Location: San Mateo
Favorite Restaurant: Café Gibraltar
Reviewed Café Gibraltar: Friday, May 20, 2011
The dining room at Café Gibraltar is warmly lit and is flanked by an inviting bar to the left and, in the back, a raised dais is set with four drape-divided, pillow-strewn booths where dinners may sit and dine in an intimate setting. The wood-burning oven anchors the open kitchen where Jose Luis Ugalde, co-owner and chef of Café Gibraltar, and his kitchen staff prepare the night’s offerings.
The manager and co-owner of Café Gibraltar, Liam Durkee, greeted us at the door with a warm and friendly smile and checked us in. Being 15 minutes early, Liam settled us at the bar for the short wait as our table, situated next to the wood-burning oven and affording a great view of the open kitchen, was readied. Seated and having perused the menu, my wife and our friends ordered individual appetizers and entrees while I ordered the 5 course tasting menu ($60). The tasting menu consists of your choice of any 5 portion-adjusted dishes off the menu, be it 5 appetizers/salad/soup, 5 entrees, 5 desserts or any combination thereof. Two bottles of 2004 Rene Mure Pinot Blanc Vin D’Alsace quenched our thirst.
My wife’s mezza platter began our meal: a plate set with 6 spreads (tyrosalata, hummus, tzatziki, a savory tomato jam, nazuktan, and ensaladilla de piquillos), roasted garlic cloves and marinated olives, all served with warm house made bread from the wood-burning oven. Every spread is unique in flavor and spice combinations, truly an amusement park for one’s taste buds. Our friends’ chipporones al ajillo — ribbons and tentacles of sautéed, lightly floured calamari served atop of pureed potatoes — followed. The calamari led with the assertive flavor of lemon, which was rounded out by the sweet garlicky potatoes and finished with the subtle kick of the chili and cinnamon. Also there were the first two courses of my tasting menu, patlican manti and osteones crudos. The patlican manti consisted of two dumplings of succulent chicken served in a tomato sauce highlighted with yogurt. The skin of the dumplings was toothsome, and the chicken filling was confidently flavored with ginger and subtle notes of garlic. Taken with the sauce, one enjoys a further layer of tomatoes accentuated by the highlight of the yogurt. The osteones crudos is a plate of raw French Kiss Oysters topped with refreshing gazpacho granite, avocado, and olive oil. The avocado adds a buttery texture to the sweet briny oyster and a richness that is further highlighted by the earthiness of the olive oil.
My wife’s wild mushroom bisque accompanied the third course of my tasting menu, the ravioli di osso bucco. The wild mushroom bisque had a wonderful aroma and a rich, sumptuous, earthy flavor punctuated by the drizzle of truffle oil. The ravioli di osso bucco: a single plump hockey puck-sized ravioli that swelled with a wonderful interpretation of beef bourguignon. With every bite, the sweet flavor of the pasta yields to the deep beefy flavor accented by sweet wine and root vegetable notes.
The entrée portion of dinner consisted of our friends’ ravioli di osso bucco (entrée-sized portions consisted of three raviolis) and ragout d’agneau aux artichauts, my wife’s fish and veggies off the child’s menu and, my fourth course, the pot-au-feu de poisson. The ragout d’agneau aux artichauts is a hearty dish. The lamb shoulder is slow braised with artichoke hearts, pearl onions, olives, and vegetables in a tomato sauce before being set atop of a bed of mashed potatoes in an earthenware dish and finished in the wood oven. The aroma of the ragout was of herbal notes and the fragrance of well-cooked meat. On tasting, the fork tender lamb shoulder melts in one’s mouth while the sauce, sweet from the vegetables and onions and balanced by the earthy olives, enhanced and completed the bite. The fish and veggies, which consisted of three generous chunks of fried white fish (moist and flaky) and seasonal vegetables (artichoke hearts, carrots, and chard) cooked in a rich vegetable stock, makes pretending to be a child all the more fun. The pot-au-feu de poisson consisted of a crispy crouton topping a bowl of herb- and saffron-scented broth, which was surrounding a mountain of flaky white fish, calamari, mussels, scallops, and shrimp. The seafood is perfectly cooked and, enhanced by the spice and curry notes of the broth, delectable and exotic in flavor.
Our dessert course started with a slice of flourless chocolate torte, moist and assertively chocolate goodness, supporting a single candle for our friend’s birthday. My wife’s single scoop of the vanilla gelato, which was rich, creamy, and dominatingly vanilla (she also thinks that it flavors her coffee wonderfully), and my churros con chocolate rounded the meal out. The churros con chocolate were six finger-length pieces of freshly prepared churros lightly dusted in sugar and served with an espresso cup of rich-spiced Morrocan hot chocolate. Perfect for dipping or eating by themselves, these crispy on the outside, chewy and sweet on the inside churros are what childhood dreams are made of.
Everyone in our party greatly enjoyed the meal. My wife and I have been frequenting Café Gibraltar for over 10 years now, and we have never had a bad meal. The service has always been consistently good, the food, consistently interesting and delicious. This wonderful coast side gem, Café Gibraltar, is not to be missed!
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Alhamra Indian and Pakistani Restaurant
Reviewed Café Gibraltar: Friday, June 3, 2011
Fellas — has your better half been pestering you about your lack of romantic sensibility? Here’s a tip: wait for a fog-free day (warning: this may take a while) and cruise down Highway 1 to Café Gibraltar for dinner—bonus points if you can time your drive during the sunset. I earned major romance points on this one. This cozy restaurant sits just off the highway. It’s too far from the ocean to have a view, but ocean air is enough to suffuse this spot with a nice dose of tranquility. My girlfriend and I loved the décor of this place. The lighting was soft, warm, and just right; not so dim that you have to use your phone-flash to read the menu, but dim enough to set the mood. The peach coral walls almost seem to glow.
Walking into this place was like exhaling after a long work-week, we felt immediately relaxed and happy to be there. Patrons have their choice of seating: on pillows underneath canopied overhangs, or at a table. If you want the floor make sure you specify this in your reservation.
The menu is not extensive, which is in keeping with their motif of preparing labor-intensive fresh food using many local ingredients. For vegetarians, options are somewhat limited, but the available dishes are excellent. The list of appetizers is outstanding, and one could make a meal sampling from this side of the menu alone (this was the tactic we adopted).
Delicious bread is my Achilles’ heel when I’m running on empty. Their warm focaccia with bits of onion was too good, and we ate way too much of it. If you have the willpower, settle on just a nibble wait for your meal. Some of the highlights of our meal included the hummus that was rather different from what I’ve had in Middle Eastern venues. It’s served warm and accompanied by a delicious plate of roasted olives. The bread with this dish was acceptable, but a bit too oily for our taste, we doubled-down on the focaccia and used that for dipping instead.
The tian de fromage de chèvre was wonderful and uniquely flavored how could one go wrong by combing roasted eggplant, onions, and baked goat cheese? This was one of our favorites. The homemade chicken dumplings were delicious, and I was happy to have these little babies all to myself, given that the GF deteste le meat.
The service was outstanding. Despite its “fine-dining” status, this place had not one lick of snobbery. The waitress was friendly (although mercifully she did not start the meal with “Hi my name is —- and I’ll be your waitress tonight”) and knowledgeable. For wine lovers, they have an excellent wine list and can recommend wine pairings if that’s your thing. For bourbon lovers like myself, no such luck. This is probably for the best as the drive home was long and peppered with sheer drop-offs into the ocean.
Overall this was a great dining experience, well worth the 30-minute drive from the city — the perfect spot to spend quiet evening away from city, no parking hassles, crowds, or noise pollution, just the mellow vibes of a small ocean town.
Occupation: Implementation Project Manager
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Mandalay
Reviewed Café Gibraltar: Thursday, June 2, 2011
I have four words for you: five course tasting menu.
We walked in to a live band playing what sounded like folksy tunes. My friend and I were seated at a table overlooking the sunset over the shore. Can’t get much better than that, but I immediately wished I’d called ahead to request one of the tables in back, which were the low Moroccan-style with pillows for seating and romantic mosquito curtains – next time, though.
The restaurant has an open kitchen, so all of the patrons can see the chefs going about their work, and smell what’s coming up next. I was hungry before I walked in, but when I caught the smell of the food, I was ravenous. The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial. There was a birthday party, a few couples having date night, and a table or two of girlfriends out for a dinner (much like my friend and me).
Our menus arrived, and we were worried about being able to decide which among the items we’d try. After scanning a few times over, we noticed that there is a five-course tasting menu for $60. Our waitress confirmed that each of us could order five items for a total of ten menu items for a fixed price. Math whizzes that we are, we checked the price of appetizers, salads, and entrees, weighed that against our desire to sample as much as we could, and decided that would be the way to go. We agreed that we would select eight items from the main menu, and save two of our items for dessert.
While we waited for our selections to be served, we were brought warm, fresh, yeasty bread with an oil and balsamic dipping sauce. There was something extra, almost like a sweet onion, which was added. We knew we were going to be in trouble if it was this hard to pace ourselves based on just the bread.
The dishes were served in pairs, so two menu items to the table at a time (so kind of like a fantasy eating bracket). First up was the crudo di giorno, which was a snapper sashimi with avocado, fennel, and a tamarind dressing, and the entrecote encebollado a la pimienta, a stew with filet mignon, onions, peppers, and a red-wine sauce. Verdict: a tie. The snapper tasted like spring, bright, tangy, fresh, and the stew was the perfect fall dish, deep, pungent, creamy.
Second, we received the mishwi shamandar (beets, goat cheese, and almonds) and the tian de fromage (eggplant, caramelized onions, and nut-crusted goat cheese in a honey vinaigrette). The mishwi wasn’t impressive – the sauce was a little flat – but the ingredients were obviously fresh. The tian de fromage was exceptional. My friend said she’d “never tasted anything like it.” I had to agree. It’s hard to describe, but it’s sweet and savory and full of texture.
The third round was ravioli di osso bucco (osso bucco wrapped in a fresh pasta) and the coniglio alla cacciatore (rabbit stew). The raviolo (there was only one big one, so it’s singular) was very good, the texture and flavor were nice, and I ended up dipping a bit of bread in the sauce. The rabbit was also tasty. I’d never tried rabbit before, so I interpreted the flavor and texture to be a bit like dark turkey meat. I’m not sure I’d have it again, but I was glad to have tried it.
The last of our main dish rounds was the yaknat al-kudar (vegetable stew, which is totally vegan) and the salmon. The flavor on both made an impression, but I’ll be honest that by this point, I was so full, I was mostly thinking of how full I was. I did note that the orange-curry sauce on the salmon was one that I would have been better able to describe if the salmon had come at the beginning of the meal.
Stuffed as we were, we still had dessert to think about, and because we’re troopers, we selected the churros and the lemon tart. The churro was very much what I expected, but I would have liked the chocolate dipping sauce to have been more powerful – it was a little weak. The lemon tart was amazing – even though I was full, I couldn’t seem to make myself stop eating it.
I’d have to describe the service as superb. Throughout the entire meal, the waitstaff was very attentive. Our water glasses were never empty, our waitress checked in with us after each course arrived, and all of the courses were prompt (i.e. no uncomfortable lag time).
Overall, this is one of the nicer dining experiences I’ve had in a while. The dishes are unique and memorable. This isn’t a place where I’d become a regular, due to distance and price, but it’s a special restaurant for a special night out.