mmm-yoso!!! is a food blog in which Kirk, Cathy, and others post about meals they have eaten in San Diego and elsewhere. Today, ed (from Yuma) wants to tell you folks about a recent meal in Pacific Beach.
Last April, Tina and I were both excited to read Kirk's post about a tapas restaurant in Pacific Beach. Like Kirk, Tina owns at least one tapas cookbook, and like me, she has rarely eaten at a tapas restaurant. In fact, my memory of my last visit to a tapas restaurant in San Diego includes no details about the food because I was so focused on the cockroach that crawled over the wall behind my dining companions. So for both of us Costa Brava would be a largely new experience.
As we looked at the menu, we were faced with a lot of choices; there must have been 40 different tapa (small plate) options as well as entrées etc.. To make it worse, I had forgotten to reread Kirk's post, so we were basically on our own.
On top of that, the wine list presented a bewildering number of Spanish wine choices. Since we were planning on focusing on seafood and vegetarian items, we wanted a white wine, but the list easily contained 20-30 Spanish white wines. With some help from our pleasant server, we decided upon a reasonably priced ($32) Vionta Albarino from the Rias Baixas region of Galicia:
I appreciated that he recommended this bottle and did not try to upsell us on other more expensive Albarinos from the list. What's more, the wine had a delightful fruity and flowery nose, apple and lemon tones in the mouth, and a long dry finish. In a way, it was the anti-Chardonnay -- no oak and no buttery malolactic fermentation. It paired remarkably well with the tapas that we chose.
We gave our server a list of eight small plates that we wanted to try, including the only item I remembered from Kirk's post, the fried anchovies. When the server gave us the Spanish equivalent of "you no like" to that one item, we acquiesced and ordered the shrimp instead. After all, there was no need for me to discuss something that Kirk had already pictured and described.
The first item placed in front of us was the Esparragos alioli, cold white asparagus in olive oil accompanied by a garlic mayonnaise:
Although I had always wondered what the point of white asparagus was, Tina had fond memories of eating this vegetable in Europe. The simple presentation here showed it off very well. Lacking green flavor notes, this was the perfect essence of asparagus. The soft cool texture was also notable. The garlic mayonnaise certainly complexified the taste, but it really wasn't necessary.
The championes ajillo arrived next:
Wow! These mushrooms were standard supermarket 'shrooms, but the sautéed mushrooms had soaked up the flavors of their garlic and sherry wine sauce. Flecks of red chili added a slight hint of fire in the background. Unlike Kirk's experience with this dish, neither Tina nor I could detect any sour flavors. Our only regret was that we allowed the busser to clear off the plate before we got to soak up all of the sauce with the bread.
Which reminds me that we were provided (at no charge, since we were not there for happy hour) with mini loaves of fairly standard white bread. Good but not extraordinary:
At first glance, this tapa looked like shrimp drowned in an orange colored olive oil, so I forked out one of the little crustaceans and popped it into my mouth. My initial response was "meh." While exhibiting no off tastes, the shrimp had been cooked thoroughly -- the fresh and juicy shrimpiness that I love was AWOL. However, after I squirted the small bowl with the juice of a lemon wedge and Tina stirred the shrimp and coated each one with the oil spiced with garlic and a dried red (yellow?) chile, we both thought the flavor improved. And as the server had promised, these shellfish married perfectly with the wine.
The next item to hit our table, papatatas bravas, was a complete winner. The picante paprika aioli gave the whole dish a spicy richness and depth of flavor:
Yet this flavorful mayonnaise was only part of the story. As you can see in this next picture, the chunks of potatoes had been roasted before they were sauced, so each bite presented a range of textures, from crispy caramelized outsides to light fluffy centers. The potato flavors were enhanced, not covered up, by the rich and spicy sauce:
I was reminded, eating that wonderful potato dish, that it was in many ways emblematic of Spanish history. After all, Spaniards introduced both potatoes and chilies to the European world, and the papatatas bravas integrates these New World items into European cuisine.
The next two items we were served also reflected Spain's rich maritime past. The first was empanidillas atun -- little tuna empanadas:
These days, we forget that the original center of tuna fishing was the Mediterranean. Back then, huge schools of tuna heading eastward would enter that inland sea via the Straits of Gibraltar and fill the boats of fisherfolk from Andalusia to Istanbul. At Costa Brava, each of these crunchy little packets contained tuna accented with green olive flavors -- a truly Spanish version of a fried wonton or crispy ravioli:
The croquetas bacalao similarly contrasted exterior and interior and likewise showed off the deep frying skills of the kitchen:
The main ingredient and dominant flavor in these little crispy balls is rehydrated and desalinated dried salt cod. The restaurant's version is perfect, as you taste fish, not salt. And the texture of the interior is like creamy cod-flavored mashed potatoes. This dish is also a reminder of the 15th and 16th centuries when Basques from Spain discovered the Grand Banks off North America and supplied Friday fare for tables across Europe. In those days, bacalao was an inexpensive staple; nowadays, it is a delicacy shown here at its best:
Our waiter then brought pulpo gallego -- small rounds of octopus, flavored Galician style with olive oil and Spanish paprika. This was perhaps our favorite tapa from the entire meal. The pulpo was incredibly tender and full of octopus flavor. Far better than most tako at sushi bars:
Our meal concluded with the classic tortilla de chorizo. No, we did not finish our dinner with a chorizo taco. In Spain and Argentina, a tortilla is a substantial egg and potato dish, much denser than a classic omelette. The plentiful chunks of Spanish chorizo added the extra taste of a dried sausage intensely flavored with spicy paprika. Although lacking the cheesy richness of some tortillas I've had, the dish at Costa Brava was attractive, well balanced, and a good conclusion to the meal:
Overall we were impressed with our dinner. While none of the dishes was cutting edge or innovative, we were pleased with the presentation of several classic tapas. And our server was helpful and friendly -- even if he talked us out of Kirk and the Missus' favorite dish. The wine list offered a huge and diverse selection of appropriate Spanish choices fairly priced. The remodeled old house with several different rooms and an inviting patio provided an excellent ambience. Even though they allowed Tina and I to dine there, many tables were full of young and stylish PBistas. What's more, we were impressed at the way the kitchen had taken our request for eight different tapas and organized them into a dinner, presenting them in an arrangement that made sense to our mouths and our stomachs. We will be back.
Costa Brava, 1653 Garnet Ave, San Diego, CA 92109, 858-273-1218