Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - April 23, 2010

A food critic's dream

Cascal has it all: vibrant tapas, colorful ambiance, a worthy wine list and great service

by Dale F. Bentson

If I ever opened a restaurant, it would be very much like Cascal in Mountain View. There are vibrant Latin dishes from both sides of the Atlantic, with loads of tapas, fresh seafood, fork-tender meats and terrific desserts. It's all set in a colorful and energetic ambiance with an effervescent bar scene, great service, a worthy wine list and reasonable prices.

Opened in 2003, Cascal was the brainchild of Don Durante, a Peninsula restaurant veteran, who for more than 30 years has been involved with steakhouses, fine French dining and many other ventures. Cascal is the zenith of that experience.

Some years back, he noted that his kitchen crews were mostly Hispanic and that employee meals were colorful, tasty, simply prepared and delicious. He dreamed of someday opening a restaurant that showcased the history, knowledge and expertise of his Latin staff.

It took two years of research for Durante to pull the concept together culminating in the Castro Street location.

"I liked Mountain View because it was multi-ethnic — filled with people who would appreciate the food," he said. "The space had a European flair, lots of glass, high ceilings, set back from the street with room for an outdoor patio. And Castro Street had a great downtown vibe to it."

The decor is festive. Even the dishes are flamboyant oranges, reds, blues, yellows and greens, with ceiling fans rotating slowly overhead. The walls are painted lime green, spicy pumpkin, vermilion red, maize yellow and ocean turquoise.

Soon after we were shown to our table, a plate of house-made pan bread was delivered. The bread resembled focaccia but was crustier and denser. The accompanying dipping sauce of olive oil, lime juice, green onion, parsley, cilantro, garlic, cumin, mint and likely a half-dozen other ingredients was so tantalizing that it took serious will power not to make a meal of just bread and oil.

Cascal's Spanish tapas sampler ($23) was terrific in variety, quality and price. There were at least two morsels of everything on the platter: seafood, salads, meats, dates and tapenades. It was a complete meal, which we washed down with a pitcher of white sangria ($15), and departed happy as larks.

In Spain, tapas bars are as numerous as burger stands are here. In Madrid and Barcelona — most cities, in fact — revelers move from tapas bar to tapas bar much like a pub crawl. Each tapas bar has a specialty or two; partiers sip a glass of Tempranillo or cava; then they move on to the next bar, likely next door.

Tapas are little snacks, a delightful way to chow down any time of day. Tapas are all about variety, and generally are too time-consuming for home preparation. Cascal offers an excellent assortment at a great price.

In addition to tapas, there are other small-plate offerings. Roasted chile relleno ($8.50) featured a tantalizing roasted poblano chile with a three-cheese filling accented with a not-too-hot piquillo pepper and goat cheese sauce.

Brazilian moqueca ($8) was a scrumptious fresh Dungeness crab, shrimp, orange and coconut-milk soup. The generous portion was loaded with seafood, the broth lip-smacking good.

Queso fundido ($8.50) was a stringy, warm Oaxacan cheese-and-mushroom fondue with grilled poblano chiles. A sheaf of rolled warm corn tortillas accompanied. Beef short-rib adobo ($13) was a fork-tender braised beef short rib, accompanied with a crisp red onion-cilantro salad and a delightful fresh corn arepa (corncake).  

The potato gratin ($6.50) was silky layers of potatoes, poblano chiles and spices topped with crusty parmesan. The sizzling shrimp ($12.50) were mouth-watering in a bath of olive oil, garlic, piquant chile arbol and fresh lime.

Paella is the most famous dish of Valencia, and perhaps all of Spain. Not only is paella served in cafes and restaurants, but huge aromatic pans simmer at street markets countrywide. There are regional favorites and variations of paella throughout Spain.

Cascal has its own versions, four in fact. I tried the Paella Cascal (small $22, large $41). The small platter proved to be huge, loaded with saffron rice, chicken, pork, chorizo sausage, shrimp, mussels, clams, smoked paprika soffritto (garlic, onion, bell peppers), peas and piquillo peppers. The dish was just moist enough, suggestive, slightly spicy, robust and irresistible.

Besides the small plates and tapas, Cascal offers a few larger plates as well. Puerco Cubano en mojo ($21) was marinated slow-roasted pork shoulder with velvety Cuban black beans, steamed rice and sweet potato-plantain mash. The pork was so tender it fell apart with my mere gaze.  

The mouthwatering wild salmon filet ($24.50), paprika-crusted, was served with a lively roasted tomato-black olive relish and sweet potato gnocchi in saffron sauce. The filet was thick, pink and fleshy.  

No letdown with desserts either. The pleasing tres leche cake ($7.50) was a coconut-infused milk cake with fresh fruit salsa, topped with meringue. The unusual and heavenly spiced bread pudding ($7.50) was made from roasted butternut squash, sweet potato, fresh and dried fruits, with caramel sauce and house-made vanilla ice cream.

The pumpkin cheesecake ($7.75) was sublime. Cupcake-sized and topped with thick whipped cream and a dollop of meringue, the cheesecake had a slightly coarse texture that segued on the tongue to silky-smooth, cool, dense but not ponderous, slightly sweet, simply ambrosial.

The wine list features well-priced selections from the Iberian Peninsula and South America, as well as red, white and sparkling sangrias. Cocktails are muy interesante, from mohitos to margaritas.

There is live Latin music on weekends, Latin jazz fusion and flamenco, but the restaurant is packed every day of the week, lunch and dinner.

General Manager Brad Bailey keeps the front of the house running like a Swiss timepiece while Chef Antonio Flores Lopez and his staff turn out delicious, exciting dishes day in and day out. I had no quibble with anything I tried in four visits.

Cascal is the culmination of Don Durante's experience, vision and management style. If ever I opened a restaurant (which I solemnly swear never to do) I would surely try to enlist Durante's expertise.

Cascal

400 Castro St., Mountain View

650-940-9500

Hours: Sun.-Wed. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Website: www.cascalrestaurant.com

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street

Alcohol: full bar

Children: yes

Catering: yes

Takeout: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Party facilities: no private dining room

Noise level: moderate to loud

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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