When deciding how to make pan con tomate, Brian Burns parted with tradition. While traveling in Spain, the chef often came across the nation’s quintessential bar snack of crusty bread rubbed with garlic cloves and topped with grated tomatoes.
At Costera, the restaurant Burns and business partner Reno De Ranieri opened earlier this year in the space formerly occupied by La Thai Uptown, pan con tomate is very different — and delicious. Instead of the acerbic tang of raw garlic, there’s a creamy aioli on thick slices of Bellegarde Bakery bread, and grated tomatoes are replaced by dried-tomato tapenade made with blended garlic, anchovies, shallots and olive oil. The alchemy renders the dish into something sweet, soft, rich and decadent.
It’s a great start to a meal here and an appropriate precursor to a menu that draws heavy inspiration from Spain, while still coming off as unique, driven more by creativity than tradition.
Octopus sourced from Spain is poached in courtbouillon and charred on the smoking-hot steel plates of the grill. The smoky tentacle sits on a bed of heirloom beans dressed with vinaigrette that is punchy with lemon and red onion and brims with fresh herbs.
Papas bravas are crunchy fried potatoes drizzled with bright red piquillo pepper puree and aioli. Roasted beets offer a bright and delightful detour from the norm, with plump beet wedges tossed with thin fennel and radish shavings in citrus gastrique, topped with wisps of ricotta.
The kitchen deftly marries brighter flavors, as with cumin oil-roasted cauliflower served with coriander yogurt. The plate is dressed with mint, cilantro and tangy chili vinegar. The end result delivers a balance of warm spice, creamy elements and lively acid.
The kitchen employs capers and lemon zest with a similar goal in a dish of fried sweetbreads served with a hearty romesco sauce, and while flavorful, the brighter elements were overshadowed by the heft.
Costera isn’t a tapas bar, but the extensive menu of shareable plates and the communal table near the entrance to the sprawling dining room suggest the owners’ affinity for the Spanish way of dining. Burns and De Ranieri saw a similarity in how New Orleanians eat — such as crowds gathered around a large table of boiled crawfish — and figured their concept wouldn’t be unfamiliar.
Their instincts were correct. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m., the same menu is offered throughout the day, and the front communal table often is packed. A restaurant of this ambitious caliber could feel at odds in a neighborhood setting, but here, it seems right at home.
The menu seems designed for sharing small plates, though some of the larger dishes serve as modestly sized entrees.