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

ROAD TRIP: Los Angeles – Land of the Pretty, Golden People Eating Loads of Magical Food

Chocolate Mousse, Semifreddo – in Three’s at XIV

 Fairly recently I lost the frequent company of my youngest daughter to the gaping maw that is Southern California. Initially, I fought it a bit. When she first moved to Santa Barbara to attend UCSB rather than UC Berkeley, she reassured her mother that she merely wanted to be near a beach during college. Her move to the South wasn’t more than that. A temporary stay at a desirable institute of higher learning. I let myself succumb to maternal delusions of impermanence. We believe what we want to believe.

Some time later I was, of course, thrilled when she was accepted to Boalt Hall School of Law. Her first choice of law schools, I knew this would necessitate the then Grad Student’s move back home to attend classes in Berkeley. It did and she was close once more. I saw her often. I allowed myself to adopt a false sense of security. She would settle in San Francisco once she passed the bar. Life was good again.

Another tasty protein at XIV, this time Filet of Beef 

 But, that’s not how it worked out. After completing her first year at UC Berkeley Law, she spent the summer interning for a Big Firm in Century City (living the dream in West Hollywood with another young beauty, both having the time of their young lives). When the internship concluded, she was offered a job at that prestigious Los Angeles law firm, and in case you weren’t aware, there’s a recession and high-paying jobs for young people fresh out of law school are hard to come by, even for top ten school grads. So that was that. At least for now.

The part I haven’t shared is that as a result of all this Los Angeles and SoCal living, the Baby Lawyer (she has graduated, so we can clearly no longer use her former moniker “Grad Student”) had gotten a taste of a lifestyle she’d not previously experienced. Raised in a suburb she now lovingly refers to as “the ghetto” BL hadn’t ever seen the inside of anything much fancier than a Hungry Hunter until she was about seventeen or so. She was fond of cheese and beef and not much else. But college gradually changed all that, and after the BL’s summer in WaHo, she was ready for the big time. Nice clothes, good food, and a fancy car. The better life that’s what we all want for our kids, yes?

The Big Firm treated her to meals at some of LA’s nicest eating establishments, and the Baby Lawyer began to acquire quite a discerning palate. Her favorite appetizer used to be cheese sticks, now it is seared fois gras. She has definitely developed a taste for the finer things in life. Her father and I visited her over that first summer, and I found we really enjoyed sharing our mutual love for food-based outings with our adult child. During the three years she spent at Berkeley, we spent many evenings (and if you read this column, several afternoons as well) enjoying some of the best restaurants in the East Bay.

 As a result of her relocation, we have discovered that it eases the pain of our separation to visit the BL in Los Angeles and continue to share our newfound hobby of breaking very fancy bread. We enjoyed our first visit two years ago so much that we again made a point to visit her while locked away during this most recent summer studying for the California Bar examination. We decided as a family that the best respite from homework overload is a yummy prix fixe menu. Which brings me to the food we enjoyed on this most recent trip.

Ravioli with Truffles at XIV

First night there, we arrived in town around five-thirty, in time to check in at the Marmont and dress for our dinner reservations at Michael Minna’s XIV. This visit, we changed hotels from the Roosevelt to the Chateau Marmont, having had an erratically odd stay at the Roosevelt on the last go round (another story all its own). The BH and I both felt the Marmont was a far superior experience for many reasons, not the least of which its attention to its guests. Though we are not celebrities, we were made to feel like we were. It was more than chic, it was downright homey.

The Marmont is within walking distance to XIV, being maybe half a block away. This may be why the BL selected XIV as our first outing. None of us had been there before, so we were able to discover its attributes together. The service structure is uniquely inventive. They have a prix fixe menus that allows diners to select either seven, eleven or fourteen items, provided everyone in the dining party picks the same maximum number of items.

Lobster Pot Pie, ala Michael Mina

The items arrive in perhaps the cutest presentation I’ve ever seen, and though it is painfully cute, it serves a practical function as well. All dishes arrive on these clever little trays designed to display each diner’s portion. They give the impression of an hors d’oeuvres platter that just keeps coming, each time with a new treat and presentation. We happened to be a trio of diners, so each of our selections were presented in threes. Each dish blissfully tasty. I don’t take detailed notes on vacation, so I can’t describe each dish, and for that I apologize. There are however, a few exceptions.

The first is the Lobster Pot Pie. The BH and I first tasted this dish at a Valentines’ Day dinner at Michael Mina in Las Vegas a number of years ago. We were both really impressed. The name alone conjures up memories of childhood chicken pot pies, fresh out of the oven, steamy and chock full of chicken stewy goodness and carbs. Remember those inexpensive ones you had as a kid that let’s face it, really were tasty? Mina’s is something more high end, with a crust so light and flaky it could be clouds baked in butter. There is nothing more pleasant in the mouth than a bite of perfectly prepared pie crust. Michael Mina’s genius with seafood also expresses itself magnificently in this dish. A perfect rendition of those yummy pie of childhood, but instead of chicken it is chock-full of lobster. Simple hearty perfection at its best. You cannot possibly consider leaving this world before you have tasted a Michael Mina Lobster Pot Pie.

The other standout that comes to mind was the barbeque pork sandwich I had at Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City. BL took us there the first summer she spent in LA. The folks she worked with at the Big Firm had taken her there for lunch one day, and we were likewise immediately enamored of the food at Ford’s. Ford’s Filling Station is owned and operated by Harrison Ford’s son, and seems to be a sort of throwback-homage to the diners of the forties. Actually, Culver City is a food haven worth exploring on its own merits, not to mention the star sightings one almost always makes there, given its proximity to Sony. The meat on this sandwich was smoky bliss, gently blanketed by a tangy dressing. The side of baked beans was creamy and flavorful.

The highlight of our trip was to be a trip to Melisse in Santa Monica, which is a spectacular restaurant headed by Chef Josiah Citrin. Long story short, I didn’t make it due to a last minute health issue, so I had to send my family off for the meal of a lifetime. They didn’t even feel guilty. They returned to the hotel with stories of champagne, celebrity spotting (Brandon Routh was celebrating a birthday at the next table) and fois gras. Grr.

Pork Sandwich @ Ford’s Filling Station

 The little one has secured an apartment in Santa Monica, right on the beach. She begins permanent residence in SoCal as soon as she returns to the States from Europe. Though I’m a Northern California Girl, and Los Angeles in my mind will forever be the place that teems with perfectly groomed, blindingly shiny, overly brand-conscious people, I must say when I think about the food, I find I am looking forward to future visits with an emotion that does not resemble dread at all. If you too, are planning a trip South, check out any one of the following restaurants. Air kisses to all, and Bon Appetit! .

XIV (high end small plates – multiple prix fixe – emphasis on sea food)
(by Michael Mina)
8117 Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 656-1414 – select XIV (Fourteen) from California menu

Melisse Restaurant (even higher end dining, seasonal California Upscale)
1104 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 395-0881

Ford’s Filling Station (upscale diner)
9531 Culver Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232-2618
(310) 202-1470

Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen (This is in the mall. It has a huge menu of Asian Cuisine selections: Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc., including some fusion dishes)
10250 Santa Monica Blvd # 654
Los Angeles, CA 90067-6609
(310) 552-9988

Next “away game” will be the saga of my pre-Fashion Week trip to the Big Apple to visit with my eldest daughter. The Makeup Artist who has settled in comfortably on the Isle of Manhattan, finding herself in high demand every Fashion Week, as NYC scrambles to stay one step ahead of every trend. It’s a similar story of maternal angst, fabulously talented offspring and great food. Stay tuned.