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February 06, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, February 06, 2004

Fusion flair Fusion flair (February 06, 2004)

Cascal delights with Spanish and South American dishes

by Robert Rich

Each time I visit Cascal, I find more things to like about this new chic Mountain View restaurant.

At first I found myself critical of its hybrid "pan Latin cuisine," searching for authenticity among its adapted Spanish and South American dishes. Even the name sounds mock-Spanish, referring to its location at the corner of Castro and California streets.

All too often, concept-led restaurants such as Cascal risk making food that lacks heart and soul. For such restaurants to outlive fads, they must excel at the front-of-house: with service, decor, ambience and pizzazz. In this regard, Cascal succeeds admirably.

Consulting chefs David Page and Antonio Lopez Florez helped design a menu that covers a wide range of tastes. The interior -- somewhat reminiscent of a Disneyland version of Morocco -- exudes casual warmth, with deep warm colors, deeply hued fabrics, beautiful wood floors, and faux-Moorish archways and pillars.

Owner Don Durante seems constantly attentive to the needs of a well-oiled restaurant. His previous successes at Birk's in Santa Clara and Le Mouton Noir in Saratoga taught him the importance of impeccable service. He moves around the restaurant greeting patrons and filling gaps, topping water glasses and bussing dishes when necessary.

On each of my visits, Durante paused and chatted with our table, sincerely asking our opinion and absorbing our critiques with grace. He seems to take this input seriously, and plans to alter Cascal's menu soon to emphasize the kitchen's strengths.

Cascal's waiters dutifully explain the tapas concept to each table while they hand out menus. They carefully inform that the dishes come in small portions, intended to share. They point out the two columns on the menu, one reflecting Spanish dishes, the other New World cuisine.

On our first visit, we came with friends from Brazil. We had all traveled to Spain and tasted tapas in cozy bodegas in San Sebastian, Madrid and Barcelona. Our server dispensed with the script and helpfully mentioned that the seafood paella used pasta instead of arborio rice, preventing false expectations. I appreciated this clarity and honesty.

Alas, that first meal left us with mixed impressions. We remembered tapas as humble and flavorful, cheap and plentiful. We eyed Cascal's petite portions of well-coifed nibbles with suspicion. The shrimp ceviche ($7) disappointed with flavors more reminiscent of pico de gallo salsa, a small goblet of shrimp fragments fleshed out with plentiful red peppers, cucumber and onions. A later visit vindicated Cascal's ceviche ($6), with more generous portions of whitefish marinated in lime and orange, with subtle hints of cumin.

The lamb meatballs ($6.50) with saffron, crushed almond and roasted sweet pepper sauce, had Persian influences. Three meatballs in a narrow trough of earthy savory sauce offered a delectable treat. I wanted to hoard every small bite.

Other tapas gave more generous servings, with rich satisfying flavors. I can highly recommend the calimari in red wine sauce ($5.50), rich with quantities to spare. Tentacles and ringlets came cooked in a light sauce, with less garlic and oil than some Spanish versions.

Roasted quail stuffed with pine nuts, chorizo and figs ($9.50) presented a mini main course of simple delicacy. A bright sauce of reduced sherry and stock complemented the sweet aromatic stuffing and light dusting of medieval spices. This dish elevates "tapas" to center stage.

Among the most satisfying small dishes, the veal tagine ($6.50) delivered an accurate copy of Moroccan seasonings, with sweet overtones from dates and oranges, perfumes from cinnamon and cardamom. Although not actually cooked in a tagine (the ceramic pot with conical lid used in Morocco as a casserole), the meat still pulled apart with slow-cooked softness, balanced by chickpeas and orange-scented couscous. I rate this dish a bargain.

Of the New World tapas, I enjoyed the crispy masa boats (sopas) covered with pork, chicken, black beans and plantains ($6). The corn imparted a sweetness that flattered the pork, in a strong sauce that tickled my palate with feisty heat. The quesa fundido with chorizo, roasted chili and Oaxaca cheese ($7) resembled good taqueria food, rich with melted cheese.

A larger dinner menu features everything from pizza to paella to meat-centric main courses. Most of these dishes prove flavorful and satisfying, though not always sourced from classic ingredients or methods.

Among Cascal's strongest main courses, the monkfish ($17.50) came pan-roasted in a tomato-saffron sauce with potatoes and mushrooms. Cascal also serves several excellent mole dishes, including the rich cordero en mole negro ($16.50), two thick, boneless chunks of braised lamb in mole poblano sauce with grilled scallions and herbed rice. The lamb fell apart under the tines of my fork. The accompanying black beans tasted delectably smoky from chipotle peppers, adobo (a dark, earthy-tasting sauce) and house-smoked chicken stock.

In another rich marriage of flavors, pipian de pepila ($14.50) combined three thick slices of tender turkey breast with mild green mole and roasted pumpkin seeds, alongside white rice and pinto beans. The nutty crunch of the seeds offset the sweet turkey and the tart tomatillo-based mole verde.

Our Brazilian friend observed that Cascal's moqueca ($18.50) lacked the crucial ingredient of dende (palm) oil, which imparts a unique nutty sweetness. Cascal's version had generous helpings of whitefish, mussels and shrimp in a coconut-orange-saffron sauce that tasted delicious, but not like moqueca. When I asked Durante, he explained that they researched some recipes and tried using dende oil, but found the taste rancid, so they avoided it. I think they purchased stale oil, and tossed the recipe instead of the oil.

Cascal's paella ($18) satisfied with subtle saffron fragrances and generous helpings of seafood, chorizo, chicken and pork. It lacked the sweet "tadik " of crusted caramelized rice that typifies classic paellas, so I'm guessing they saved time by starting with cooked rice.

Cascal's wine list especially impressed me with its carefully chosen Spanish and South American wines, many of which offer tremendous value. Wine consultant Pamela Busch built the list from a blind tasting of more than 200 wines, from which she and Durante selected favorites based on flavors alone.

Busch suggested we try two affordable Bordeaux-style blends, 2001 Gran Mets from Montsant Spain ($28/bottle) and 2001 High Altitude from Mendoza Argentina ($20/bottle.) The Gran Mets impressed me with its tannic structure and ripe blueberry fruit, hints of Grenache bringing floral subtlety to this intense cool-weather Cabernet. The High Altitude seemed a bit over-oaked, hiding bright blackberry/cherry fruit, oceanic smells and long tannins, still a great value at $20.

Wines by the glass also showed good value and quality. Ricardo Santos Malbec from Argentina ($8.50) combined clean fruit with jammy ripeness, while Ijalba Rioja ($9) showed cedar-y tannic intensity, cleansing and bright with minty cassis fruit. Abadia Retuerta Rivola from Duero Spain ($7) offered bright scents reminiscent of Mediterranean herbs and coffee-like tannins, complementing the food perfectly.

Cascal has a full bar with signature cocktails, and its wine list includes dessert, with sherry, port and late harvest wines.

The desserts ($6 each) showed creativity and balance. Spiced potato-bread pudding pleasantly reminded me of German fruitcake, moist and dark, in a sauce of creme fraiche and light caramel. Portions are small, like the tapas -- good thing after a long meal.

Cascal seems like a good place to meet a date for romantic light nibbles and a glass of wine. With a menu this flexible, such casual beginnings can easily extend to lingering long meals. As a dinner destination, Cascal offers a widely varied menu that should please many appetites. Such flexibility, in this inviting and colorful atmosphere, rarely appears in the local restaurant landscape. Cascal offers a unique dining experience.

Cascal, 400 Castro St., Mountain View; (650) 940-9500

Hours: Lunch Monday - Sunday: 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner Sunday - Thursday: 5-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday: 5-11 p.m.
- reservations - yes (recommended) - credit cards - yes - lot parking - (downtown lots) - beer/wine - yes (full bar) - takeout - limited - high chairs - yes - wheelchair access - yes - banquet - yes (buyouts) - catering - no - outdoor seating - yes, seasonal - noise level - moderate - bathroom cleanliness - excellent


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