Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Review: La Costa

Originally published in Cityview Magazine in July, 2006. Since then the restaurant has changed its menu dramatically but is still a great place to eat. Also, be kind, it's my first real review ever and I think I've gotten better at it since then.

Neuvo Latino Cuisine Makes a Splash on Market Square
La Costa is the newest entry to the blossoming downtown dining scene
by Marianne Canada

Chances are, you’ve heard of Gregg White’s first restaurant endeavor—the outrageously popular Nama—which has found success with inventive sushi and envelope-pushing fusion. So why open a restaurant featuring “Nuevo Latino” cuisine? White explains that he “wanted to continue to do something different, take the concept of higher end, high quality cuisine to a new level,” and that he saw a niche that La Costa could fit into.

White feels that the principles of sushi (small plates, quality over quantity) relate to all good food, and so the philosophy of La Costa is quite similar to Nama, even though the cuisine is very different. Working with Dean Holsberry, former Executive Chef at Mango and Edison Park, he created a menu that offers truly inventive and delicious food to the discerning downtown crowd. When the location on Market Square became available, he jumped at the chance to be a part of the thriving nightlife of that area.

Walking into La Costa, you are immediately surrounded by the warmth of the space. Though sparse in decoration, La Costa resonates with a Moorish atmosphere that fills you with anticipation for your meal. The dining area is set up like its sister restaurant Nama, with a bar flanking one side of the long, narrow space, and booths and tables along the facing wall. However, unlike Nama, there are more tables, both inside and out, and La Costa can accommodate larger crowds, thanks to two oversized booths up front. Spare yet warm décor keeps the space inviting—rich colors on the walls, exposed brick, dark leather and lots of wooden accents create a luxurious, but simple, vibe.

Here at La Costa, Spain meets Mexico, and you wouldn’t believe what a happy union they make. The inviting menu is full of choices—from burritos to empanadas to ceviche—and almost every option is reasonably priced. La Costa offers a great wine and beer selection, including two custom draft beers from Woodruff Brewing Company—an “amber” and an “oro”. You’ll also find a variety of specialty drinks unlike anything you would ever encounter at your typical Mexican joint, so I happily settled into our cozy, high backed leather booth with a Blood Orange Margarita ($8.50) and began making my choices for dinner. The margarita was fantastic: the mellow, rosy pink juice made a better compliment to the tequila than the traditional lime, with just the right amount of salt to balance the sweetness.

The appetizer menu tempts from many different directions, but my dining partner and I settled on two—the Roasted Corn & Crab Dip ($7.00) and the Roasted Red Pepper & Lobster Bisque ($5). The crab dip was incredible, hot and savory with heaps of crab, studded with smoky corn kernels and crunchy bread crumbs, served with thin bread rounds. After being advised that we should stir the crumb layer into the rest of the dip I could see the genius behind this dish—layers of textures and flavors that satisfied until the bowl was scraped clean. The soup was a lovely compliment to the dip—this was no typical silky, cream laden bisque, so don’t let the word “bisque” scare those of you with calories on your mind—rather, it was a more rustic version of the old classic—sweet, mellow, and subtle roasted pepper flavors with big chunks of grilled lobster stirred in. I was really pleased by the amount of lobster meat in the soup, especially for the price. The soup was light and filling, and would make a great lunch paired with a salad.

To go with our main course choices I ordered a glass of Alancia Vinho Verde ($6.00), one of my favorite summer wines that I was thrilled to see on the wine list. Vinho verde is a very young, slightly effervescent white wine from Portugal, and it pairs well with light, spicy flavors.

I ordered a trio of main dishes to share with my dining partner, starting with the Duck Confit Quesadilla ($7.50). The quesadilla made me swoon—stuffed with shreds of house-made duck confit, roasted red onion, queso blanco, apricots, and cilantro, the flavors melded together in a most pleasing way. With a dab of the accompaniments, pica pica salsa and sour cream, this was really a sensation. For your money, you get quite a bit of the tender duck and could easily eat this quesadilla alone for a light meal.

When White found out that restaurants are the #1 generator of trash in the retail market, he made it a personal goal to have La Costa be the first “Certified Green” restaurant in Tennessee, meaning that they compost, use products made from 100% post-consumer waste, recycle, and are working to use organic, local, and sustainable products whenever possible. White is also committed to providing more options for vegetarians and vegans, such as the Chickpea, Walnut, Spinach and Cheese Empanada ($5.00). This good-sized hand pie came with a piquant cabbage salad and was topped with a sizable dollop of pumpkin seed mole. At first I found the sludgy green mole a little off-putting in appearance, but one taste showed me how it really complimented the flavors tucked inside the flaky pastry. I think anyone, vegetarian or carnivore, would be happy with this unique dish.

The last entrée we chose was the Twice-Cooked Pork Tamale ($7.50). Served in a traditional corn husk, the tamale is split open and generously stuffed with meltingly tender pork and roasted onions, and is served alongside a tomatilla salsa and cabbage salad. You can make a meal out of this dish by adding rice and beans for an additional $2.00. This was another winner of a dish; however, after the two appetizers and two entrees we had already eaten, our appetites were starting to fade. Luckily, the attentive but unobtrusive waitstaff scooped up our barely touched tamale and wrapped it up for us to take home (a touch I always appreciate, as I hate trying to wrangle the to-go box at the table).

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how you can feel so full and satisfied, yet when the dessert menu comes around you have no trouble reclaiming some of your appetite? My dining companion ordered an Organic Coffee ($2.25) and we agreed to split the Phyllo Banana and White Chocolate Relleno ($6.00). What arrived at our table was masterful—a gorgeous presentation of buttery phyllo encasing a whole banana, white chocolate, and walnuts. Served with seriously good cinnamon ice cream (from Hilton Head Ice Creams) alongside, this was a lovely end to a lovely meal.

Reservations are taken, and I would recommend them on weekends, as well as on Thursday nights during the Sundown in the City concert series.

La Costa
31 Market Square
865.566.0275
www.lacostaknoxville.com

2 comments:

Passionate Eater said...

Welcome back! And if you've gotten better at what is already exceedingly good, then I'd really like to see what is being published now! Congrats to the "Employed" Cook!

Marianne said...

Thank you so much!