Restaurant Reviews :
by Robert Rich, February 2004, for MV Voice and PA Weekly
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 on Castro and California streets.
It took the kitchen about a month to find its groove, and it took me a month to learn the menu's strengths and weaknesses. On recent visits, my early criticism of Cascal's Latin fusion faire shifted toward fondness.
Cascal started with a concept, jumping on the tapas buzz with its menu culling from disparate Latin traditions. Consulting chefs David Page and Antonio Lopez Florez helped design a menu that covers a wide range of tastes. The warmly colored faux-Moorish interior exudes casual warmth.
All too often, concept-led restaurants like 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.
Owner Don Durante seems constantly attentive to the needs of a well-oiled restaurant. His previous successes at Birk's and Le Mouton Noir 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 (at first anonymous) 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 recite that tapas come in small portions, intended to share. They point out the two columns in the tapas menu, one reflecting Spanish dishes, the other the New World
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. We fondly remembered those smoky rooms with Serrano ham hanging from the ceiling, sausages and salt cod set out on plates waiting within casual reach.
That first night, 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, in rooms filled with rowdy banter and carafes of Rioja wine. We viewed Cascal's petite portions of well-coifed nibbles with suspicion.
In particular, the shrimp ceviche ($7) disappointed with flavors more reminiscent of pico de gallo salsa, a small goblet with fragments of shrimp fleshed out with plentiful red peppers, cucumber and onions. A later visit vindicated Cascal's ceviche, with more generous portions of whitefish ($6) marinated in lime and orange with subtle hints of cumin.
The Andalusian chickpeas with chorizo ($4.50) puzzled us with its miniscule serving in a triangular art-dish, delivering only simple flavors with cheap ingredients. We all agreed that a double portion would at least justify the order.
We gave a higher grade to the anchovies with olive tapenade on onion toast ($4), a petite treat with three long crusty ovals, each topped with a lightly salted plump anchovy, decorated with marinated fresh onions.
A Persian influence informed the lamb meatballs ($6.50) with saffron, crushed almond and roasted sweet pepper sauce. Three meatballs in a narrow trough of earthy savory sauce offered a delectable treat. I wanted to hoard every small bite.
Other tapas on Cascal's menu gave more generous servings, with rich satisfying flavors. I can highly recommend the calimari in red wine sauce ($5.50), full of earthy richness with quantities to spare. Tentacles and ringlets came cooked in a light sauce, happily 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 on Cascal's menu, 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 like 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.
The wild mushroom empanadas ($6.50) comprised two small pockets of flaky pastry filled with melted manchego cheese and the musky scent of truffle oil, with shiitake, crimini and oyster mushroom slices (alas farmed, not wild mushrooms.) Another richly flavored fungal medley, gratin of fresh assorted mushrooms ($5) comes in a small compote topped with breadcrumbs, with a creamy texture deepened by garlic and sherry.
Alongside Cascal's tapas menu, 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) comes 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 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 pumpkinseeds, 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 deep 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 about the moqueca, 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.
Wine List Kudos
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 over 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 had deep tannic structure and ripe blueberry fruit, hints of Grenache bringing floral subtlety to this intense cool weather Cabernet. The High Altitude seemed a bit overoaked, 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. Ijalba Rioja ($9) showed cedary tannic intensity, cleansing and bright with minty cassis fruit. Luis Felipe Edwards Cabernet from Chile ($7.50) had soft ripe black cherry tones with hints of eucalyptus. 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 themselves ($6/item) show creativity and balance. Spiced potato bread pudding reminded me pleasantly 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.