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Coming Out on Tapas

Mountain View's Cascal succeeds with small plates, big heart

By Aaron Robinson

WHEN MY Brazilian cousins flew in last week for a visit, I took it as serendipity's call to visit Cascal, the new pan-Latin restaurant in Mountain View. Few traditions are more convivial, after all, than the Spanish philosophy of convening with good company over sangria and small-portioned plates.

Inside Cascal's eccentric, bold-colored edifice, my cousin Lierka swooned over the Caipirinha ($7) displayed on the cocktail list. This traditional Brazilian blend combines Cachaca (a sugar-cane liquor) with sugar and fresh limes, creating a highly lethal cocktail--a lethality well concealed by massive sugar content. The verdict by Brazilian standards was that it was true to form. My naranja version ($7) added orange sections to the mix for a little exotica.

I've long felt that Silicon Valley was behind the tapas dining curve. Where other metropolitan areas have embraced Spain's small-plates concept, few restaurants here have taken it as seriously as Cascal. Rifling through the two food menus offered by the host, I considered for a moment the pastas, pizzas and entrees on the one menu, but who was I trying to fool? I was way too excited by the tapas menu and its New World and Old World categories.

On the heels of bronze Mediterranean focaccia bread with delicious salsa verde arrived a dish of diced golden and red beets tossed with hard-cooked egg, soft, well-rationed black olives and fine shreds of smoky, grilled radicchio ($6.50). I gorged on this multicolored paragon while my cousins stared perturbed (must have been a New World thing). They did, however, regard the grilled romaine salad ($6.50) with Marcona almonds, goat cheese and oranges as a newfound flavor infatuation. Yielding a smoky essence, the romaine was grilled just enough to be slightly wilted and still maintain a crunch.

The second small-plate wave began with smoked salmon and potato taquitos ($5.50) accompanied by that same delicious salsa verde. There was altogether more potato than salmon, but it was still tasty. Sautéed shrimp mojo de ajo ($9.50) with garlic, lime and chile pequin came in a bowl half full of olive oil and garlic slivers--simplicity at its best. The thick-cut Spanish fries with harissa aioli ($4) were overly brown, overly firm and not salted enough. The aioli offered a little flavor and moisture but not enough to save the day.

Residual sauces from plates and silverware that had not been replaced with new ones were beginning to obstruct my clarity, as well as my sense of cleanliness. Dark-blue water goblets presented another hurdle for our buser by screening the signal that water was needed.

Awaiting our last three tapas, Paula's eyes lit up when the calamari in garlic and red wine sauce ($5.50) could be seen making its way to the table. Though to me it was exuberantly fishy, she assured me that the fishiness was authentic and identical to a dish she had had in Spain. Two other plates consisted of roasted quail ($9.50) and minted lamb meatballs ($6.50). While I very much appreciate simple genius, my taste buds do lean more toward complexity and richness, which is why the quail's stuffing of pine nuts, chorizo, figs, sofrito, caramel and aged sherry jus made it my favorite dish of the evening; and I loved the idea, but not the execution of the minted lamb meatballs in a saffron and almond sauce. The ground meat was cooked to a light milky brown color, and the almond saffron sauce rendered the mint undetectable.

Like Amelie, I take great pleasure in cracking the crust on my crème brûlée; Cascal's White chocolate-Key lime brûlée had a sugary top that was barely thin. The chocolate soufflé cake with cinnamon, orange essence and an intoxicating Cuban coffee ice cream was not as airy as its name implied--more like a flourless chocolate torte (both $6). However, decadence, silkiness and salivation factors could be found in both.

Concentrate on the small plates at Cascal, and the reward is great.

Address: 400 Castro St., Mtn. View
Phone: 650.940.9500
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm Mon-Sun; dinner 5pm-10pm Sun-Thu, 5pm-11pm Fri-Sat
Full bar

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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