MEDITER­RANEAN MARVEL

Costa takes ta­pas, small-plates ex­pe­ri­ence to exquisitely de­li­cious new level

Palm Beach Daily News - - TODAY - By LIZ BALMASEDA

There’s a cer­tain ge­nius to the ta­pas-graz­ing way of din­ing. Shar­ing small plates and ap­pe­tiz­ers not only nudges us away from claim­ing en­trée own­er­ship. It re­laxes bound­aries, al­low­ing a meal to ful­fill its true com­mu­nal in­ten­tions.

But what hap­pens when all that com­muning is halted by an ex­quis­ite fla­vor note? What hap­pens when the bright dots of av­o­cado cream on the fresh hamachi crudo pop in your mouth? And when you find crispy, sumac-dusted chips scat­tered amid the slices of raw, but­tery yel­low­tail?

It’s a record-scratch mo­ment. I mean, is one sup­posed to keep the convo going amid all that fla­vor? Who can chat­ter mind­lessly when ex­plor­ing such a plate, as we did re­cently at Costa Palm Beach? Cer­tainly not any­one at my ta­ble. Those creamy pops of av­o­cado brought more shoul­der shim­mies than chat­ter to the ta­ble.

We had many such mo­ments at the nearly 10-month-old restau­rant, which is tucked into the sec­ond floor of the Es­planade shop­ping plaza at 150 Worth. When restau­rant veteran Sascha Ben­ne­mann (for­merly of Lynora’s, Pis­tache and Bice) and his team opened the place, they brought Mediter­ranean food and flair to one of the most ob­scure din­ing lo­ca­tions on the is­land.

And while it may be pricey, this is not a stuffy or tra­di­tional Palm Beach spot with a menu or­ga­nized into the ap­pe­tiz­er­mains-dessert grid. Here the menu adapts, flow­ing as if a sail­boat wind­ing through the Greek Isles. There is no pres­sure to or­der in any tra­di­tional man­ner — go with the wind. In this way, Costa is very much new Palm Beach, like Buc­can, which brought a smallplates rev­o­lu­tion to the is­land six years ago.

Costa’s divine hamachi crudo plate is just one of many good rea­sons to visit the restau­rant.

It is Costa’s ob­scure lo­ca­tion — for­merly oc­cu­pied by GiGi’s Tap and Ta­ble, Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen and Trevini Ris­torante — that may be keep­ing one of Palm Beach’s best restau­rants off the gen­eral radar. This is un­for­tu­nate. The place is stun­ningly set, re­flect­ing Mediter­ranean blues and crisp whites. The food is out­stand­ing. Plus, the restau­rant ran one of the best sum­mer menus in the county. It af­forded new­com­ers a chance to eat and sip some ex­cel­lent dishes and wines for a frac­tion of the cost. Costa’s menu is wide-rang­ing and in­cludes raw bar dishes, sal­ads, Turk­ish and Greek mezze dishes, Span­ish-in­spired ta­pas, and larger plates such as out­stand­ing fish dishes, Moroc­can lamb stew, a roasted chicken dish that’s served in a clay pot and crispy roast pork with Latin Amer­i­can fla­vors.

The clear dilemma: Does one go tra­di­tional and or­der en­trées or take the small-plates route?

Can’t go wrong ei­ther way. Or­der a batch of hot, crispy falafel bites to munch on while you de­cide. They’re not on the menu, but Costa’s ex­ec­u­tive chef, David Va­len­cia, of­ten makes them for happy hour and he’ll make them if you ask. These mar­ble-size falafel balls, served with a gar­licky hum­mus dip, are dan­ger­ously ad­dic­tive.

Per­haps the most ap­proach­able way to com­mand the fla­vors of Costa, how­ever, is to or­der a Greek or Turk­ish mezze plate. Grilled naan and cru­dités are served with hum­mus and bold dips such as baba ganoush (eg­g­plant-tahini), tara­masalata (cured roe), muham­mara (pep­per­wal­nut) and oth­ers.

A must-stop on the ta­pas route is Costa’s gam­bas al ajillo, a Span­ish-style gar­lic shrimp dish that heaps plenty of spicy, grilled shrimp into a small clay pot, tops them with bitter greens and serves them with grilled slices of rus­tic bread. The dish eas­ily could be a main plate. Ditto for the charred pulpo a la plan­cha ap­pe­tizer: ten­der oc­to­pus that gains deep, al­most sweet fla­vors from roasted black gar­lic and spicy notes from jalapeño salsa.

But it is Costa’s branzino that leads the list of must-have dishes here.

The Mediter­ranean sea bass is en­cased in a thick pack­ing of salt, then baked. It is pre­sented ta­ble­side, then spir­ited back to the kitchen to be fil­leted. The re­sult is a moist, del­i­cate fil­let of white-fleshed fish that needs noth­ing at all. It’s a bonus that it is served with an arugula emul­sion, a rel­ish of olives, ca­pers and to­mato and a wedge of grilled lemon.

Chef Va­len­cia, who dur­ing sea­son lav­ishes nearly 100 pounds of salt a week on the branzino preparation, says he’s heard cus­tomers re­fer to this dish as “life-chang­ing.” (That’s not much of an ex­ag­ger­a­tion.)

The chef, who trained un­der Miche­lin-starred Alain Du­casse and served as chef de cui­sine at Meat Market Palm Beach, says cus­tomers of­ten share the dish. But I sus­pect these are cus­tomers that have em­barked fully on the ta­pas train. Once you try this branzino, you will want one for your­self.

Then again, there is al­ways the case for leav­ing room for dessert, namely Va­len­cia’s take on baklava, pre­pared with shred­ded phyllo, pis­ta­chio, Meyer lemon gel and a dol­lop of cit­rus yo­gurt. It makes for in­ter­est­ing con­trasts. But truth be told, dessert is not the rea­son you come to Costa.

You come here for the dishes you share — and those you want to keep for your­self.

Pho­tos by Samuel Thorn­hill / Ex­per­i­mar

Chef David Va­len­cia of Costa Palm Beach in Worth Av­enue’s Es­planade trained un­der Miche­lin-starred Alain Du­casse and was chef de cui­sine at Meat Market Palm Beach.

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