Dining review: Costa’s splendid Mediterranean take


There’s a certain genius to the tapas-grazing way of dining. Sharing small plates and appetizers not only nudges us away from claiming entrée ownership. It relaxes boundaries, allowing a meal to fulfill its true communal intentions. 

But what happens when all that communing is halted by an exquisite flavor note? What happens when the bright dots of avocado cream on the fresh hamachi crudo pop in your mouth? And when you find crispy, sumac-dusted chips scattered amid the slices of raw, buttery yellowtail?  

It’s a record-scratch moment. I mean, is one supposed to keep the convo going amid all that flavor? Who can chatter mindlessly when exploring such a plate, as we did recently at Costa Palm Beach? Certainly not anyone at my table. Those creamy pops of avocado brought more shoulder shimmies than chatter to the table.   

We had many such moments at the nearly seven-month-old restaurant, which is tucked into the second floor of the 150 Worth shopping plaza in Palm Beach. When restaurant veteran Sascha Bennemann (formerly of Lynora’s, Pistache and Bice) and his team opened the place, they brought Mediterranean food and flair to one of the most obscure dining locations on the island.  

And while it may be pricey, this is not a stuffy or traditional Palm Beach spot with a menu organized into the appetizer-mains-dessert grid. Here, the menu flows as if adapting to a sailboat winding throughout the Greek Isles. There is no pressure to order in any traditional manner – go with the wind. In this way, Costa is very much New Palm Beach, like Buccan, which brought a small-plates revolution to the island six years ago.  

That divine hamachi crudo plate is a great example. (It normally costs $18 at lunch and $22 at dinner, but is just $11 on Costa’s summer menu.) But the crudo is just one of many good reasons to visit the restaurant.  

It is Costa’s obscure location – formerly occupied by GiGi’s Tap and Table, Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen and Trevini Ristorante – that may be keeping one of Palm Beach’s best restaurants off the general radar. This is unfortunate. The place is stunningly set, reflecting Mediterranean blues and crisp whites. The food is outstanding. Plus, the restaurant is running one of the best summer menus in the county. It affords newcomers a chance to eat and sip some excellent dishes and wines for a fraction of the cost.  

The best part: The summer menu is not limited to early-bird hours or prix fixe constraints.  

Costa’s larger menu is wide-ranging and includes raw bar dishes, salads, Turkish and Greek mezze dishes, Spanish-inspired tapas, and larger plates such as outstanding fish dishes, Moroccan lamb stew, a roasted chicken dish that’s served in a clay pot and crispy roast pork with Latin American flavors.  

The clear dilemma: Does one go traditional and order entrées or take the small-plates route?

Can’t go wrong either way.  

Order a batch of hot, crispy falafel bites ($14) to munch on while you decide. They’re not on the menu, but Costa’s executive chef, David Valencia, often makes them for happy hour – and he’ll make them, if you ask. These marble-size falafel balls, served with a garlicky hummus dip, are dangerously addictive.  

Perhaps the most approachable way to command the flavors of Costa, however, is to order a Greek or Turkish mezze plate ($14 lunch, $16 dinner, $8 on summer menu). Grilled naan and crudités are served with hummus and bold dips such as baba ganoush (eggplant-tahini), taramasalata (cured roe), muhammara (pepper-walnut) and others. 

A must-stop on the tapas route is Costa’s gambas al ajillo, a Spanish-style garlic shrimp dish ($19 lunch, $24 dinner) that heaps plenty of spicy, grilled shrimp into a small clay pot, tops them with bitter greens and serves them with grilled slices of rustic bread.  

The dish easily could be a main plate. Ditto for the charred pulpo a la plancha appetizer ($19 at dinner), tender octopus that gains deep, almost sweet flavors from roasted black garlic and spicy notes from jalapeño salsa.  

But it is Costa’s branzino ($38 at lunch and dinner) that rises to the top of must-have dishes here.

The Mediterranean sea bass is encased in a thick packing of salt, then baked. It is presented table-side, then spirited back to the kitchen to be filleted. The result is a moist, delicate fillet of white-fleshed fish that needs nothing at all. It’s a bonus that it is served with an arugula emulsion, a relish of olives, capers and tomato and a wedge of grilled lemon.  

Chef Valencia, who during season lavishes nearly 100 pounds of salt a week on the branzino preparation, says he’s heard customers refer to this dish as “life-changing.” (That’s not much of an exaggeration.)

The chef, who trained under Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse and served as chef de cuisine at Meat Market Palm Beach, says customers often share the dish.  

But I suspect these are customers that have embarked fully on the tapas train. Once you try this branzino, you will want one for yourself.  

Then again, there is always the case for leaving room for dessert, namely Valencia’s take on baklava, prepared with shredded phyllo, pistachio, Meyer lemon gel and a dollop of citrus yogurt ($7 on the summer menu). It makes for interesting contrasts. But, truth be told, dessert is not the reason you come to Costa.  

You come here for the dishes you share – and those you want to keep for yourself.  


REVIEW  

Costa Palm Beach  

FOOD:  

SERVICE: B  

ADDRESS: 150 Worth Ave., Palm Beach  

TELEPHONE: 561-429-8456  

WEBSITE: CostaPB.com   

PRICE RANGE: Moderate to expensive  

NOISE LEVEL: Intimate feel; conversation is possible.  

FULL BAR: Yes, with separate bar area.  

HOURS: Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.  

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards  

VALET PARKING: Yes, and it’s free at dinner  

RESERVATIONS: Reservations taken; walk-ins welcome  

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes  

WHAT THE GRADES MEAN: 

A — Excellent 

B — Good 

C — Average 

D — Poor 

F — Don’t bother


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