Calavera Mexican Kitchen and Agave Bar

When growing up in California, one grew up with Mexican food, it was a given. I’ve been a fan of chiles rellenos since grammar school. Mexican restaurants were a fixture on every block, usually found right next to one of … Continue reading

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

LA MARCHA TAPAS BAR – Sharing is in the Heart

La Marcha Interior - photo credit Kristen Loken

La Marcha Interior – photo credit Kristen Loken

The first time I heard about tapas, a friend had just returned from Spain. He spoke for weeks about these extraordinary small plates that he’d experienced, as he dined across Spain in its restaurants and bars. He’d enjoyed the experience immensely, and described sampling tiny mouthfuls of smoked octopus, chicken covered in garlic and chiles and shrimp paella, each dish served in bite-sized proportions atop tiny plates. The first thing I thought then was, how would one get enough to eat? Yet today, after decades of sampling the “small plates” now so prevalent in our food culture, I’m a convert to the concept. I don’t think I’ve ordered a main course intended for just myself in over a decade. No meal is complete without shared plates.

The tradition of tapas itself hails from a time between the middle ages and modern Europe, when bad roads and difficult travels forced weary travelers to rest often. Hungry and exhausted, they’d find succor at many a roadside inn. The innkeepers of these establishments, often were unable to read or write, and so had no menus to offer their patrons. Wanting to be as hospitable as possible, they would offer their guests a sample of the dishes available, on a “tapa” (Spanish for pot cover), instead. The first tasting menu, if you will, and thus, tapas were born.

Chefs Emily Sarlatte and Sergio Monleón have partnered to bring their version of tapas to Berkeley, opening the brick and mortar version of their

Tortilla de Patatas - photo credit Phi Tran

Tortilla de Patatas – photo credit Phi Tran

wildly popular food truck “Ñora Cocina Española” in mid-October. The restaurant interior harkens back to that tradition of bar-hopping and bites that is uniquely Spanish. The overall effect is welcoming, and the effort itself clearly a collaboration, as the large expressive and colorful paintings of what appear to be colorful arches adorning the walls, are the product of Chef Sarlatte’s artist father.

La Marcha offers more than sustenance, it’s food reflecting the great pride in the art of combining flavor and providing a variety of tastes, that is at the heart of shared dining. It is clear that Chefs Monleón and Sarlatte understand that a well-prepared dish can have the power to envelop your senses, warming the heart like a grandmother’s hug. The idea that hungry travelers will cross their threshold and find not simply a meal, but a dining experience worthy of a memory, seems to be the thrust of their undertaking here in Berkeley.

At the recent soft-opening gala, I was able to sample many of their food offerings. There were thoughtful little amuse bouche of anchovy and peppers

Paella Mixta - photo credit Phi Tran

Paella Mixta – photo credit Phi Tran

to whet the palate, the tart acid of the peppers a lovely foil for the oily fish. The Albóndigas (wild boar meatballs) were juicy and plump, lightly acidic from the tomato cream sauce, and melted in the mouth, leaving a lingering blend of meat and cheese caressing the tastebuds. The bite-sized morsels of Tortilla de Patatas, a creamy egg and potato concoction that reminded me of my grandfather’s fritatta (no small compliment) were delicious. But the house special, Paella, was definitely the show stopper everyone came to taste, and it was splendid, chock full of seafood and well-developed flavors.

There was such pride in the house, both chefs clearly possessing a deep passion for the art of feeding people. It means something to them. The foods they serve brighten up a plate with the natural resonance on the tongue that is the joy found when food comes from the heart. The menu reflects that passion. Dish after dish offering the tang of tomato, fatty fish, well seasoned proteins, crafted together with peppers, and cheeses, each conjured nicely to be presented to their diners in the classic style that is “tapas.” It makes perfect sense. I’m heading back to have a full meal. I’ll bring some friends and make a memory. How about you?

La Marcha Tapas Bar
2026 San Pablo Ave
Berkeley, CA 94702
b/t University Ave & Addison St
Phone: (510) 269-7374

Chefs Sergio Monleon and Emily Sarlatte - photo credit Phi Tran

Chefs Sergio Monleon and Emily Sarlatte – photo credit Phi Tran