Monday, March 26, 2012

Casa B Makes You Feel at Home

Mi casa es su casa, no? Not Necessarily, amigo mio. Casa B, a new tapas restaurant that opened in December, 2011 to instant adulation, is one of those places whose eclectic cuisine and ambience is so infectious that you selfishly won’t want to share them with others. Co-owners Alberto Cabre and Angelina Jockovich respectively hail from San Juan, Puerto Rico and Barranquilla, Colombia, and their establishment nails its intended Latin-American/Caribbean fusion concept. Somerville’s Union Square doesn’t necessarily shout dining destination, but with the arrival of Casa B, it should now be considered a must-visit spot on every foodie’s map.

Casa B’s conception is an interesting one. Cabre and Jockovich took ideas and recipes from their personal chef catering business, created a test kitchen four years ago to refine them, and ultimately created a restaurant that reflected the heart and soul of their homelands. Casa B’s name also has familial significance, as the ‘B’ honors Cabre’s maternal grandfather, whose last name was Bobonis.

The restaurant’s atmosphere is modern, hip, and romantic. It’s not the largest of spaces, set on two levels. Upstairs you’ll find a narrow, somewhat cramped hallway littered with a few tables against the wall, while a few seats only a stone’s throw away allow customers to imbibe on wine or cocktails should the downstairs bar area be full. And that’s exactly where I would recommend making a straight beeline towards. Casa B’s downstairs dining area nostalgically reminded me of a secluded bar I often frequented during my study abroad in Seville, Spain (and which was built as a secret haven for artists during the country’s deplorable Franco regime). Live plants are plastered against the room’s back wall, a wine rack is strategically placed in the room’s center (serving as a partition between the cozy bar/lounge area and the intimate dining room), and from loveseats at a counter, a handful of customers can view their meals being prepared in the open kitchen. Bright red and white colors adorn the walls (even the immaculate pair of upstairs restroom walls pack bright green and red colors). Yes, Casa B, with all due respect to crooner Justin Timberlake, is bringing sexy back to Somerville.

Casa B’s menu consists entirely of small plates known as tapas and pinchos, finger food intended for sharing (between two to three plates per person are recommended). Miniature forks and knives are playfully, almost jokingly provided to those who are less inclined to use their hands. Traditional tapas are cast aside here. Instead, tortilla Espanola (Spanish omelet made with eggs and potatoes) is served with sweet plantain (tortilla de maduros, $7). Shrimp with garlic is substituted with yucca-filled shrimp wrapped in bacon (camarones rellenos de yucca, $12) and delectable cilantro-ginger dipping sauce. Patatas bravas (fried potatoes) transform into yucca fries doused with a zesty, bright orange sauce (salsa de la abuela/Grandma’s ketchup), vertically served in a cone-shaped cup. Tradition with a twist.

Tabla de ceviches ($18) is a beautifully plated trio of lobster, salmon, and cod served on a wooden board. Each fish is laced with intense flavors of lime and peas, and their texture wonderfully contrasts with the crunch of root vegetable chips. It’s a knockout of a dish. Crispy avocado rolls (rollitos de aguacate, $8) are also fun and quite addictive, accompanied by a prune and cilantro sauce. The lone, albeit minor misstep of the evening is grilled Spanish sausage with yucca (chorizo a la plancha, $9). Unlike its crispier, comfort-food like yucca fries counterparts, these yuccas are boiled and somewhat limp, and the accompanying coconut sauce is surprisingly bland, adding minimal flavor. This disappointing dish, however, is quickly offset by hearty meatballs (albondigas, $9), served in a semi-sweet, dreamy guava sauce. They’re incredibly moist, and I left Casa B dreaming about what wonderful sauce. Guava must be the new Latin-Caribbean aphrodisiac.

A special of puertorrican pot roast (carne mechada, $18) contains pillowy gnocci made from yucca, while the meat, soaked in brown butter sauce, is mouthwateringly tender. Sesame crusted tuna (atun salteado, $12) is perfectly rare and the balance struck in this dish – the heat from spicy wasabi and the sweetness of plantain – represents all of the elements that Casa B masterfully juggles and pulls off without breaking a tropical sweat.

Desserts do not disappoint, either. Tres leches (three milk cake, $10) comes highly recommended, but sounds so, well, pase given all else that we’ve eaten. Instead, we try coconut and chocolate bread pudding ($9), once again drizzled with that oh-so-good guava sauce. It’s the perfect confectionary conclusion to a marvelous dining experience.

Casa B has several interesting varieties of Spanish, Chilean, and Argentine wines, along with cava and sherry, but honestly, why waste your time when potent house-made sangria, served from a giant terrine, and one of the finest versions I’ve sampled since my tine in Seville, is available? The menu also boasts another couple dozen cocktails, my favorite being the Bartender’s Choice ($10), whereby you provide barman Taso Papatsoris with your favorite liquour and he proceeds to incorporate it into a surprise concoction. My preference, a vanilla-like Spanish Licor 43, evolves into an inventive, sweet-tart margarita.

Service is attentive, albeit a but unpolished, particularly at the meal’s conclusion, whereby coffee arrives well after desserts are served, leftovers from two plates are mistakenly lumped together into one bag, and the check’s arrival takes longer than one would hope (although, lest we forget, we are on Caribbean time, after all).

At the beginning and end of our meal, Jockovich politely rests her hand on my shoulder, as if greeting and parting ways with an old friend. I soon realize it’s a genuine gesture she provides to everyone who enters her establishment, and it is so refreshing to see such warmth in an often cutthroat industry. For her, Casa B is most certainly su casa, and her home most definitely maintains a special place in my heart.