Costanera spices up Montclair's culinary scene with an interesting, authentic Peruvian menu, but the newbie hasn't quite worked all the kinks out just yet. The BYO restaurant, which opened in May in the space formerly occupied by Udupi, shows bright and low spots, both on the plate and off.
Chef Juan Placencia is certainly no stranger to the kitchen, having trained at the Culinary Institute of America and held posts at three of New York City's most notable restaurants: Jean-Georges, Del Posto, and Gramercy Tavern. Several of the dishes from Placencia's mainly seafood menu showcase his expertise with fish, particularly the Tiradito Tradicional ($14), a Peruvian mahi mahi sashimi which is sliced thin and dressed with a citrus-based aji rocoto cream. The lovely, light dish is refreshing, with bright, clean flavors more reminiscent of a ceviche than a Japanese sashimi.
Costanera does feature three ceviche starters ($14-$17), as well as a Frutos Del Mar raw bar by the plateau ($65, serving 2 or more, $99 serving 4 or more) or a la carte ($10-$21), and Chicharron De Pescado ($12), quinoa-crusted fish fritters. Salted, roasted Peruvian corn kernels, which look like raw popcorn kernels on steroids, are complimentary, as is the restaurant's home-made, extremely spicy green pepper sauce. The zesty sauce is meant to augment many of Placencia's dishes and is a blend of jalapenos and Peruvian peppers.
Also outstanding is Costanera's Pescado Entero, a whole fish of the day (market price). The fish can be prepared a number of ways, including fried, pan roasted, or "a lo macho" style, a $4 seafood sauce upgrade consisting of calamari rings and shrimp. Placencia's black sea bass ($27) was delectably juicy and meaty—and that delicate sea bass skin… don't get me started. If you don't mind mining for bones, this dish is a sure-fire treat.
Less successful, however, is the "a lo macho" sauce, which gets a bit gummy and loses visual appeal soon after the dish is served. The accompanying, tough squid rings and overcooked shrimp did nothing to elevate the sauce either. The Platanos Rellenos appetizer ($11) was unfortunately also uneven. The daily special featured plantains creatively shaped into a cup, fried, and filled with shrimp in a tomato-based sauce. I particularly enjoyed the crunchiness of the fried plantain, which wasn't one bit greasy, but the dish fell apart with the same, overcooked shrimp from the "a lo mancho" sauce.
Non-fish dining options include the traditional Peruvian rotisserie chicken dish Pollo A La Brasa ($14), Seco Norteno ($20), a braised New Zealand lamb shank, and Lomo Saltado ($19), a wok-seared blank angus sirloin served over French fries with sauteed slices of red onions and a tomato-soy jus sauce. Composition-wise, the dish worked well—although I must admit the concept of fries at the bottom of the plate might seem odd to a non-Peruvian palate. The flavors and varying textures of all the components married well, and more importantly highlighted the essence of the steak. In the end, the fries did indeed soak up all that lovely jus, but all that couldn't make up for the fact that some pieces of steak were quite chewy.
Each main course is accompanied by a side dish of choice, such as yucca ($3.50), Ensalada De Quinoa ($4), Frijoes Canarios which are braised canary beans ($4), and Tacu-Tacu ($6 a la carte or $2 supplement). The extremely dense, Tacu-Tacu hash consists of Peruvian rice, canary beans, and yellow peppers. A little bit goes a long way, and unless you favor refried beans a lot, this might not be a wise choice.
Several authentic Peruvian desserts are available, including Mazamorra Morada ($5), a purple corn pudding with apricots, pineapple, and papaya; Alfajores ($3.50), an anis-scented shortbread cookie filled with manjar blanco (Peruvian dulce de leche); and Lucuma Gelato ($5), which features an avocado-like fruit with a center pit and bright, orange, somewhat grainy-textured flesh. The gelato, with its subtle caramel and butterscotch undertones, was a unique and lovely way to end the very interesting meal.
Costanera's service was equally an interesting dichotomy. While the wait staff and management couldn't be more helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly, items were offered and then were never brought to the table. Bread would have been nice, as well as another dish of the green sauce which was supposed to enhance the meal.
Despite an uneven dining experience, I'd like to believe that Costanera is just getting through a few opening hiccups. Everything about the Peruvian establishment is interesting—from its cross-sectioned log-filled walls to Chef Placencia's skillful hand at preparing fish. Once the odd bits are sorted out, Costanera could prove to be a truly unique culinary addition to Montclair.
511 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair
Hours of Operation:
Tuesday through Thursday, 5-10 pm
Friday, 5-11 pm
Saturday, 2-11 pm
Sunday, 2-9:30 pm
Closed Mondays. Will open for lunch sometime in the near future.
BYO. All major credit cards accepted.