The chef confesses he’s never traveled to Argentina; his recipes come from Argentine chefs he’s friends with. Given Oz’s creativity and the evidence of his taste, it’s doubtful he followed the recipes faithfully, although baker Jo does a swell job on the wrappers. Argentina’s favorite empanada is filled with juicy chopped stewed beef usually mixed with a few diced potatoes, chopped hard-cooked eggs, and sometimes a few cured, pitted Kalamata-style olives and raisins — but that’s more the Chilean version than the Argentine. In both countries, the poverty version has sautéed ground beef rather than stewed. At Cueva, the filling is mainly just chopped beef and potatoes, maybe a little egg; pleasant but not that exciting, and the beef isn’t as juicy as it should be.
The chef also recommended the slightly spicy chicken empanadas, wherein dryish white-meat chicken chunks are smoothed with blue cheese inside a faintly curried dough. Fun, not great. Ultra-lean beef chorizo is blanded-out to the point of being unrecognizable and mixed with an explosion of mashed potatoes inside ancho chili dough, reminiscent of Dinty Moore canned hash. I’d have liked to try the guayaba (guava) stuffing with tamarind dip, but there was only so much we could eat.
The kitchen also offers main-course flatbreads of a tamer ilk than the cocoa-tinged appetizer, essentially ultra-thin pizzas with toppings involving portobello mushrooms, cheeses, greenery, and pepperoni.
Exploring the affordable wine list was a pleasure. Most choices run $8–$9 per glass, $30–$34 per bottle, and the half-price happy hour is long, stretching well into dinner. I was excited to try two different Torrontés (Argentine whites from the Mendoza region, just east of the Andes), which I’ve just started to explore. The Maipe was a classic dry, crisp version of the grape, but I wigged out on JJ’s choice: Bautista Simona Torrontés, with lots of fruit and acidity — still dry but well rounded, with a faint touch of sweetness. Lynne tried a Viognier La Linda (also from Mendoza). Very tasty, but, frankly, that Bautista Simona Torrontés was the champion of the evening. The reds offer equal chances for adventure, from Spain, Argentina, Portugal, and Chile.
“I really liked it, but I need to play devil’s advocate,” said JJ afterward. “Because I was eating with you, I paid much more attention to the food than I would normally. If I were there with a bunch of guys, I’d feel well fed and full, but I’d really rather eat a good carne asada burrito instead of an empanada.”
Aye, there’s the rub. The food is wonderfully creative and conveys the chef’s joy in cooking, but it’s not always as delicious as it promises. Had the empanadas been juicier and tastier, Cueva might easily have rated three stars. I love the chef’s daring, the sheer fun (and comfort!) of eating and drinking here. I’d happily hang out if I lived nearby. And the three of us totally indulged ourselves, including wine, for a hundred bucks total after tax, plus tip. Ever since our dinner, I’ve been recommending this bistro to friends.
A.R. Valentien’s Artisan Table Dinner
My friend Dave treated me to a fabulous dinner a few days ago at A.R. Valentien. Thursday nights at 7:00 p.m., 10–16 people can enjoy a convivial meal at one long communal table, usually on the beautiful back terrace, though in nasty weather it moves inside to a handsome dining room.
It’s a bargain for so much pleasure and luxury. For $85 each, plus tax and tip, you get four exquisite courses: appetizer(s), main course(s), cheese and dessert, plus coffee, including excellent espresso, with refills if desired, by gosh! Wines that suit the foods are included in the price, as much as you want. Dave and I arrived early and, desiring something to take the edge off our appetites, discovered that you can also get alternative wines-by-the-glass. We both chose Viognier, which he liked much better than the evening’s “official” Chardonnay. (There was no charge for the extra wine on the bill.) The fare, which changes weekly, is based on whatever seasonal foods the chefs want to cook. All dishes are ample, served family-style on platters.
Chef Jeff Jackson’s food is the essence of Alice Waters–style California cuisine, featuring exquisitely sourced ingredients prepared simply, emphasizing their unmasked flavors. (At this point, he’s probably more like Alice than even Alice.)
A quick run-through of our meal, as a sample menu: first, small, mild Gold Creek oysters with lemon wedges and a light mignonette. The platter held two per person, but by chance I was seated between a young vegan and microbiologist Dave, who’s chary of raw seafood. Across the table was a charming British-born writer named Tracy, whose partner also eschewed raw bivalves, so Tracy and I dug in to our heart’s content. Then came my favorite dish: a velouté soup of young celery scattered with roasted hazelnuts and finished with a dollop of crème fraîche — it was romantic, three deep flavors falling in love.
One of the two main courses offered sliced, roasted, free-range California veal loin with rapini, sultanas, and green garlic. Free-range veal isn’t white but rosy and tastes like actual meat because the calves drink mom’s milk, not formula, frolic outside, and snack on grass. The other entrée offered Alaskan halibut with mussels, sautéed “Ron Burgundy” red potatoes, and spinach. Dave loved the halibut’s delicacy (lightly crusted in fine buttered breadcrumbs) but being no halibut-lover, I mainly nibbled on the accompanying local mussels.
Veggie platters included heirloom carrots (orange, white, pink, purple) with orange butter and braised cauliflower. The multicolored carrots were like a trip to an organic farm. (Our vegan neighbor got a butter-free version of all the veggies, served over quinoa.) We concluded with a strong California cheddar, preserved kumquats, and giant slabs of an elaborate coconut milk–lime cake, where, tired of eating, I nibbled at the glazed blueberries on top along with that rare and flawless espresso. The wines for the meal were both Sonoma Coast Keller Estates: first a Chardonnay and then a slim, elegant Pinot Noir.