Ooh La La Costa
If you’ve been mourning for Lula since the late ’90s, quit
by Gay Lyons
From the time I first got a glimpse of the menu earlier this spring, I’ve been looking forward to eating at La Costa. Because it’s a small, locally-owned restaurant trying innovative things, I was not surprised to hear that there were some growing pains during the first couple of weeks after the restaurant opened the first weekend in June.
I’m told that the Nuevo Latino menu, designed by Dean Holsberry, former owner of Mango, will probably undergo a few more changes, but based on my experience last night, the place, owned by Gregg White, who also owns Nama, the popular sushi restaurant on Gay Street, is poised to do very well.
The patio on Market Square is clearly popular, but as pleasant as outdoor dining can be, don’t overlook the indoor charms of La Costa. The restaurant is very pretty. The brick walls are perfectly complemented by cool blues and warm tans. Black wood and soft lighting add to the effect. I especially liked the tall-backed booths, which give the long, narrow space a sense of privacy and coziness.
La Costa is an environmentally friendly restaurant, aiming for certification from the Green Restaurant Association. In addition to featuring local organic produce, natural beef and free-range game, the restaurant uses biodegradable and recyclable materials and sends leftover food to be composted. Wines are from 100-percent self-sustainable vineyards. This is a new approach to dining out in Knoxville.
The wine list offers a number of wines (by the glass or the bottle) that are moderately priced and a departure from the standard local offerings. The assortment of Spanish wines was particularly good. In addition to several specialty margaritas and two beers from the newly formed local Woodruff Brewing Company, La Costa has an above average list of soft drinks, juices and teas—both hot and iced.
Appetizers include dips and two ceviches. Several of the soups and salads struck me as great lunch fare. There are also burritos, tamales and tacos, including a much-praised fish taco I’m looking forward to trying. Other entrees include empanadas, quesadillas and “pack a bowls,” which allow guests to start with rice and beans and add as many ingredients as they like from a list of such things as curried or blackened tofu, roasted eggplant, sweet potatoes, picadillo beef, chorizo, grilled flank steak, shrimp and fish.
While we sipped some dry Spanish wine and looked over the menu, we enjoyed the delicious bread and dipping sauce. The thinly sliced light and airy bread was served with an even lighter oil-based sauce delicately flavored with roasted garlic and cilantro.
Having decided to start with a ceviche, we chose the mushroom and tofu version, mainly because a couple of friends had raved about the ahi and coconut ceviche, but no one I knew had tried this one, and I was curious. It was a good choice. Thin slices of firm tofu were artfully arranged with chunked mushrooms, diced tomatoes and minced jalapeños topped with thin and crispy noodles and surrounded by tortilla chips. The moist mixture was good by itself or scooped onto the chips.
From the list of empanadas we chose the one filled with shrimp, goat cheese and chorizo, which proved to be a great choice. The large tender triangle of fried dough concealed chopped mild shrimp, tangy goat cheese and spicy sausage, all of it topped with a thin avocado sauce.
The only glitch in the evening came with my tamale order, and it was partly my fault. I vacillated between the pork tamale and the sweet potato tamale, both of which our server told me were very good. Finally, I ordered the sweet potato version but, feeling buyer’s remorse, asked to switch to the pork within seconds. Ultimately, I was served the sweet potato tamale, but since I had been ambivalent from the start, I decided not to say anything or ask for a replacement. I’ll try the pork another time, but the chunks of sweet potatoes, pineapple, corn and walnuts nestled with corn tamale mixture inside a cornhusk were so good that my plate held only an empty husk at the end.
The dessert menu lists spiced cookies, watermelon ice, flan and other options. Acting on the words of a friend who wandered by and advised us that the “banana dessert is to die for,” we ordered the banana and white chocolate relleno. The warm banana pieces and white chocolate encased in phyllo dough and served with two scoops of ice cream filled with plump raisins offered a pleasing mix of warm and cold tastes and crispy and soft textures.
La Costa is quickly creating a buzz and attracting a strong following. As we walked to our booth last night, we were stopped by a group of friends eager to give their testimonials. One couple was dining there for the third time in two weeks. Such enthusiasm is not surprising. With its unique look, creative menu and “green” practices, La Costa is one of the more innovative restaurants to open in Knoxville.