but the bright flavor-forward taste of the Mexican version, if done well, always resounds. Ceviche is a simple dish, but one that must be executed perfectly to succeed, as it fails if it isn’t balanced. At Nido, every bite of citrus-bathed fish was appropriately tender, it’s soft, briny texture countered beautifully with the addition of watermelon radish and shredded carrot to keep each mouthful appropriately toothsome. Finished with a nice kick of the roasted serrano chile at the back of the throat, the lasting impression is one that any seafood lover will enjoy.

These tasty appetite-whetting bites led us nicely into the Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo. If you’ve never experienced a good Pozole then it’s time you did. In my grandfather’s kitchen, the equivalent would have been a peasant minestrone, but in Abuela’s kitchen, it’s a Pozole. In Nido’s offering, each hearty, melt-in-your-mouth spoonful of chicken, steeped in flavorful golden brown broth, is laced with the same level of love in the preparation as the peasant minestrone my grandfather would serve me as a child. “Cooking with love” has become such an over-used term in culinary circles, and is such an obvious “go-to” phrase, but it resounds in a well-done bowl of soup nonetheless. Soup is the food that reminds us of mothers bearing gently warmed bowls of chicken-broth to a sickbed, or piping hot cups of tomato goodness to the kitchen table to greet us when we’re still rosy-cheeked from a day of outdoor chill. It simply is love in a bowl. If that ingredient is missing, it fails. Fortunately for the patrons of Nido, somebody in the kitchen loves you. A lot.

We followed the Pozole with a trio of soft-shelled taco selections: the Barbacoa de Res a mouth-watering little flavor bomb of slow-braised beef and peppers; the Puerco Adobado chock full of tender pork meat with the bright, refreshing balance added by citrus-y fruit salsa; and the Muslito de Pollo Asado a blend of glazed and grilled chicken, topped with a bit of the delectable fruit salsa mentioned above. Each one had that blissful marriage of meat and acid, that takes full advantage of the naturally rich characteristics of the meat protein, successfully offset by either the acid in the peppers or the tang of chopped fresh fruit.

The last dish was the Ollita de Pobre, another standout dish with peasant origins. Have you ever wondered why so many of our best current dishes came from the humble tables of our past? Because when you have simple ingredients, and often very few of them, the cook must be creative to make it palatable. When a cook in that environment stumbles upon a rewarding dish that can be recreated on a meager budget, that cook remembers the recipe. This dish clearly originated in the mind of a clever cook making magic in a pot with rice, beans and meat. A little pico de gallo and the right spices, and you’ve made yourself some magic. Here it’s served in a happy little blue pot. One knows when you pop that lid, you’re in for some good grub.

Puerco Adobado - Muslito de Pollo Asado - Barbacoa de Res

Puerco Adobado – Muslito de Pollo Asado – Barbacoa de Res

Somehow, over centuries the best dishes held, and these have been passed on in various cultures to bring us the flavor combinations we rave about in this age of accessibility. You no longer have to know someone with a Mexican Abuela to taste the dishes of a different culture’s family table. In this case, you can head to Nido and taste them for yourself. So grab a friend, break some bread and make a memory of your own. Mangia!

Nido Kitchen & Bar
444 Oak Street
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 444-6436
http://www.nidooakland.com