Costa Mar's medium-size dining room is chic and contemporary, the Euro-design influences not dissimilar to those found in Barcelona restaurants these days. The walls are lemon-yellow, with small, square, navy-blue abstract paintings upon them, the whole illuminated by light passing through white reflective sheets suspended from wires -- like those used at photo shoots but prettier. Floors are of smoothly polished wood; the ceiling, chairs, and table linens are black; and a sleek bar with cobalt-blue lights brightens up the right side of the space. A slightly elevated stage in the far left corner of the room becomes a venue for flamenco, karaoke, and live music Thursday through Saturday evenings, but thankfully these festivities don't begin until after dinner hours. During dinner, dentist-office music drones on softly.
Chef Juan Adames was formerly personal chef to Venezuelan Presidents Rafael Caldera and Carlos Andrés Pérez. Adames hails from Spain, his roots reflected in a mostly coastal Mediterranean menu anchored in seafood. On our first, wet, visit, my wife and I shared a pair of specialty dishes for two: caesar salad and the touted signature dish of "paella Costa Mar." The caesar was prepared tableside from a trolley with an inset wooden bowl and small ramekins of the dressing ingredients lined up and ready to go. That's the classic means of making this salad, although the waiter whisking things up deviated from tradition in a couple of ways: first by adding garlic to the mix instead of just rubbing the wooden bowl with a clove, and then by using lime rather than lemon juice. The result -- two deep, white bowls of salad studded with crisp white croutons -- was superior to the mayonnaise-laden versions commonly encountered, but for $15 one might have expected shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano rather than a particularly cheap and malodorous powdered parmesan.
I didn't take literally the menu boast about the paella containing "all the delicacies the sea has to offer." There are, after all, more than 25,000 species of fish (not including mollusks and shellfish). I did, though, envision more than the three seafaring representatives of shrimp, mussels, and squid. Considering the $48 price (for two), I was likewise looking for langostinos instead of petite, pedestrian shrimp, and perhaps a few littleneck clams. I'd have definitely preferred hefty hunks of chicken on the bone to the dry nuggets of overcooked breast, and there would have been no complaints had spicy slices of chorizo been included. Squishy, army-green peas, canned red peppers, and enough slightly mushy saffron-yellow rice to feed four rounded out the routine rendition, which was presented in the too-small paella pan in which it was cooked (a wider vessel would have allowed the rice to simmer in a shallow layer, which makes it less susceptible to over-cooking).
Our two-dish, two-course dinner-for-two cost $63. With eighteen-percent gratuity and tax, that's about $80. Most diners will want to supplement their meal with a bottle from the short but sharply chosen wine list -- or at least with bottled water, coffee, or dessert, which makes Costa Mar a pricey proposition. This particular duet of a dinner was decent, but not worth the dough.
On a succeeding visit we devised a different dining strategy, but came to pretty much the same conclusion. This time my partner intended to start with baby eels sautéed with garlic and olive oil, but these are imported from Spain and evidently are not in season now. So we split a main course of linguini with radicchio cream as an appetizer. The idea of sweet cream contrasting with bitter radicchio seemed fetching, just the sort of distinctive dish this menu otherwise lacks. Unfortunately the radicchio was minced into flavorless bits with no texture and tossed with an equal amount of red onion; the sauce was reduced cream with parsley and little else. Nobody came by with a pepper mill, either, although they did try to pass off more of that musty parmesan dust. We demurred. The only bitter taste in my mouth was that of disappointment.
We also took a rain check on a roundup of meat dishes, including "Chef Adames's award-winning tenderloin in his secret sweet and soy sauce." Another secret withheld from us was the availability of tapas, which are not listed on the menu and went unmentioned, on both visits, by the wait staff. It was midway through our entrées during a final excursion that I noticed, on a neighboring table, a small menu listing more than a dozen of the little snacks.
Our waiter, an amiable fellow, described the cazuela de mariscos as containing shrimp, squid, clams, and pieces of fish. Well, the white bowl (not clay pot) of seafood turned out to be a reunion of the paella's shrimp, squid, and the tiniest baby mussels I have ever seen -- though to be fair, they were sweet, and the shrimp were larger this time, if a little tough. The shellfish were soaking in a saffron-tinged, smoothly seasoned bouillabaisse broth, a bowl of white rice served on the side.
The kitchen bounced back with red snapper in clam sauce, by which I mean the fish was so rubbery that if dropped from a reasonable height I believe it would have literally rebounded. It didn't help that the thin red skin underneath the filet hadn't been slit before cooking, so the snapper curled under itself and resembled a white tube. No need to wonder if the clams were in the shell or not -- there were no clams, only the same white cream sauce as accompanied the pasta, with just a rumor of clam flavor. White rice came on the colorless plate; vegetables are a rarity here.
There are probably as many desserts in this world as there are fishes in the sea. Costa Mar offered three (I have friends with more choices in their home fridge): chocolate bombe with vanilla ice cream, "pancake" with dulce de leche, and crme brùlée with chewy sugar crust and grainy custard.
Costa Mar's staff is friendly but poorly trained and apparently unmanaged. Such basic gestures as knowing menu ingredients and what the specials are before coming to the table, being able to recommend an appropriate wine, sweeping crumbs from the table after dinner, or bringing the check within a reasonable amount of time should be part and parcel of the fine-dining experience.
Our bill the second time around, for one pasta (serving as two starters), two main courses, one bottle of water, two coffees, two desserts, tax, and the eighteen-percent tip came to more than $100. (Take note of the tip; it was included on our first dinner bill but not the second.) That's about what you pay for a duo dinner at Timo restaurant, with its far more ambitious cuisine and professional service. I thought of this as we passed Timo just a few blocks south on the drive home. Then we rolled by Rascal House and I wistfully visualized the cornucopia of corned-beef sandwiches that might have been.