“The truth is, I’ve never been to Spain,” says Hector Ruiz, the Mexican-born chef who is known locally for his stylized takes on South American, Mexican, and Mediterranean cooking.
Ruiz currently has four restaurants, including the 10-year-old Cafe Ena, La Fresca “Nouveau Mexican Cuisine,” the tapas-heavy Rincon 38, and his newest, Costa Blanca, devoted to seafood tapas of the Mediterranean.
“You know, my training was in France, and when I was in Paris, all of my friends were from Spain and after work we would play soccer by the Eiffel Tower and everyone would bring something to eat. That’s how I got to know this food,” says the chef.
He originally wanted to name the restaurant Alicante, after the Spanish port city, but he started asking friends if they could pronounce it and they all said, “Oh no, no, no!” So, he called it Costa Blanca instead, referring to the Mediterranean coastline where that city is situated.
Inside Minneapolis’ Costa Blanca, the room is stark and white while still offering warm welcome. It differs from many of the establishments on the Central Avenue corridor, which tend to lean toward mom-and-pop informality. This is not to say you must think of Costa Blanca as a special-occasion place, but you can, which is a nice amenity for this part of town.
An open kitchen and small bar area give it the din of a city restaurant, but its intimate size and genial staff keep it rooted in neighborhood hospitality. On a recent visit I watched as a family had a pre-Mother’s Day feast complete with a candle in the dessert, while a solo diner sat and had a margarita and a small plate on her own and exited as quietly as she entered.
Fifteen years ago, the tapas craze was in full swing in the United States. Then, “small plates” became par for the course in the American dining landscape, and eventually, it seemed like we didn’t need tapas anymore. We saw for ourselves how eating smaller bites of lots of things and drinking a lot of wine in between plates was a much better way to eat.
But, hey! What happened to all the tapas? Just because we can eat charred broccoli on a little square plate does not mean we shouldn’t also have octopus with roasted asparagus, artichokes, citrus aioli, spicy pimenton, and sea salt, does it? Ruiz wants us to have it, and he has set about giving it to us at Costa Blanca.
The staff, outfitted in jeans and aprons, is highly knowledgeable about the menu. You get the sense that they all sit down to a plate and a drink every night the way you do in a really good restaurant where the staff is like family. One of the better margaritas in the Cities can be found here, and after we ordered it, the server went off to shake it in full view of the room, a further sign that servers are more involved in the experience.
The menu is an impressively lengthy and regularly rotating list. Interesting creations go beyond the typical small-plate fare of one or two things set on a plate and zig-zagged with Sriracha mayo. Nor are they the perfectly sourced and treated single items, which are often nice but can just as easily be done at home. Even HyVee sells Jamon Serrano and Manchego, and those you can buy, head home, and lay out on your fanciest plate and be living large for little more than a few dollars. We don’t really need to outsource that service to the restaurant anymore.
At Costa Blanca, that Serrano and Manchego is served with Basque olives, tangerine oil, garlic bread, and red wine reduction, simple but thoughtful touches that turn simplicity into a loving little luxury worthy of your 11 bucks. Other dishes go further into the imaginative, with small plates that could easily be blown up a bit and treated like entrees. Depending on your appetites, a single menu item could serve a light eater just fine, for little more than what an appetizer costs at a traditional restaurant.
Then again, the real fun of tapas is the mix and match, and that’s what this place does with great aplomb. Vegetable eaters will find much to love in the big, buttery, seared King Oyster mushrooms snuggled up to fire-engine-red citron peppers. More citrus aioli and citron oil brighten things up further, like flower aroma hanging in the air after a soil-stirring rain.
But the star of the show here is supposed to be seafood, and they don’t hold back with fishy things, like a recent dish of fideos, a tangle of Pappardelle folded around head-on prawns, meaty octopus, pops of bright-red pepper, and the fragrance of fresh basil. It’s finished with good fresh Parmesan, making it as Italian as it is Spanish, and something any pasta lover will adore.
Fried calamari are fat fingers of squid cut lengthwise instead of those frustrating little rings, coated in crunchy polenta, and when dipped in thick citrus aioli they go down like French fries. More than one order is advisable.
Pretty pink red snapper is served in a colorful stack, interspersed with micro greens and rounds of chorizo from Iberico hogs, the acorn-fed, free-range product that makes pork worth its weight in gold. The slick of saffron aioli that anchors it is paint-chip vibrant and alive with a deep, spicy aroma.
Keeping the menu balanced are meaty options like lollipop-sized lamb chops banked up against gumballs of baby potatoes and bright sherry-glazed Brussels sprouts, or porky lechon tossed with artichokes and saffron rice.
Occasionally, seasonings veer off course, with citrus notes sometimes overtaking the table, and the redundancy of certain ingredients like sherry glaze and saffron blurring the otherwise inspired menu. Take time to order carefully to avoid those pitfalls and you should be fine. Save room for dessert: The kitchen does impressive things with churros and key lime pie.
Of course, the birth of tapas has drinking to thank for its parentage, and Costa Blanca has not let that important aspect of the menu falter. There’s a full bar, and barrel-aged cocktails like a Manhattan with Mezcal bitters are interesting enough to inspire a two-cocktail Tuesday dinner. But if you happen to be a wine drinker, even more fun awaits.
Costa Blanca has gotten hip to Txakoli, the hard-to-pronounce but very easy-to-drink white wine from Spain’s Basque region. Google it in videos and you’ll see guys pouring it from a great distance above the glass, a traditional way to aerate the wine and add a bit of drama to wine time. These wines are bone-dry, super acidic, a little effervescent, and low in alcohol, making them the ideal thing for long drinking and eating sessions. In Spain, you’d wander into “pintxo” bar (Basque country’s answer to the tapas bar) after pintxo bar until you were sated and happily drunk. It could easily take all day.
Since we are very far away from Basque country, and we don’t live life quite so well as all of that, head to Costa Blanca for a nicely presented approximation of the way they do it in Spain. They won’t even mind if you can’t pronounce Txakoli or Alicante.
View our photo slideshow of Costa Blanca here
2416 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis