Dining Out: Casa B in Somerville
A high-style take on rustic Latin cuisine in Union Square.
Casa B is a labor of love, a career-change project from a husband-and-wife team that ran a personal-chef business but never operated a restaurant (or even worked in one). This scenario doesnâ€™t typically bode well for a successful start, but the results of Alberto CabrĂ© and Angelina Jockovichâ€™s endeavor are alluring and addictive.
Their exciting menu is rooted in the coupleâ€™s backgrounds: CabrĂ©, the chef, is from Puerto Rico, and Jockovich is a native of Colombia. Beyond the casual places sustained by the large Brazilian communities in Allston and Somerville, Latin-American food has traditionally been severely underrepresented around here. Thankfully, that has begun to change. Orinoco led the way in 2006 with its Venezuelan-heavy pan-Latin dishes, and suddenly thereâ€™s an upscale Puerto Rican restaurant in the South End, Vejigantes (from the owners of the also-great Merengue, in Roxbury). For tapas and Spanish food, weâ€™ve long had Somervilleâ€™s Dali, more recently the South Endâ€™s Toro and Estragon, and Tres Gatos, in J.P. But none of those restaurants has been as sleek and stylish as Casa B (both CabrĂ© and Jockovich are trained architects).
At its best, the food here has a subtle elegance that matches the restaurantâ€™s mostly white, minimalist interior. The staircase down to the dining room and open kitchen is lined with a series of white doors, with varying windows and patterning; above the lower-level banquettes is a â€śliving wallâ€ť of many different plants, a coup de thĂ©Ă˘tre made possible by hidden grow lights that run along the bottom.
CabrĂ©â€™s menu overlays the coupleâ€™s family recipes with a touch of international sophistication that has already attracted designers and academics to the Union Square restaurant. Their food is instructive and unique, and I want to return just to keep nibbling on the house snacks. In place of bread, CabrĂ© and Jockovich offer little bags of fried plantain or yuca chips, so light and crisp they might have been baked. BuĂ±uelos ($8), golf-ball-size fritters of slightly sweet Colombian farmer cheese, are accompanied by a rich, piquant roasted-pepper aioli. Shrimp â€ścocktailâ€ť ($10) turns out to be little butterflied shrimp in a ketchup-mayonnaise â€śpink sauceâ€ť thatâ€™s spooned into a deep-fried red-potato shellâ€”a half-sphere of straight-up bar food so good that CabrĂ© could turn it into his own version of potato skins.
The shrimp dish is an example of CabrĂ©â€™s skill in filtering the traditionally rustic food of his and Jockovichâ€™s upbringings through a refined design sensibility. Many of his flavors are clear and delicate: For instance, a trio of ceviches ($18) is served in little glass cylinders fitted into a long wooden board that is itself a piece of art. Each ceviche features a different fish with a unique blend of herbs and citrus, chosen for flavor and color: white hake has red pepper and petite green peas with lime juice; salmon is matched with orange juice and dainty mango slices; and, in the most successful version, lobster is paired with lemon juice and yellow corn kernels, with flecks of cilantro.
CabrĂ© is particularly skilled when it comes to tapas. Actually, almost everything on the menu could be considered a small bite. Even the accompanying cutlery is miniature (though full-size utensils are available upon request). The selection of pinchosâ€”hors dâ€™oeuvres on nicely charred breadâ€”includes mini beef tenderloin sandwiches ($10) served open-faced and topped with sautĂ©ed sweet onions, CabrĂ©â€™s grandmotherâ€™s spice-doctored ketchup, and crisp fried shallots. Next time you crave a slider, try this instead. Or, if youâ€™re feeling mildly adventurous, go for a pincho topped with one of CabrĂ©â€™s grandfatherâ€™s specialties: chicken gizzards that have been slowly sautĂ©ed with butter and onions ($9).
Typical rookie mistakes keep Casa B from being more exciting. Too many dishes on the menu yield inconsistent results, and some surprisingly persistent service glitches included forgotten orders at two separate meals that only appeared at the table with repeated proddingâ€”and sometimes not until dessert had arrived.
And aside from the ceviches, lightness is hard to come byâ€”even in the salads. One, a clever Spanish take on a French frisĂ©e aux lardons, is a blend of fresh green and yellow beans overdressed in an oily vinaigrette and served over a cilantro aioli and frisĂ©e, with bits of sautĂ©ed Serrano ham ($14). Better is a Spanish take on the German potato saladâ€”boiled yuca wedges ($14) marinated in cilantro vinaigrette and accompanied by roasted red pepper, a poached egg, and cubes of the aforementioned Colombian cheese.
Yuca, that ubiquitous Latin-American tuber, is displayed at Casa B in its full versatility. In the â€śempanada de yucaâ€ť ($18), itâ€™s ground up to thicken a coconut-milk soffritto, which is folded with crabmeat to become the filling for a yuca dough thatâ€™s grilled in banana leaves. The empanada is served unwrapped, like a giant tamale. The sweetness of the crab, tomato, and yuca, combined with the spice of an olive-and-pepper-infused criollo sauce, will entice you to finish the generous portion.
The kitchen falters most with its fancified larger courses. In a deconstructed seafood stew with a light tomato sauce ($25), the seafood is cooked separately and then combined at the last minute, which means the flavors donâ€™t meld. When I tried the dish, the white wine in the tomato sauce was too alcoholic, and wasnâ€™t given enough time to simmer and mellow. Arroz con pollo ($18), served in a cone-shaped mold of yellow rice with chicken, wine, and soffritto filling, was mealy and dry. Pot roast with yuca gnocchi in sage-infused brown butter was drowning in the rich sauce ($15). Much better were the nicely herbed albondigas, or beef meatballs, served in a guava-tomato sauce with sautĂ©ed onions ($10).
CabrĂ© recoversâ€”and itâ€™s strongâ€”on desserts. Youâ€™ll fall in love with his huge mound of soft, lush, sweet tres leches cake, served with a cinnamon-strewn meringue over a thick chocolate ganache ($10). Homemade ladyfinger-shaped, crisp meringues are filled with passion-fruit curd and whipped cream, then plated over a pool of raspberry sauce with a piped flower-shaped squiggle of Taza chocolate ($10). CabrĂ© says the dessert is popular in his wifeâ€™s Colombian hometown, and, like everything else at Casa B, heâ€™s made it elegant and quite good, too.
Other Menu Highlights
Crab-and-yuca empanadas, $18
Tres leches cake, $10.
Critic Corby Kummerâ€”an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Foodâ€”has been reviewing Greater Bostonâ€™s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/11/restaurant-review-casa-b-somerville/