Eat Local: Redwood City Restaurant Week

April 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

I love a good food story, particularly when it comes to the hows and whys of food producers doing what they do. Whether we’re talking about small-business foodcrafters, farmers, chefs, or restauranteurs, the “why” often comes down to two things: a love of food and a desire to share what you make or grow with your community.

From farmers’ markets to salsa competitions to food-and-wine tastings, the 650 has no lack of community-based food events where food lovers can connect with local producers. Add to that list this year’s inaugural Redwood City Restaurant Week, April 23-29. That’s right, the mid-Peninsula locale formerly known as “Deadwood City” for its long-time lack of entertainment and dining options has experienced a major revitalization, including a now-vibrant dining scene. Redwood City has its own food story to tell: it’s a growing city with a diverse array of ethnic cuisines, not to mention Michelin Bib Gourmand picks and OpenTable Diner’s Choice Award Winners.

During the recent kickoff party for Redwood City Restaurant Week, I had a chance to chat with local restauranteurs and event participants, Manuel Martinez and Diane Cusimano, about the city’s changing dining scene and what this upcoming event means.

Redwood City Restaurant Week kickoff party at LV Mar on April 16

Yours truly chatting with Diane and Renato Cusimano (at the bar) during the Redwood City Restaurant Week kickoff party at LV Mar on April 16

Cusimano and her husband Renato, long-time Bay Area restauranteurs who lived in Atherton for 25 years, saw the potential in Redwood City almost a decade ago. It was Renato who viewed Redwood City as the Peninsula’s “next big thing” and opted for a spot on Main Street for their Deseo Tequila Lounge. Six years since opening the lounge and not quite a year since adding Palermo Italian Restaurant, they’re happy with their decision and have a loyal clientele.

Cusimano pointed out that the “diversity in cuisine” is one of downtown Redwood City’s strengths. Indeed, Restaurant Week participants run the gamut of global cuisine from American to Persian. Whether you’re an expat wanting to experience a taste of home or Bay Area local wanting to try something out of your comfort zone, there’s a restaurant for that. There’s also an opportunity for Redwood City’s restaurants, many of which are family-based businesses, to tell the story of their native cuisines and culinary passions. In the Cusimanos’ case, Deseo allows them to express Renato’s passion for tequila, while Palermo focuses on the cuisine of his native Sicily.

Chef/owner of La Viga and LV Mar, Manuel Martinez, spoke about using a variety of Latin ingredients — not just those of his native Mexico — as the inspiration for the menus he creates.

Chef Manuel Martinez of La Viga and LV Mar in Redwood City

Chef Manuel Martinez of La Viga and LV Mar in Redwood City

“The food and drink — everything we do here tells a story.” This philosophy extends to LV Mar’s new cocktail program, implemented just within the past two months. Ask Chef Manuel about the mezcals and tequilas on the bar’s wall, and there’s a story there about quality ingredients and traditional production methods. “We’re working hard to have a great food and drink menu that has character and means something.”

Both of Martinez’ spots have garnered a strong following from diners around the Bay Area during the past three years, not only for the story his food tells, but also for the warm service and friendly atmosphere. While Martinez’ restaurants have received recognition from Michelin Bib Gourmand and OpenTable, they aren’t the only award winners in Restaurant Week’s lineup. Angelica’s, Crouching Tiger, Donato Enoteca, Downtown, and Portobello Grill are also Michelin Bib Gourmand and/or OpenTable Diner’s Choice Winners.

Chatting with other attendees at the kickoff party, there was a sense of pride and camaraderie about what Redwood City has to offer food lovers, and Restaurant Week is about getting the word out. Diane Cusimano emphasized that “we have great restaurants here, and it’s time for people outside Redwood City to recognize that.” Martinez echoed the Cusimanos’ belief in Redwood City’s bright future for food: “Restaurant Week is all about the fact that things are changing and Redwood City is great.”

Here’s a quick preview of just a few of the entrees you can experience during Redwood City’s Restaurant Week:

  • Housemade fresh Dungeness crab ravioli (Palermo Italian Restaurant)
  • Grilled Pork Loin in Guajillo Adobo Sauce with White Bean Ragout and Pork au Jus (La Viga)
  • Vegetable Tower with layers of Tomatoes, Mushrooms, Spinach, Eggplant, served with flavorful rice and a saffron yogurt sauce (Arya Global Cuisine)

If you’ve never dined out at a restaurant week event, think of it as a get-to-know-you eating opportunity. Each of the 14 participating restaurants have created an affordable three-course prix fixe menu that highlight some of their favorite dishes. Set menu prices range from $20-45 per person, depending on the restaurant’s cuisine, for a selection of appetizer, main course, and dessert. (Fine print: tax, tip, and beverages not included.) For detailed menus and restaurant profiles, check out the Redwood City Restaurant Week website. Of course, restaurants will be offering their regular menus as well.

While I’ve certainly got my go-to spots in the city known for having a “Climate Best by Government Test,” Restaurant Week is motivating me to hit up those places I’ve been meaning to try. Have you dined in Redwood City lately? Which restaurants would you recommend?

Eat Local: Do You Viajando?

September 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

Last month I received a nice surprise via email: an invitation from Kye Michael, who handles marketing and social media for LV Mar in Redwood City, inviting me to dinner at the restaurant. Not just any dinner, mind you — but Viajando by LV Mar, Destination: Mexico, a celebration of Mexican food and culture that would include mariachis, folkloric dance, and a special prix fixe dinner menu with wine pairings. How fun would that be?! LV Mar is my one of  go-to restaurants in the 650, so of course, I was all in.*

Viajando by LV Mar started out as an invitation-only, thank-you party for the restaurant’s supporters earlier this year. (“Viajando,” if your Spanish is a little rusty, means “to go on a journey” or “travel.”) With the success of that first event, the restaurant’s owners decided to create an ongoing celebration of Latin destinations and to expand the invitation list, opening it up to the public. Destination: Brasil debuted in July, followed by Destination: Mexico (the event I attended) on September 3. Michael says that the events will continue, likely on a monthly basis, focusing a different Latin destination each time. Destination: Caribbean is up next, on October 1, to be followed by Destination: Peru later this year.

Weather-wise, the evening of LV Mar’s Mexican celebration could not have been more perfect. The unseasonably warm weather with a touch of humidity had me thinking about vacations I’d spent in Mexico. My friend Amy joined me for the evening, and when we arrived for our 7pm seating, the restaurant was bustling, and the celebration was in full swing. Diners who had opted for the 6pm and 6:30pm seatings were enjoying their first and second courses, while mariachi musicians strolled the restaurant.

Just two of the mariachis at Viajando by LV Mar, Destination: Mexico

Just two of the mariachis at Viajando by LV Mar, Destination: Mexico

The restaurant’s large windows and sliding doors were completely open, bringing the outdoors in and creating a party atmosphere. Strands of clear lights had been strung from the restaurant to the trees lining Broadway, bringing the party into the street. Amy and I opted to sit outside to enjoy the weather and have a clear view of the street and the restaurant. The experience reminded me a bit of dining at a small, family-run restaurant in San Miguel de Allende a decade ago.

With the mariachis serenading us, we began our evening with cocktails from LV Mar’s beverage menu: the El Morado (blackberry juice, basil, petrov wine vodka, and sparkling wine) and the LV Sangria (red wine with fruit juices and house-made hibiscus syrup).

Gettin' our cocktail on with El Morado (blackberry-basil mix, petrov wine vodka, sparkling wine) and LV Sangria (fresh fruit juices, red wine, house jamaica syrup, diced fruit)

Gettin’ our cocktail on with El Morado (blackberry-basil mix, petrov wine vodka, sparkling wine) and LV Sangria (fresh fruit juices, red wine, house jamaica syrup, diced fruit)

While both cocktails were fruit-forward, neither was overly sweet. The sangria had a flowery, berry flavor that was unique and enjoyable — and a nice variation from the usual, citrusy versions I’ve had elsewhere. El Morado was well-balanced between the herbaceousness of the basil and the sweet-tart fruitiness of the blackberry. (It was the more unique of the two, but the sangria was no less delicious.) While we enjoyed the cocktails, our first course, a trio of snacks to share, arrived.

Botanitas: House red sauce, halibut traditional ceviche, and smoked trout guacamole, served with chips

Botanitas: House red sauce, halibut traditional ceviche, and smoked trout guacamole, served with chips

Ceviche is one of the things LV Mar does best, and the halibut ceviche was, as anticipated, delicious. Chef Manuel paired tender halibut with just the right amount of spice and acid. I’m allergic to avocados (yes, really), but did indulge in a piece of smoked trout or two. Amy said the combination of the guacamole with the trout was “very tasty” and not too spicy. The smoky, salty trout provided a nice complement to the creamy, bright guacamole.

Each of the remaining four courses — Tapas, Sea, Land, and Dessert — offered two options. Hmmm… two of us, two options per course: simple math. It was one of those rare occasions that food lovers dream about — being able to say “we’ll take everything” and mean it. (There was also an option to add a wine pairing, which we both declined. It was a school night, after all.)

Mexico is a country rich in regional cuisine; there is no single “Mexican” food. Sure there’s the well-known street food, such as tacos and tortas, but there’s so much more to Mexican cuisine, such as the moles of Oaxaca and the fresh seafood dishes of Veracruz. Chef Manuel’s menu offered a culinary tour of Mexico, pairing traditional, regional flavors and dishes from around the country with his unique, contemporary approach.

The Tapas course brought the Sopa Azteca and the Ensalada de Morisqueta. The soup — oh my, the soup!

Sopa Azteca: Masa dumplings, chicken, avocado, sour cream, cilantro

Sopa Azteca: Masa dumplings, chicken, avocado, sour cream, cilantro

Here I was thinking: eh, hot night, and soup? It looks like a simple soup, but once I tasted it, I didn’t want to stop eating it. I was surprised by the layers of flavor. The broth was rich, tomatey, spiced — but not too spicy — full of body and flavor. The chicken pieces were incredibly tender and flavorful. The sour cream and avocado added a creamy contrast to the broth.

The salad was a nice summer-to-fall dish, inspired by Moresquita, a traditional cooked rice dish from Michocan.

Ensalada de Morisqueta: mixed greens, wild rice, corn, beans, cactus, serrano chile, and tomato dressing

Ensalada de Morisqueta: mixed greens, wild rice, corn, beans, cactus, serrano chile, and tomato dressing

Chef Manuel incorporated ingredients of the traditional dish — rice, beans, tomatoes — into the salad, creating a refreshing, flavorful salad that provided a crisp contrast to the rich soup. (The two work well together as course and could make a satisfying fall lunch or light dinner.) As with the soup, texture and flavor are essential to the dish, and there’s a balance between the two.

I was really looking forward to the Sea course, as Chef Manuel excels with seafood (see the ceviche above). I wasn’t disappointed. And, in fact, after discussing it, Amy and I were hard-pressed to choose a favorite between the two seafood dishes.

The Spanish influence on Mexican cuisine is evident in Chef Manuel’s Pescado a la Veracruzana, an elegant plate of halibut, saffron rice, olives, and tomatoes.

Pescado a la Veracruzana

Pescado a la Veracruzana

While it might seem like a simple plate, each element was flavorful and well-suited to pairing with the others. The sweetness of the tomatoes balanced the saltiness of the olives, and the delicate saffron rice with the perfectly cooked, firm fish.

Camarones a la Talla was another standout in a meal of well-executed dishes. This… this is the kind of dish that makes me want to lick the plate (And that folks, is why we skip the wine pairing. No plate-licking in public.).

Camarones a la Talla: head-on prawns, crispy tortilla, butter lettuce, black bean purée, pico de gallo, chipotle aioli

Camarones a la Talla: head-on prawns, crispy tortilla, butter lettuce, black bean puree, pico de gallo, chipotle aioli

Yes, if you look closely you’ll notice that it’s a deconstructed take on a shrimp taco, but with Chef Manuel’s unique approach. First of all, the grilled, head-on prawns were as tender and sweet as you could hope for. The black bean purée is a flavor-bomb, where again Chef has worked his magic with both flavor and texture. There was so much goodness going on here that the tortilla got a bit lost among the other components on the plate, and the dish would have worked just as well without it.

When the Land course arrived, I had to rely on Amy’s palate for tasting notes. Not being much of a meat eater, I’ll say honestly that I was less engaged in the Land courses, although the plates looked beautiful. (I can be persuaded to try a bit of pork or poultry here and there, but generally, I stick to fish and plants.) More representative of the cuisine of central Mexico, both dishes struck me as upscale comfort food.

The Carne a la Tampiqueña was a hearty dish of rare hanger steak with red sauce, a small cheese enchilada, confit potatoes, and garlic spinach.

Carne a la Tampiquena: hanger steak, red sauce cheese enchilada, confit potatoes, garlic spinach

Carne a la Tampiqueña: hanger steak, red sauce cheese enchilada, confit potatoes, garlic spinach

I loved the sauce and the sides. Amy said the beef was tasty and well-cooked, and the potatoes were rich and delicious.

The Codorniz Con Mole exhibited the same elegance as the Pescado al a Veracruzana: simple ingredients cooked perfectly and paired well.

Codorniz con Mole: quail, vegetable rice, cabbage, mole

Codorniz con Mole: quail, vegetable rice, cabbage, mole

Sweet pairs with tart; simple (rice) pairs with rich (mole and quail). It’s a small plate, but there’s a lot going on flavor-wise. I made an attempt to try the quail, but, damn, those things are tiny, and I couldn’t figure out where the meat was hiding. Amy took the lead on that one. The mole sauce and rice, though? I’ll eat that all day.

As the evening was winding down, and we were approaching the final course, many of the tables had emptied. We’d enjoyed a nice, long, leisurely dinner, and were expecting our final two plates when our server brought some bad news: the kitchen had run out of one of the desserts — the classic tres leches cake. A little disappointed, at least we’d still be able to taste the much-talked-about “pumpkin cake.” Listed on the menu only as Pastel de Calabaza with Pumpkin Seed Brittle, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it had been the buzz of the restaurant all night.

My training in pastry and experience working in the industry has taught me that dessert has to be at least as good as the courses that have come before it. A thoughtful chef won’t treat dessert as an afterthought or throwaway course. As the final course, dessert is your last chance to wow the customers, to put an ending on the evening’s experience, to send them home talking about what they ate. Oof, no pressure little Pastel de Calabaza.

Pastel de Calabaza: pumpkin cheesecake, walnut crust, pomegranate sauce, citrus cream

Pastel de Calabaza: pumpkin cheesecake, walnut crust, pomegranate sauce, citrus cream, with pepita brittle

The Pastel de Calabaza wowed me. Icing on the, er, cheesecake? Chef Manuel himself came out and gave us the run-through of the dessert’s ingredients. Yes, it’s made with real pumpkins that Chef Manuel sources specifically for their flavor. The crust is made of toasted walnuts, which means the dessert is gluten-free. The cheesecake itself is light and flavorful, but not too sweet. The citrus cream, pomegranate sauce, and pepita brittle add complementary flavors and textures: fruity, nutty, sweet, tart, crunchy, crispy. A lovely transitional, summer-to-fall dessert, this dish is craveable, delicious, and worth breaking a diet for. (It’s small, you can share.)

All in all, a delicious tour of Mexico and a lovely evening — without leaving the 650! The evening’s standouts for me were the Sopa Azteca, the seafood dishes, and the Pastel de Calabaza. I’m hoping to see some of these dishes on the regular menu in the future — or at least that Pastel de Calabaza.

The next Viajando by LV Mar, Destination: Caribbean is coming up this week on Wednesday, October 1. Are you on the list?

*Full disclosure: My friend and I were guests of the restaurant for the evening of Viajando by LV Mar, Destination: Mexico. My opinions are my own and not provided in exchange for participation in the event, nor at the request of the restaurant or its employees.

Eat Local: LV Mar

July 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

The first time I went to LV Mar — Chef Manuel Martinez’ upscale, contemporary Latin restaurant in Redwood City — I walked in on a private party. I was headed to Vesta with a friend on a cool November night, the week before Thanksgiving, when we walked by LV Mar and saw that window signs announcing “Coming Soon” were gone, the lights were on, the door open, and the restaurant full of diners. I had been looking forward to trying Chef Manuel’s new concept, hints of which he’d been offering at La Viga, his other, more casual restaurant down the street.

I’ve written previously about being a fan of Vesta, and there’s always a lingering craving for their seasonal pizzas and grilled pears, but — sure, we could change plans and try something new! We marched right inside and up to the hostess, who promptly told us that the restaurant was closed. Pause. Insert confused Scooby Doo face, complete with head tilt and a verbalized “Rurh?” Um, you don’t look closed.

She explained that they were actually in the middle of a “Friends & Family” soft opening, but would be open to the public in a week, and would we please come back then. My friend and I agreed on the spot that we’d be back in a week, and went off to enjoy Vesta as planned. (Maybe it’s my enthusiasm for finding good food in the 650, but I seem to have a knack for rolling up to restaurants before they’re quite open.)

Flash forward a week, and we did indeed arrive back at LV Mar on their “official” opening night: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Since that first visit, I’ve dined at LV Mar once a month or so and, it’s become one of my 650 favorites. Not only is the menu creative and fresh, but the service is warm, welcoming, and accommodating every time. (Even during a recent visit when a perfect storm of snafus caused friends to run almost an hour late for a celebration dinner, the hostess was very understanding and held our table without complaint or question.)

My favorite way to experience LV Mar is to order a variety of small plates and taste everything. Seafood plays a starring role in LV Mar’s menu, but there are dishes to please eaters of all kinds, including vegans and vegetarians. Below are highlights of the dishes I’ve tasted since the restaurant’s opening. Just so you know: peppers play a role in most savory dishes, adding flavor, depth, sweetness, and some heat. A friend summed it up perfectly saying “everything was spicy — meaning it had flavor.”

Ceviche Mixto
LV Mar makes some of the best ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juices and spiced with peppers) in the 650. The house specialty is the Ceviche Mixto: chopped octopus, scallop, and halibut married with orange, red onion, and rocoto chile. The ceviche is topped with shredded jicama and finely sliced red onion and served with crispy plantain chips. Sweet, spicy, tender and fresh, this dish reminds me of afternoons under a palapa bar on the beach in Zihuatanejo.

LV Mar's Ceviche Mixto served with plaintain chips

LV Mar’s Ceviche Mixto served with plaintain chips

Deshebra de Pato
Friends ordered this small plate during our celebration dinner, and I just had to taste it. Oh my! Rich shredded duck leg confit is spiced with chipotle and onions, nestled onto a small, deep-fried masa pillow and topped with manchego cheese, avocado, and tomatillo salsa. They might be bite-sized, but these small delicacies are full of flavor!

Deshebra de Pato:  shredded duck leg confit, chipotle & onions, masa pelliscadas, manchego cheese, avocado, tomatillo salsa

Deshebra de Pato: shredded duck leg confit with chipotle and onions, manchego cheese, avocado, tomatillo salsa, on small masa pillow

Cayo Dorado
Another favorite small plate, the Cayo Dorado is served like a small soft taco (although I couldn’t eat it like a soft taco — this one is best with a knife and fork). A perfectly tender, lightly battered scallop sits atop a thinly sliced piece of jicama — the “tortilla”– and is dressed with cucumber, orange, and sweet habanero cream.

Cayo Dorado crispy scallop, cucumber, plantain, sweet habanero cream on jicama tortilla

Cayo Dorado: Crispy scallop on a jicama tortilla, finished with cucumber, orange, and sweet habanero cream

Envuelto de Cangrejo y Aguacate
The crab salad, one of several salads on the menu, stars our local favorite shellfish: Dungeness crab. Like most of LV Mar’s dishes, this one incorporates a variety of flavors and textures: soft and sweet (the crab salad), crisp and slightly bitter (the frisee and radishes), tart/citrusy (orange supremes and dressing). Note: Yes, the dish does include avocado (aguacate), but I’m not a fan, so the kitchen graciously accommodated my request to 86 the avocado. The photo below was taken November 2013, and the presentation might be different now.

Envuelto de Cangrejo y Aguacate: Crab salad with frisee, orange supremes

Envuelto de Cangrejo y Aguacate (Fall 2013): Crab salad with frisee, orange supremes

Pescado Con Pepitas
While I usually prefer to sample a variety of small plates, there is one entrée that I’ve tried and found craveable: pan-seared, pepita-crusted fish. This version is currently not on the menu, but I’m hoping it returns in the fall. It’s cool-weather, belly-filling comfort food all the way: pan-roasted pepita-crushed sea bass, served on a bed of corn truffle purée, surrounded by pieces of chayote squash and two pepper sauces.

Pescado Con Pepitas (Fall 2013): pan-roasted, pepita-crusted sea bass with corn truffle puree, chayote squash, and two pepper sauces

Pescado Con Pepitas (Fall 2013): pan-roasted, pepita-crusted sea bass with corn truffle puree, chayote squash, and two pepper sauces

The current seasonal version is Pescado Sarteneado: pan-roasted wild Alaskan halibut, asparagus, corn truffle and potato croquettes, guajillo chile emulsion.

Desserts and Drinks
If you like to start or end your meal with an adult beverage, you can choose from an assortment of beers, wines, and wine-based cocktails. (Note that the restaurant doesn’t have a full liquor license, though, so don’t expect shelves of tequilas or an array of fancy margaritas.) Chosen to pair with the food menu, wines are on the lighter side and hail from Spain and South America.

The wine-based cocktail menu tends toward the fruity side, and includes a classic sangria, along with cocktails built around wine “spirits,” such as agave wine, wine vodka, and sake. On my list to try: the El Morado (blackberry-basil mix, petrov wine vodka, sparkling wine) and the Gingerito (mint simple syrup, ginger mix, sake, ginger beer & fresh lime juice). Beer choices include an assortment of bottled beers and beer on tap. Non-alcoholic drinks include fresh lemonade and a horchata, a rice drink with spices, shaken over ice with coconut milk. This one should be on the dessert menu — it’s so rich and decadent!

Horchata with coconut milk

Horchata with coconut milk: rich, sweet, and delicious!

The dessert list is small, but hits the usual notes: chocolate, fruit, cake, ice cream. If your idea of dessert involves chocolate and little else, try the flourless chocolate cake. It’s a small but rich dessert, and I’m fairly certain the only ingredients are chocolate and butter (and that’s not a bad thing)! Want something more summery? The Torta de Fresas takes a Latin twist to a classic American shortcake:  thin slices of sweet cornbread, layered with mixed berry compote, topped with horchata ice cream and finished with a light mint syrup.

Torta de Fresas layered cornbread, mixed berry compote, horchata ice cream, mint syrup

Torta de Fresas: layered cornbread, mixed berry compote, horchata ice cream, mint syrup

There you have it — my highlights of dining at LV Mar since it opened to the public. Have you tried LV Mar yet? What did you eat?

What: LV Mar
Where: 2042 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA 94063
Phone: 650-241-3111
Hours: Mon–Thu 11:30am–9:30pm; Fri–Sat 11:30am-10:30pm
Price: $$
Bar: Beer, wine, and wine-based cocktails. No spirits.
Parking: Street and nearby lots.


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