The Spanish Main
My experience at Costera
New Orleans should have more Spanish restaurants. New Orleans was a Spanish town before the French arrived to change the street names and – to their credit – give us the civilian legal system.
France obviously had an impact on our culture, but so did Spain and that’s particularly true of Creole cuisine. I am a food nerd and one way that manifests is that I read old cookbooks, articles in academic journals and other secondary sources about how cuisines develop.
I’m no expert, but even a dilettante like me can see the connection between the cooking of southeastern Spain, the Basque country, southwestern France and Louisiana. Throw in a bit of German and a dose of Adriatic (Croatian) cooking – all filtered through the deft hands and culinary traditions of African slaves and their descendants – and you’ve got the New Orleans version of Creole food.
I mention all of this because I had an excellent meal recently at Costera. I had been trying to get over there for some time, because I like Spanish food and I like Reno De Ranieri, one of the owners along with Chef Brian Burns. Despite my best intentions I hadn’t dined there until last week because I have many irons in many fires. Thus the list of places I intend to visit but haven’t grows weekly.
Costera is the sort of Spanish restaurant that offers tapas as well as more substantial plates. You can find classic dishes like pan con tomate, gambas al ajillo, papas bravas and Iberico ham with almonds on the menu, as well as blue crab salad with charred tomato, olive and fried garlic, seared yellowfin tuna with marinated chanterelle mushrooms and fennel, and grilled pork belly with corn, chili and crispy rice salad.
That pork belly’s only obvious connection to Spain would seem to be the use of “a la plancha” instead of “grilled” in the menu description, but the flavors are consistent with the rest of the menu. Costera is also on the cutting edge of a trend that’s really more a throwback than something new and thus probably not accurately characterized as a trend in the first place, and that is a big-ass steak for two. At Costera the big-ass steak in question is a 24 ounce ribeye with a charred spring onion salsa verde. At Sophia, it’s a 20 ounce “bistecca Fiorentina” (also a ribeye) with roasted garlic and rosemary.
Large ribeyes for two is a trend I support, because I like ribeye and I am pretty confident that both restaurants will serve an outstanding piece of meat for the price ($58 for Sophia and $65 for Costera). Is it decadent? Maybe, but life is short and if one is celebrating a special occasion, such as purchasing a home, marking an anniversary or not spilling white beans and pork from your bowl while falling down a small staircase, it’s probably worth it.
I have had one meal at Costera so far and I enjoyed it. The papas bravas were damn near perfect little nuggets of potato with a crisp exterior and a pillowy inside served over aioli and red pepper puree. The marinated beets with fennel and orange were delicious and the octopus (de rigeur on any Spanish menu) was good too. There’s little on the menu I wouldn’t order, and that’s generally a good indication I’m going to like the place.
It also means that I’ll have to dine at Costera three or four times before I make my way through even half of the menu.
There are worse fates.
If you’ve been to Costera I’d be grateful for your thoughts; particularly if you’ve had the paella. I’m always leery of ordering paella, because it’s not all that easy to get right and it’s almost always a dish you have to order for the table, meaning either everybody’s going to eat well or everybody’s going to be pissed at the person who suggested ordering it in the first place. Given my experience so far, I think I can trust Chef Burns’ kitchen to pull it off, but I’d love to hear from anyone who’s had it.